Office of Planning and Budgeting

As the UW’s Office of Federal Relations reported on their blog, yesterday Senate Democrats released plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). Their proposal focuses on four main goals:

  • Increasing affordability and reducing college costs for students,
  • Tackling the student loan crisis by helping borrowers better manage debt,
  • Holding schools accountable to students and taxpayers, and
  • Helping students and families make informed choices.

In addition, today the House Committee on Education and the Workforce introduced reauthorization-related bills of their own, including:

For more information, check out the Federal Relations blog and a recent article by EdCentral.  We’ll post more information on OPBlog over the coming weeks.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently surveyed students who had taken at least one of Penn’s twenty-four MOOCs and viewed at least one online video lecture. Findings from the responses of 34,779 students revealed that 80 percent of the MOOC-takers already had a 2- or 4-year degree and that 44 percent already had some graduate education. This research supports the platitude that MOOCs primarily serve the well-educated.

The trend was observed for MOOC students in the U.S., as well as those in developing countries, and even those in countries where MOOCs are popular. Coursera – the MOOC provider for Penn and several other universities – has made “access” central to its mission of bringing world-class education to everyone. However, The Chronicle notes:

“Coursera has taken a hands-off approach to publicity, relying almost entirely on word of mouth (and its university partners) to spread awareness of MOOCs. It stands to reason that much of the hubbub about MOOCs has occurred in well-educated circles. Combine that with spotty Internet availability in underprivileged communities, and it makes sense that only the most privileged populations have had occasion to take a MOOC.”

Coursera says they are working on several projects to help reach underserved students, particularly those without internet access. One of these efforts (we assume) are the global “learning hubs” discussed in a prior post and in this NY Times article.

Although the findings are noteworthy, the authors mention two important caveats:

  1. Their findings don’t necessarily mean MOOCs will never reach underrepresented populations, just that they haven’t done so yet; and
  2. The respondents represent only a small percentage of students registered for Penn MOOCs, let alone all MOOCs; thus “the survey may not be generalizable.”

Back in November, the American Council on Education (ACE) revealed a “wide-ranging” project to evaluate MOOCs’ academic potential and determine whether some MOOCs should be eligible for college credit. Our previous blog post provides additional background information. In the 11 weeks since that announcement, ACE reviewed five MOOCs offered by Coursera (one of the largest MOOC providers) and, today, announced it has recommended all five MOOCs for credit.

The endorsed MOOCs are:

  • “Pre-Calculus” and “Algebra” from the University of California at Irvine;
  • “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” and Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach” from Duke University; ” and
  • “Calculus: Single Variable” from the University of Pennsylvania.

Courses were reviewed on their substance, quality of educational experience, and the value and security of their tests and assessments tools. To meet standards for the latter, Coursera established a series of identity verification measures and partnered with a remote monitoring service called ProctorU. Some MOOCs use peer assessments to score student work, a method which has been criticized for uncertain reliability. But given the STEM focus of these five courses, they all rely on objective scoring systems rather than peer assessments.

Although ACE’s validation of the MOOCs is noteworthy, it’s up to the Council’s 1,800 member colleges to individually decide whether they’ll actually offer credits for the courses.  For now, students at Duke, Irvine and Penn will not receive credit for taking their institutions’ ACE-approved courses. Inside Higher Ed reports that UC-Irvine does not consider its MOOCs to currently be worthy of its credit because neither the learning environment nor the academic commitment of a course’s thousands of students can be controlled. “Those anybodies can influence negatively the learning environment of students who are serious about taking it,” said Gary Matkin, UC-Irvine’s dean of continuing education. Similarly, Duke believes its traditional courses offer “an entirely different kind of educational experience” than MOOCS, including “substantial interactions between students and the faculty member.”

While other colleges decide whether to accept Coursera’s MOOC certificates for credit, ACE is reviewing courses from Udacity (another MOOC provider) for possible credit recommendations.

Last week, the National Commission of Higher Education published an open letter calling on “every college and university president and chancellor to make retention and completion a critical campus priority” and asserting that such efforts are “an economic and moral imperative.” Six higher-ed associations assembled the Commission in 2011 at President Obama’s request. The 18 college presidents that form the Commission’s membership come from every sector, except for-profits, and were tasked with investigating strategies that individual schools can use to improve graduation rates.

The NY Times quotes Dr. E. Gordon Gee, chairman of the Commission, as saying, “We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate.”  Although enrollment rates are strong, nearly half of all college students nationwide fail to earn a degree within six years (79 percent of
entering freshman graduate from the UW within six years).

Completion efforts should take into consideration the changing face of higher ed: first-generation, mid-career, part-time, and veteran students are an ever-increasing share of the nation’s student body. The report notes that “adult learners are far less likely than their traditional-age peers to complete their degrees” and will need flexible schedules, more financial assistance, and targeted student services in order to succeed.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • Narrowing course options so that students prioritize completion;
  • Putting someone in charge of overseeing completion efforts; and
  • Giving credit for previous learning.

The Commission asks colleges to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions and to eschew inflating their graduation rates by admitting only the best-prepared, lowest-risk students and/or by making it easier for students to pass.

The report acknowledges, however, that colleges need assistance in these completion endeavors, saying, “Disinvestment in higher education is terribly damaging and undermines efforts to expand and enhance academic and support services for students.”

The Commission believes the report will trigger a sense of urgency among leaders (academic or otherwise) and, hopefully, meaningful action.

Here are a few noteworthy headlines from the past few days of higher education news:

  • History professors at the University of Florida are fighting a proposed differential tuition strategy that would hold tuition rates stable for “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand” degree programs for at least three years.  Most STEM degrees made the list of majors recommended for this tuition freeze, while core Humanities disciplines (such as history) did not.  The Governor-commissioned task force responsible for the proposal said, “The theory is that students in ‘non-strategic majors,’ by paying higher tuition, will help subsidize students in the ‘strategic’ majors, thus creating a greater demand for the targeted programs and more graduates from these programs, as well.”  Supporters feel such an approach will provide taxpayers with the maximum return on their investment and “improve the university system overall.”   However, the opposition, championed by a number of history professors, argues the strategy would detract from the university’s prestige and lead to a less “richly educated” workforce.  Over 1,300 faculty from Florida and beyond have petitioned Florida Governor Rick Scott to seek faculty input for future decisions regarding Florida’s higher education system.  This particular form of differential tuition contrasts with the more typical, cost-driven approach, under which students in majors that cost the university more to provide (such as STEM fields) are charged higher tuition than students studying less expensive subjects (like history).
  • Carnegie Corporation President, Vartan Gregorian, is advocating for a presidential commission on higher education to “generate the kind of attention and urgency that the circumstances demanded for the nation to keep its competitive edge.”  The commission’s mandate would be to address the many challenges confronting higher education (cost, access, etc.) and help policy makers determine its future.  Given the drastic demographic, technological, and economic changes already occurring in higher ed, Mr. Gregorian believes now is the appropriate time to discuss nation-wide reform.
  • Apprenticeships are becoming more popular in the U.S. as a means of bridging the disconnect between what students learn in college and what their future employers actually want them to know.   Several Harvard professors, inspired by Germany’s “dual system” of providing students with practical job-related skills and theoretical instruction, are working with six states to establish apprenticeship programs.

Controversy has surrounded massive open online courses (MOOCs) since their inception.  Some believe MOOCs will broaden access to higher education and bring down costs, while others fear the rush to embrace MOOCs may come at the expense of academic quality. To help settle this debate, the American Council on Education (ACE) revealed yesterday a “wide-ranging research and evaluation effort” of MOOCs’ academic potential, including a pilot project to determine whether some MOOCs should be eligible for college credit.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded ACE nearly $900,000 to pursue these activities—one of the foundation’s 13 new MOOC-related research grants.

ACE’s pilot project will examine 5 to 10 MOOCs offered by Coursera (one of the largest MOOC providers.) beginning next year. Teams of faculty will compare these MOOCs to traditional college courses, evaluating their contents, teaching methods, and student engagement. To pass the review and be recommended for credit, Coursera must find a way to authenticate its students’ identities—a difficult task considering thousands of students can register for each course. Coursera hopes to address this challenge by partnering with online proctoring companies that monitor tests remotely and verify students’ IDs via special software and webcams.

According to the NY Times, if ACE believes a course deserves academic credit, students who want to earn that credit would pay a fee for the proctored exam.  If those students want a transcript that they can submit to other schools, they’ll need to pay another fee (Coursera’s offerings are otherwise free).

It should be noted that even if ACE recommends a course for credit, individual colleges must still decide whether to accept those credits. While higher education institutions (as represented by ACE) and the Gates Foundation may believe in the potential of MOOCs’, it is unclear whether colleges will actually welcome MOOC transfer credits.

On Tuesday, 11 states voted on ballot measures that could impact higher education. The following table (based on one from The Chronicle) summarizes how those measures fared.

YES–the measure passed           NOthe measure failed

CALIFORNIA
YES Prop 30 Would temporarily increase sales and income taxes in order to raise approx. $6-billion in revenue and stave off $963-million worth of cuts to the public colleges.
MAINE
NO Question 2 Would allow a $11.3-million bond issue to fund capital for a diagnostic facility at the University of Maine.
MARYLAND
YES Question 4 Would let children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates provided they meet certain conditions.
MICHIGAN
NO Proposal 2 Would let graduate students form unions and bargain collectively.
MISSOURI
NO Prop B Would raise cigarette taxes and use the revenue to create a Health and Education Trust Fund. About 30 percent of revenue would go to higher education.
MONTANA
YES LR-121 Would require proof of citizenship in order for a person to receive certain state services, which includes attending Montana’s public colleges.
NEW JERSEY
YES Question 1 Would let the state issue a $750-million bond for buildings and upgrades at public and private colleges.
NEW MEXICO
YES Question C Would authorize a $120-million sale for certain higher education repairs and improvements.
OKLAHOMA
YES Question 759 Would ban affirmative action programs in the state, including their use in public colleges’ admission policies.
RHODE ISLAND
YES Question 759 Would give Rhode Island College up to $50-million for its health and nursing programs’ facilities.
WASHINGTON
NO SJR 8223 Would allow the UW and WSU to invest publicly-generated revenue (i.e. parking fees and indirect-cost reimbursement for grants) in corporate stock.
YES Initiative 1185 Would renew the requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote in order to create new taxes or raise existing ones–effectively making it more difficult for the state to generate new revenue for programs including higher education.

 

Today, with public financing for higher education eroding, tuition on the rise, and little growth in household income, the idea that technology can and must revolutionize higher education has once again taken strong hold. Recent start-ups, Coursera and Udacity, founded by Stanford faculty members, and a joint MIT/Harvard venture called edX have the country talking once again about the future of higher education. A new OPB brief  describes these new developments, clarifies the differences between classroom learning, online learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and evaluates their roles in and impact on higher education in the US.

Tom Friedman published a glowing op-ed about MOOCs this week that reads more like a commercial for these start-up companies than a careful consideration, but many of the Reader Picks comments are quite good in pointing out the many, many questions that remain about how this use of technology will fit into education into the future.

Political Science professor Charli Carpenter made an 8 minute video presentation at the International Studies Association (ISA) conference last week in San Diego that has since been making the Internet rounds. The provocative video ‘mash-up’ highlights the changes and challenges that social media and other web technologies have brought to traditional academic work and communication. While focused on International Relations, the points are widely applicable across disciplines.

Carpenter presents these massive changes, what she refers to as a broadening and flattening of knowledge, quite uncritically. However, she does emphasize that she is not ready to judge them good or bad for academia or for knowledge, but feels there are a number of testable questions about the impact of technology and social media on the intersection of academia and the ‘rest of the world’ that should be the focus of systematic analysis.

As higher education faces external challenges from a host of stakeholders about its value, real world application, and adaptation to the modern world, the topics addressed in this presentation are especially interesting. Does broad and flat come at the expense of focused and deep?

City University of New York dean Ann Kirschner (note she also sits on the Apollo Group’s Board of Directors) posted an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday about “change” in higher education. She characterized the “glacial pace” at which higher education institutions evolve despite funding crises, new technology, and mounting pressure from for-profit institutions and federal political agendas. This article correctly identifies many of the challenges facing public higher education and also, the need to meet old and new challenges with new ideas.

However, one thing missing from this piece is an analysis of what things about higher education today (and yesterday) are worth protecting, preserving and investing in more deeply. Further, we would like to challenge the claim that universities have not evolved during the last century. Students donning clickers, ID cards with electronic journal access, and nearly 24-hour email access to professors might agree. Kirschner’s article appropriately identifies many of the challenges that make change difficult at (sometimes) huge, complex, and varied institutions. However, we would add that each institution must examine its values and determine what is worth preserving (or even, expanding) and what is in need of reform, and then reform quickly. As many of the thoughtful comments on this article state, change for change’s sake, or the wholesale adoption of untested change is more than futile, it can be incredibly destructive.