Students in Free Courses Study, but Not as Much as Most Students Do (CHE)

June 16, 2015

Most students in free online courses don’t spend as much time doing classwork as do traditional college students, but they do log a significant number of hours, according to a new survey of more than 4,500 MOOC students by Class Central, a website that reviews free courses.

More than 55 percent of the students surveyed said they studied two to five hours per week, and 22 percent said they spent six to 10 hours per week studying.

How does that compare with traditional college students? About 43 percent of first-year residential college students reported spending more than six hours per week studying, according to the Fall 2014 edition of the Freshman Survey, by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, part of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Class Central sent out the survey to about 50,000 subscribers to its newsletter, an effort that yielded a few hundred responses. A professor who teaches a massive open online course offered by Coursera also sent the survey to about 800,000 current and former MOOC students, who made up a majority of respondents, said Charlie Chung, chief editor of Class Central’s blog and the survey’s manager.

A majority of the respondents reported having taken at least two MOOCs and came from a sample of students who had enrolled in a course called “Learning to Learn,” which didn’t focus on a particular subject area.

The data show that students do not dedicate one particular time of the week to complete their coursework, Mr. Chung said in an interview. Across the board, students who study during the week tend to do so in the evenings, while those who work on the weekend seem to do so during the day.

“People who are spending a fair amount of time on them are fitting it into their schedules in a very flexible way, not in a rigid way,” he said.

But the sample size of the survey is imperfect, said Justin Reich, a researcher at Harvard University who studies online education.

“The people who respond to surveys about their experience are different than people who take the courses broadly,” Mr. Reich said, adding that the students who complete surveys about MOOCs tend to be the most successful.

CourseTalk, another website that lets users post reviews of MOOCs, also found in a recent survey that students were willing to pay for higher-quality courses, and that paid courses were rated 1.4 stars higher, on average, than free courses were.

[entire article here.]

Art Schools Go MOOC, With a New Online Platform (CHE)

June 16, 2015

A new company is jumping into MOOCs, but with a focus on teaching free courses in the arts.

The new virtual art school, called Kadenze, has already teamed up with programs at 18 institutions, including Stanford and Princeton Universities, to create a digital platform designed for arts courses. According to a company co-founder, Perry R. Cook, an emeritus professor at Princeton, the platform will be “multimedia rich” and allow students to create online portfolios, upload music files and scanned art, watch videos, and participate in discussion forums.

Kadenze will initially offer about 20 courses on subjects including music, art history, and technology and art. Students will be able to enroll in courses and watch videos free, but they will have to pay $7 a month if they want to submit assignments and receive grades and feedback. Fees of $300, $600, or $900 will be charged for courses that are offered for credit.

Kadenze was started by art and technology insiders, Mr. Cook said. He and another co-founder, Ajay Kapur, director of music technology at the California Institute of the Arts, had collaborated on a programming course for artists on a competing platform, Coursera, a few years ago, and had been frustrated by some of its limitations. Mr. Cook said they designed Kadenze so that people could use it to make playlists and create art portfolios, among other functions. He likened it to “a nice open arts school, where everybody is hanging out together” and looking at one another’s work.

Chris Chafe, director of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, said that his group had decided to work with Kadenze because it is “manifestly dedicated to the arts right from the get-go.” His center will pilot the platform this year with support from Stanford’s office of the vice provost for teaching and learning.

Mr. Cook anticipates that Kadenze’s courses will attract a broad range of students, but that the primary interest will be from artists, performers, and those interested in going to art school.

An Increasingly Popular Job Perk: Online Education (CHE)

June 2, 2015

A partnership between Southern New Hampshire and Anthem Inc., a health-insurance company, will allow some 55,000 Anthem employees to earn associate or bachelor’s degrees through the university’s College for America, a competency-based assessment program.

The announcement is one of several recent deals between a college and a corporation that will expand higher-education opportunities for employees at no or reduced cost, following a high-profile deal, announced last year, between Starbucks and Arizona State University. On Monday, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced a similar arrangement with Strayer University.

Max Woolf, a senior analyst at Eduventures who has written about corporate partnerships in higher education, said that big-name partnerships announced in the past year had broken the ice for other companies to seek similar deals.

Anthem employees who work at least 20 hours per week and have worked there for at least six months will be eligible for the tuition-remission program, which will cover the full cost of their degrees.

Free online-learning benefits could help companies retain more highly trained employees and help colleges and universities increase their online enrollment, Mr. Woolf added. His recent researchshowed that just 6 percent of online students enrolled at the urging of their employer, though many employers say their employees aren’t fully prepared to join the work force, he said.

“The adult-learning population is primarily self-directed today, but with these corporate partnerships, they can be more employer-directed in the future,” Mr. Woolf said. He added that the growth in online learning had shifted tuition-remission programs from regional employers and colleges to global and national brands.

“If you look at Starbucks and Arizona State, they’re very innovative, forward-thinking companies on the leading edge,” he said. “There are going to be a lot more employers who are looking for the right partner institution.”

Tech Woes at Small Colleges (CHE)

May 20, 2015

By Jon Nichols

Mere minutes before my lecture to the freshmen, I heard a “click, whir” noise. Curious, I looked behind me. And there it was, the projector screen rolling up into its casing like Napoleon retreating from Russia. I turned back to the monitors on the podium. My PowerPoint remained while the monitor for the auditorium AV read “OFFLINE.”

Naturally my immediate reaction was righteous indignation. I had not touched the thing. In fact, I hadn’t even looked at it funny. I wondered if I could still give my lecture with pantomime instead of PowerPoint.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Previous weeks had seen, among other incidents, a colleague attempting to play an Internet video in class. When the video began to play, it was bereft of sound. Students in the hall murmured, impatient in the silence while the professor urged “it’s coming, it’s coming.” Another lecturer’s mike went out mid-presentation. She bravely pressed on while an AV assistant crawled inside the podium much the way a mechanic would before explaining why I need new shocks and struts.

One colleague finished his lecture without incident. He then shut down the podium computer, as is habit for many of us, the same as turning off a light when exiting a room. The next lecturer, scheduled to speak to a class of sophomores in 10 minutes, greeted the departing professor with a look of horror. The message on the screen gave the reason for the panic: “Downloading updates 1 of 97.”

Before you get the false impression that our campus is technologically backward, we’re not. Typewriters are few, and I have yet to see anyone remove their shoes and socks to count toes once they’ve run out of fingers. But like most small colleges, we have unique challenges when it comes to technology. Our budget tends to be concerned with serious and existential issues such as enrollment and keeping the heat on.

And we’re not alone. Last April, Bloomberg Business ran a story about the “death spiral” of small colleges facing declining enrollment, and The Chronicle has published any number of pieces on just how difficult it is for a small institution to remain state-of-the-art with technology. Small colleges face challenges with server storage, wireless access, lack of redundancy in Internet access, and hardware obsolescence. It is also difficult to retain IT staff as the lure of a substantial salary in the corporate world is all too strong.

A friend of mine who works in IT support at Microsoft sometimes assists institutions in higher education, so I asked him what sorts of difficulties he has encountered with smaller-size colleges. “The office suite used by the school and the one on the student’s device are not 100-percent compatible, so the finished document does not render properly,” began his litany of examples. “The professor decides to use some website to post assignments that does not fully support all browser versions used by the students. School computers are compromised by malware because the AV software was not updated with the latest signatures.”

What interests me is how many academics at small colleges seem to be falling back on decidedly low-tech approaches in order to get the job done.

There was much consternation when Moodle, our chosen course-management platform, went down just about the time that midterm grades were due. “How are we supposed to calculate our grades?” was the collective cry. A professor of history responded: “They’re called ‘class record books.’ I have a box of 20 in my office if you need one.” While using those books makes for a somewhat messy and ink-blotted approach (not to mention they’re coated with the faint odor of whatever I had for lunch that day), I’ll confess that I’ve adopted it. It works.

In discussing low-tech approaches with a colleague, I bemoaned how many of my lesson plans have had to be altered on the fly because the server went down or because an LCD projector, seemingly fed up with its treatment, had gone on strike pending negotiations.

Why Technology Will Never Fix Education (CHE)

May 19, 2015

By Kentaro Toyama

In 2004, I moved to India to help found a new research lab for Microsoft. Based in Bangalore, it quickly became a hub for cutting-edge computer science. My own focus shifted with the move, and I began to explore applications of digital technologies for the socioeconomic growth of poor communities. India struggles to educate its billion-plus population, so during the five years that I was there, my team considered how computers, mobile phones, and other devices could aid learning.

Sadly, what we found was that even when technology tested well in experiments, the attempt to scale up its impact was limited by the availability of strong leadership, good teachers, and involved parents — all elements that are unfortunately in short supply in India’s vast but woefully underfunded government school system. In other words, the technology’s value was in direct proportion to the instructor’s capability.

Over time, I came to think of this as technology’s Law of Amplification: While technology helps education where it’s already doing well, technology does little for mediocre educational systems; and in dysfunctional schools, it can cause outright harm.

When I returned to the United States and took an academic post, I saw that the idea applies as much to higher education in America as it does to general education in India. This past semester, I taught an undergraduate course called “IT and Global Society.” The students read about high-profile projects like One Laptop Per Child and the TED-Prize-winning Hole-in-the-Wall program. Proponents argue that students can overcome educational hurdles with low-cost digital devices, but rigorous research fails to show much educational impact of technology in and of itself, even when offered free.

My students — all undergrads and digital natives — were at first surprised that technology did so little for education. They had a deep sense that they benefited from digital tools. And they were right to have that feeling. As relatively well-off students enrolled at a good university, they were all but guaranteed a solid education; being able to download articles online and exchange emails with their professors amplified the fundamentals.

But their personal intuition didn’t always transfer to other contexts. In fact, even in their own lives, it was easy to show that technology by itself didn’t necessarily cause more learning. To drive this point home, I asked them a series of questions about their own experience:

“How many of you have ever tried to take a free course on the Internet?” Over half the class raised their hands.

“And how many completed it?” All the hands went down.

“Why didn’t you continue?” Most students said they didn’t get past two or three online lectures. Someone mentioned lack of peer pressure to continue. Another suggested it wasn’t worth it without the credits. One student said simply, “I’m lazy. Even in a regular class, I probably wouldn’t do my homework unless I felt the disapproval of the professor.”

In effect, the students demonstrated an informal grasp of exactly what studies about educational technologies often find. So, if my tech-immersed undergraduates could intuit the limits of educational technology, why do educators, policy makers, and entrepreneurs keep falling for its false promise?

One problem is a widespread impression that Silicon Valley innovations are necessarily good for society. We confuse business success with social value, though the two often differ. Just for example, how is it that during the last four decades we have seen an explosion of incredible technologies, but America’s poverty rate hasn’t decreased and inequality has skyrocketed? Any idea that more technology in and of itself cures social ills is obviously flawed. Yet without a good framework for thinking about technology and society, it’s easy to get caught up in hype about new gadgets.

The Law of Amplification provides one such framework: At heart, it affirms that technology is a tool, which means that any positive effects depend on well-intentioned, capable people. But this also means that good outcomes are never guaranteed. What amplification predicts is that technological effects follow underlying social currents.

MOOCs offer a convenient example. Proponents cite the potential for MOOCs to lower the costs of education, based on the assumption that low-cost content is what is needed. Of course, the Internet offers dirt-cheap replicability, and it undeniably amplifies content producers’ ability to reach a mass audience. But if free content were all that was needed for an education, everyone with broadband connectivity would be an Ivy League Ph.D.

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure. Most students are seeking credentials that graduate schools and employers will take seriously and an environment in which they’re prodded to do the work. But neither of these things is cheaply available online.

Arizona State University’s recent partnership with edX to offer MOOCs is an attempt to do this, but if its student assessments fall short (or aren’t tied to verified identities), other universities and employers won’t accept them. And if the program doesn’t establish genuine rapport with students, then it won’t have the standing to issue credible nudges. (Automated text-message reminders to study will quickly become so much spam.) For technological amplification to lower the costs of higher education, it has to build on student motivation, and that motivation is tied not to content availability but to credentialing and social encouragement.

The Law of Amplification’s least appreciated consequence, however, is that technology on its own amplifies underlying socioeconomic inequalities. To begin with, the rich will always be able to afford more technology, and low-cost technology in no way solves that. There is no digital keeping up with the Joneses.

But even an equitable distribution of technology aggravates inequality. Students with poor high-school preparation will always find it hard to learn things their prep-school peers can ace. Low-income families will struggle to pay registration fees that wealthy households barely notice. Blue-collar workers doing hard manual labor may not have the energy to take evening courses that white-collar professionals think of as a hobby. And these things are even more true online than offline. Sure, educational technologies can lower costs for everyone, but it’s those with existing advantages who are best positioned to capitalize on them.

In fact, studies confirm exactly this: Well-educated men with office jobs disproportionately complete MOOC courses, while lower-income young adults barely enroll. The primary effect of free online courses is to further educate an already well-educated group who will pull away from less-educated others. The educational rich just get richer.

So what is to be done? Unfortunately, there is no technological fix, and that is perhaps the hardest lesson of amplification. More technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is nontechnological: Either resolve the underlying inequities first, or create policies that favor the less advantaged.

When Your Online Course Is Put Up for Adoption (CHE)

May 19, 2015

Jennifer V. Ebbeler always knew that somebody else might end up teaching her online Roman-history course. But that didn’t make giving it up any easier.

Ms. Ebbeler spent nearly two years building an online version of “Introduction to Ancient Rome” with a team of designers at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is an associate professor of classics. Most of the heavy lifting came during the last academic year, when one of her colleagues taught the course to hundreds of undergraduates while she coordinated behind the scenes.

The process was challenging and occasionally chaotic, she says, but her team learned a lot about how to make the online course work. Which is why she was frustrated when her bosses declined her request to teach the course next year.

“I am puzzled that I was not given a course to teach that I have invested hundreds of hours developing,” she wrote in a memorandum to her colleagues in March, “but so it goes.”

Orchestrating a smooth handoff of an online course is a relatively new challenge for Austin’s classics department. Elsewhere it has become normal for professors to relinquish courses they helped create, especially if those courses were built in a format that places content, not the instructor, at the forefront of the student experience.

For many institutions, online education has been an opportunity not only to increase the number of enrolled students, but also to focus on designing courses that are compelling no matter who is leading them.

“You’re seeing more and more of instructors rotating in and out of courses once they’re developed, because obviously the time to develop a course is a lot,” says John Haubrick, manager of instructional design at Pennsylvania State University’s online arm.

After being told she would not be leading her Online Rome course next year, Ms. Ebbeler learned that the instructor whom she had recommended to lead it instead — Steve Lundy, an adjunct faculty member who had taught the first two semesters of the course — had also been passed over for the job.

Frustrated, the professor vented on her blog. “I was stunned to learn yesterday, indirectly and in passing, that the classics chair had opted not to implement the ‘succession plan’ that I had carefully and thoughtfully crafted,” Ms. Ebbeler wrote earlier this month.

The instructors who were chosen to inherit the course, she added, “are either unqualified or underqualified for the specific tasks that the successful instruction of Online Rome requires.”

Reached by phone, Lesley A. Dean-Jones, chair of the classics department at Austin, said she would not comment on “personnel matters.” Asked if she would be willing to talk about the challenges relating to “succession” in online courses generally, Ms. Dean-Jones said no and hung up.

On the surface, Ms. Ebbeler’s Rome course seems to push the instructor to the margins. Students work through a series of online modules — containing course readings, links, and quizzes — on their own time. Mr. Lundy, the instructor, held review sessions on the campus every week, but they were optional and archived online. Students are required to show up in person only for examinations.

But Ms. Ebbeler says the role of the instructor remains crucial. “They think it doesn’t matter who they put in charge because the course will teach itself,” she says. “And yet I’ve been clear all along that that’s not the case.”

Rolando Garza, an instructional designer at Texas A&M University at Kingsville, says managing a course handoff can be challenging, but it helps if somebody who was involved in creating of the course works closely with the new instructor.

Mr. Garza says he sometimes plays that role at Kingsville, helping instructors find their bearings in courses he helped the original authors build. (This seems to be happening with the Online Rome course; Mr. Lundy says he will be working directly with the instructors who were picked to lead the course this summer and fall. “I feel quite involved at this point,” he says.)

But that does not mean there is not sometimes conflict if a professor who built a course does not trust that it will be well cared-for.

“That’s your baby,” says Mr. Garza. “You built it.” And entrusting it to a stranger can be hard.

Is flipping an online course possible? (CHS)

May 14, 2015

I am emerging from a self-imposed blog exile that happened because of the usual end-of-semester chaos, plus the fact that I am currently teaching my very first online course — a fully online version of our standard Calculus 1 class. Being new to online teaching, designing and building the course was a major time investment. The class has turned out to be a microcosm of everything I have tried pedagogically in the last several years: it uses a lot of technology, it uses specifications grading, and it’s flipped.

That last part, about being flipped, has been a fascinating and perplexing problem. Flipping a fully online class challenges all the usual assumptions about the flipped classroom that we make. Our language about flipped learning is rooted in the concept of “class time”. Students gain first contact with new material “before class”, then there is some work on more advanced and creative applications “during class”, and then students do even more advanced work “after class”. Even my go-to operational definition of flipped learning avoids the idea of “class time” and instead refers to “group learning space” and “individual learning space”. But what if there are no synchronous class meetings whatsoever? Is it even semantically possible to flip a class that never meets — or rather, a class that always meets?

Kris Shaffer asked this same question about his upcoming fully online music theory class and came up with some excellent insights. Spurred on by his blog post, I wanted to give some of my own conclusions so far. Please filter through the caveats that (1) we are only in week 2 of the course and so all of these ideas are tentative, and (2) I do not fully know what I am doing yet. Also many of these points might be totally obvious to those who have been teaching online for a while.

  • The first step toward effective flipped learning in an online course is to decouple the learning process from time/space coordinates. In a fully online course there is no “before/during/after class” hierarchy. Even the line between individual and group learning spaces is nearly impossible to demarcate. When a student is working with a problem I post to the class discussion board to work, is this “individual space” or “group space”? I was making no progress in figuring out how to build my course until I let go of this notion.

  • The next step is to focus on that learning process itself. A recent talk by Derek Bruff that he gave on my campus was really helpful with this. He described the flipped classroom in terms of three phases: first contact, practice, and climbing higher. (Those aren’t his exact terms.) These describe flipped learning in a way that is agnostic with respect to space and time. In an online setting, you have to focus on the phases, on the process, and not on the coordinates we usually impose to guide and structure that process. Speaking of guidance:

  • You can guide those phases of learning and set up helpful guideposts for students as they progress through them, but you cannot mandate or control them. It’s a cliche, but a true one, that learning is messy and the process looks different for each student, and different for the same student from one topic to the next. If I were to try to structure the class experience in a highly regimented way — particularly with regards to the discussion board for the class where most of the collaborative student activity happens — I think this would only cause students to orient themselves towards extrinsic motivation (meeting the deadline and making the grade) rather than, as Kris points out in his post, using the discussion board as a means to an end. That gets me to my next point:

  • Everything the course is just a resource to meet learning goals. When I describe the Guided Practice model I use for “pre-class” work (there’s that assumption again) I often talk about a section of the assignment that lists resources for learning. In an online course — and perhaps this is true even of F2F courses — the primary function of everything is to be resource for meeting learning goals. Syllabus, videos, textbook, quizzes, the final exam — these are all servants to the ultimate goal of demonstrating sufficient evidence that the student has met the intended learning outcome. Even the outcomes themselves are resources, since without a clear statement of the learning goals it is awfully hard to meet them. The implication in my Calculus class is that while there is a fairly dense network of assessments that students do, there are not a lot of requirements. Instead, my design mindset has been to set up the course so that students are surrounded by helpful resources and clearly articulated learning goals, and it’s up to them to use whatever combination of resources helps them meet the goal.

  • The silence of students does not mean that they are disengaged. But it might. It’s hard to tell. Students in the class are not required to participate on the discussion boards beyond a bare-minimum specification (3 substantive posts for an A in the class; 2 for a B; 1 for a C). They are not required at all to show up for online office hours or to email me. A student who doesn’t participate regularly is not necessarily slacking; she might just be thinking things over. How many of us have been highly engaged lurkers on Reddit, or on a discussion board? Instead, I have to set up “sensors”, in the form of low-stakes assessments, in my class that measure student activity so that I can tell what students know, and when they know it, to a greater extent than any F2F class I’ve taught. For example, I can dip into WeBWorK at any point and analyze a students’ progress, for example. If a student has attempted a problem 52 times with no luck, I can tell that engagement is sort-of happening but that I need to check in with them. If there are no attempts, and no discussion board or even Blackboard activity, then this is a sign of disengagement and I should also check in.


A MOOC Hopes to Sink Its Teeth Into a New Audience: TV Fans (CHE)

May 13, 2015

Vampires are everywhere these days — books, television shows, movies. And now, a MOOC.

The University of California at Irvine plans to offer a four-week MOOC based on the FX television series The Strain, which follows the spread of a disease with the “hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism.” The course, “Fight or Die: The Science Behind FX’s The Strain,” will be hosted on Instructure’s MOOC platform Canvas Network.

Three Irvine faculty members will teach the course, which will focus on three topics that come from the show: parasites, cyber attacks, and disease dynamics.

Sarah E. Eichhorn, associate dean of distance learning and a lecturer in the university’s school of physical sciences, says she hopes the MOOC will get people interested in mathematics and science by leveraging the popularity of the television show.

Ms. Eichhorn, who will teach the segment on disease dynamics, says she plans to use clips from The Strain to illustrate the rate at which epidemics spread in real life. Perhaps surprisingly, Ms. Eichhorn says, the show is not all that unrealistic in its depiction of how quickly a disease transmitted by human contact can spread.

“The only real fantasy part is the exact nature of the disease,” she says. “We’re probably not going to have a disease that causes these vampire-like symptoms and things like that.”

Some people view “edutainment” as a dirty word, Ms. Eichhorn says, but she disagrees. Being entertained while learning is hardly a bad thing. “If people want to spend their entertainment time learning,” she says, “I’m all for it.”

Instructure and the University of California at Irvine have worked together previously to create a MOOC based on a television show. In 2013 the two collaborated on a course based on AMC’s The Walking Dead, which garnered more than 65,000 participants.

New Consortium’s Mission: Improve Liberal-Arts Teaching Online (CHE)

May 12, 2015

The focus is not on bringing down the cost of education, but on improving online-teaching projects — whether all-online or hybrid courses — by sharing experiences and collaborating.

The premise is that liberal-arts institutions have goals and methods for going online that are different from those of research institutions. “There’s a steep learning curve to figuring out how to use this technology with our students, and with our teaching style,” said Douglas Johnson, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Center for Learning, Teaching, and Research at Colgate University, a founding member of the group. By working together, he said, “we can save each other from reinventing wheels.”

The other colleges involved are Davidson College, Hamilton College, and Wellesley College. All of the initial partners are also members of edX, the online MOOC provider started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but the group is open to other institutions even if they aren’t part of that organization, said Kevin P. Lynch, chief information officer at Colgate.

Ann M. Fox, a professor of English at Davidson, has taught a MOOC, “Representations of HIV/AIDS,” on edX with several colleagues at Davidson. Now she imagines co-teaching a course online with a colleague from elsewhere in the consortium. “Very often in our small campuses we’re the only person who does what we do,” she said. “We can pool our resources more greatly.”

Provosts of the four colleges, along with some professors and other leaders, gathered at Wellesley on Monday to sign a formal agreement.