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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.”

The results of two new surveys released Tuesday reveal some of America’s views on both the future of higher education as well as its role in producing desirable outcomes, particularly career-ready graduates. Under Northeastern University’s sponsorship, FTI Consulting surveyed 263 hiring managers in July as well as 1,000 adult Americans in August.  Here are some of their findings: 

  • Americans continue to see the value in higher education, but are concerned that the system does not adequately prepare graduates for their careers. Respondents ranked “level of education” as the most important factor in determining a job candidate’s success; yet, 62 percent said colleges currently do only a fair to poor job of preparing graduates for the workforce. That said, 79 percent believe their own college education prepared them well.
  • Americans are conflicted about who has the greatest responsibility to train recent graduates for the workplace: employers (36 percent), colleges/universities (29 percent) or the graduates themselves (35 percent). When Americans were asked why U.S. companies are struggling to find good job candidates, the most common response was that companies are not investing enough in training new hires. However, 87 percent of Americans assert that higher education must change in order to maintain an internationally competitive workforce.
  • Americans and business leaders value “soft” skills, like problem-solving and communication, over “hard” industry-specific skills. Most Americans (65 percent) and business leaders (73 percent) believe that, for people on the job market, “being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry experience because job-specific skills can be learned at work.”
  • Americans and business leaders agree that experiential learning is highly valuable to students’ careers. Nearly all Americans (89 percent) and business leaders (74 percent) believe that students are more successful in their careers if they have work experience from a field-related internship or job. Both groups agree the most important step the U.S. can take to better prepare colleges students is to broaden the professional work programs available to them.
  • Although most Americans (67 percent) think colleges should adopt new technologies and interactive teaching methods, they have doubts about MOOCs and online degrees. Less than 30 percent of Americans and business leaders believe MOOCs are of the same quality as in-person courses, and only 37 percent of Americans would consider completing a postsecondary degree solely online. However, about half of all respondents believe MOOCs will transform education in the US and that online degrees will be equally accepted by employers within 5 to 7 years.

My take-away from all this, to summarize, is:  Americans and business leaders believe that people on the job market need a college education, some professional work experience, and a well-rounded skill-set and in order to succeed. However, they also believe that colleges, businesses, and the government must play a role in helping students garner those qualifications.

Legislation was introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday that would require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for overenrolled, on-campus classes. If the bill passes and is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (who has been a strong supporter of online education), online courses could go mainstream much more quickly than predicted. At the moment, however, Senate Bill 520 is just a two-page legislative placeholder, or “spot bill,” to be amended with details later.

According to Inside Higher Ed, the bill’s sponsor, Democrat State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said the bill is meant to “break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing courses.” In Fall 2012, more than 472,000 of the 2.4 million students in the California Community Colleges system were put on waiting lists and at the California State University system, only 16 percent of students graduate within four years. Theoretically, increasing capacity to meet student demand for key, gateway courses could improve on-time graduation rates and more efficiently use state funds. The debate, of course, is whether online courses are actually effective and thus appropriate substitutes for traditional courses.

Under the proposed legislation, a nine-member faculty council representing the state’s three public higher ed systems would determine which 50 introductory courses are most oversubscribed and which online equivalents should be eligible for credit. When reviewing online courses, the panel is to consider whether a course:

  • Offers instructional support to promote retention;
  • Provides interaction between instructors and students;
  • Contains proctored exams and assessment tools;
  • Uses open-source text books; and
  • Includes content recommended by the American Council on Education.

MOOCs provided by Udacity and Coursera, as well as low-cost, self-paced courses from StraighterLine could all be up for consideration—several of which have already gained ACE approval.

Senator Steinberg emphasized at a news conference that the legislation “does not represent a shift in funding priority” for higher education in California, and is not intended to introduce “a substitution for campus-based instruction.” Nevertheless, for the many faculty and university administrators concerned about SB 520’s consequences, the devil may be in the yet-to-be-determined details. We’ll keep you apprised as those details are fleshed out.

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.

Massive open online course (MOOC) providers, Coursera and Udacity, are now offering to sell information about high-performing students to employers who have available positions.

Coursera, which is known for working with high-profile colleges, announced its version of the headhunter service on Tuesday. Already some similarly high-profile tech companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have enrolled in the service. Once an employer signs up, Coursera provides them with a list of students who match the company’s academic, geographic, or skill-based requirements. If an employer sees a profile they like, Coursera emails the student asking if she or he would like to be introduced to the company. Every introduction costs the employer a flat fee, the revenue of which goes primarily to Coursera. However, 6 to 15 percent of the revenue goes back to whichever college(s) offered the MOOC(s) the student attended.

The Chronicle reports that Coursera’s co-founder, Andrew Ng feels “this is a relatively uncontroversial business model that most of our university partners are excited about.” Regardless, Coursera is giving each of its partnering colleges a chance to opt out of the new headhunter service. If a college declines, any and all students enrolled in its MOOCs will be unable to participate in the job-matchmaking program. If a college accepts, its students will still have the option to personally opt out of the service—either altogether or only for courses they are unable to complete.

Udacity, which works with individual professors to offer MOOCS rather than entire institutions, offers a similar headhunter program. So far, approximately 350 partner companies including Google, Amazon, and Facebook have already signed up.

Neither Coursera nor Udacity was willing to disclose the price of their respective services, but both MOOC providers said they give employers more than just student grades. They also collect and share data on students who frequently participate in discussion forums and help answer questions from their classmates. Mr. Thrun, of Udacity, said employers often find those “softer skills” to be more valuable than sheer academic performance as they can be better predictors of placement success.

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.

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.

Jeff Selingo’s recent blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education website summarizes conversations he had with students at six higher education institutions about majors, job skills, and online learning. His findings were somewhat surprising and ran counter to many current trends in higher education. First, he learned that students, while completely immersed in the online world otherwise, do not favor online learning. Instead, they crave face-to-face, personal interactions with students and professors. Second, students feel unprepared for choosing a major and a career, and more counseling would be useful in helping students find their ideal career path. Finally, students do not think majors matter that much—instead of pursuing career-specific majors, students want a broad education that exposes them to many disciplines and prepares them to be good learners and thinkers.

As a student, I can relate to most, if not all of Selingo’s findings. I have never taken an online class at the University of Washington, and few undergraduates I know have. Those that have taken online courses say it is much more difficult to stay motivated and keep up with the material when there is no class to go to and no professor or TA to notice if you fall behind. As an International Studies major, discussion and group work are central to my studies and difficult to replicate online. While such classes are likely helpful for non-traditional, working students finishing their degrees, they are not a perfect replacement for an interactive classroom experience.

Selingo’s assertion that students want more career exploration before college is likely accurate, though I know efforts made both in K-12 and higher education in Washington to help students choose careers and majors. The culminating project and High School and Beyond Plan students complete at the end of high school in Washington State is meant to help students identify their interests and strengths and decide on future career and educational goals. FIGs and TRIGs at UW can help students gain an introduction to prospective majors, and career and academic advisors give lots of opportunities for students to explore potential career paths. While certainly not all students seek out help, there are many options and resources for students that look for them.

The finding that surprised me most was that the students Salingo interviewed thought majors did not matter and were not interested in career-specific learning. While most students I know follow their passions and interests when selecting a major, I believe the economic downturn has made my peers more practical about their choices. A student might major in accounting or business instead of economics, or major in biology and pursue their interest in theater in their free time. Many students add second, more job-skills focused majors or minors late in their undergraduate education in order to make themselves more competitive in the job market. Often, internships solicit applications from specific majors like business, engineering or computer science, which pushes students to consider these majors over others in order to get relevant job experience.

To read more of the Chronicle blog post, please click here.

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.