Tag Archives: online education

The Revolution in Online Education Nearing Takeoff

Well, you don't get the ENTIRE Georgia Tech experience with an online degree. The $31,000 cost differential has got to buy you something.

Well, you don’t get the ENTIRE Georgia Tech experience with an online degree. For an extra $31,000, the bricks-and-mortar experience has got to buy you something.

by James A. Bacon Jr.

The revolution in online education continues. It’s just taking longer than it should.

Two years ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology partnered with Udacity, a company that runs massively open online courses (MOOCs) and ATT to launch an online masters degree in computer science charging a fraction the cost per credit hour. Georgia Tech was staking its academic reputation on its ability to deliver a quality education online. (Here was my spin on the story at that time.)

So, how is the program working two and a half years later? According to a Wall Street Journal update, the online program has evolved but looks like it has staying power. The program is “relatively massive” with 2,789 students enrolled this semester compared with 312 in the campus-based program. And it’s on track to turn a profit by May.

If there are any drawbacks, it’s that students are moving through the program at a slower pace than the school predicted. “It’s not like they’re not making progress,” said Charles Isbell Mr., senior associate dean at the College of Computing. “They’re making progress at a more leisurely pace than we expected.”

But that should come as no surprise given that many students are juggling their online courses with full-time jobs. Sandip Agrawal, didn’t want to leave San Francisco or his job as a Google software engineer so he enrolled in the Georgia Tech program to build his technical skills and professional credentials, said the WSJ. The alternative to the Georgia Tech degree would have been stringing together a few massive, open online courses and forgoing an accredited degree. That George Tech degree, by the way, will cost $7,000 compared to $38,000 for the bricks-and-mortar version, and Agrawal continues pulling in a salary.

Little wonder that Georgia Tech’s Isbell says it wouldn’t surprise him if in three years from now the program will be enrolling 10,000 students. Says he: “This is sustainable and this is scalable.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here in Virginia, tuition and fees are still rising faster than inflation and incomes. A generation of students is agreeing to a life of indentured servitude in order to obtain a college degree (all too often, never even completing the degree requirements). There will always be a market for the four-year “residential” experience with football games, face-to-face interaction with professors, tossing frisbees on the quad, drunken frat parties and kvetching about racism and the rape epidemic on campus. But the residential experience, which seems so distressing to so many, is increasingly becoming a luxury product for the affluent classes. It is not a viable alternative for hundreds of thousands of Virginians. Something has got to change — and it will.

Here Come the OOCs

Gardner Campbell (left) and Christina Engelbart.

Gardner Campbell (left) and Christina Engelbart.

Is there such thing as an OOC? We’ve all heard of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). But what do you call it when the enrollment in an online course that’s open to the public but only 100 students sign up? An Open Online Course?

Whatever you call it, Virginia Commonwealth University taught such a course over the summer entitled, “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch profiled the course today.

VCU officials refer to the course, properly speaking, as a “connectivist” MOOC. “It’s not about content delivery. It’s about being able to act as individual learners in a shared conceptual space,” explained course designer Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success. The idea, as the T-D paraphrases him, was to teach students how to use digital media to to think more deeply about problems and share solutions on a global scale.

A second course this fall connects VCU students with local non-profit organizations to develop social media strategies for The World Pediatric Project and the Preemptive Love Coalition, both of which provide medical services to children overseas. What makes the courses different — and potentially valuable — is that they are open to non-students, including professionals working for the non-profits.

“Technology was just a steppingstone for the real vision, which was to help the world become a better place by figuring out better ways that we can all come together, work together, think together to solve big problems,” said Christina Engelbart, daughter of the man who invested the computer mouse and graphical user interface among other things, who provided $10,000 in scholarships to support the VCU program.

I’ll admit, that sounds a little too idealistic and kumbaya for my taste. But that’s OK. It doesn’t matter what I think. What’s important is that VCU is joining other universities in experimenting with what online courses can accomplish. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of linking students with non-profits to accomplish real-world goals. My hunch is that MOOCs (or OOCs) will morph into hundreds of different forms, customized for the specific task at hand. For mastering some bodies of knowledge, OOCs and MOOCs will never replace traditional classroom learning. But for others, they will. Education will be richer as a result.

Now, if we can just find a way for OOCs to make education less expensive.


Massey Bill to Expedite Online Learning for Higher Ed

Online learning at GMU.

Online learning at GMU.

bill submitted by Del. James P. “Jimmie” Massey III, R-Henrico, would promote online education in Virginia by making it easier for the state’s higher ed institutions to enroll out-of-state students.

Frank Muraca, executive editor of Fourth Estate, George Mason University’s student-run news publication, has the story here.

Colleges and universities such as GMU are turning to distance education as a means to offer accessible, low-cost options to students who may not be able to commute to campus or commit to regularly scheduled classes. GMU Provost Peter Stearns wrote in March 2013 that Mason’s online programs would be “aimed strongly at out-of-state student audiences.”

But there’s a problem, Muraca explains. Virginia institutions offering distance education to out-of-state students must obtain authorization from the states in which they reside, a costly and bureaucratic process. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement eliminates a lot of the hassle. States SARA’s website:

[SARA] is an agreement among member states, districts and territories that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state.

Massie’s bill authorizes the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) to join the agreement and approve of disapprove or participation by Virginia institutions.

It’s good to see that GMU is experimenting aggressively with both online courses and hybrid online/classroom courses. Between 4,000 and 6,000 GU students are enrolled in at least one online course per semester. Online education is a key component of the university’s newly adopted strategic plan.

It’s also encouraging to see that SCHEV is promoting SARA. Virginia public universities are not required to opt into the agreement, but as SCHEV communications director Kirsten Nelsen wrote in a press release, they would be advised to. “To ignore this opportunity risks falling behind other states as they join this cooperative effort. This will create a disadvantage for Virginia’s institutions and the students they serve.”

MOOCs: Hyped, Humbled, Hardy

MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun. I'd feel a lot better about MOOCs if he took off those uber-geeky Apple computer-glasses.

MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun. I’d feel a lot better about MOOCs if he took off those uber-geeky Apple computer-glasses.

Not unexpectedly, after two years experience, the purveyors of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are re-evaluating their model for delivering educational services, according to the New York Times. It turns out that the jaw-breaking numbers of students enrolled in some MOOC courses — 160,000 in the case of on Stanford University professor’s course on artificial intelligence — really are too good to be true. A recent study of MOOCs indicates that only half of enrollees actually viewed a lecture, and only 4% completed a course. In a highly touted program at San Jose State, evidence suggests that students taking classes online performed worse than their peers in traditional classrooms.

Some critics of online learning no doubt will seize on these findings to crow about the superiority of the status quo. But they would do well to heed this line in the article: “Even the loudest critics of MOOCs do not expect them to fade away. More likely, they will morph into many different shapes.”

“It’s like, ‘The MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC,’ ” said Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State University-Pueblo professor who has expressed fears that the online courses would displace professors and be an excuse for cuts in funding. “At the beginning everybody talked about MOOCs being entirely online, but now we’re seeing lots of things that fall in the middle, and even I see the appeal of that.”

It’s been clear for some time, actually, that so-called “hybrid” learning, combining elements of online and face-to-face learning, may be the way forward. The experimentation and tinkering continues. “We’re moving from the hype to the implementation,” said MOOC pioneer George Siemens, who convened a meeting last week to discuss results. “It’s exciting to see universities saying, ‘Fine, you woke us up,’ and beginning to grapple with how the Internet can change the university.'”

VCU: Prime Candidate for a MOOCing

The VCU value proposition: a Top 25 basketball team

The VCU value proposition: a Top 25 basketball team

by James A. Bacon

I often wonder if higher-education board members can see the forest for the trees. In my mind’s eye, I see university administrations sharing huge volumes of reports and data in thick notebooks — no one can accuse them of a lack of full disclosure. And I imagine most board members (with a handful of notable exceptions) taking the information exactly as given, focusing on the nits and lice, never quite grasping the big picture.

For example, do you think the Virginia Commonwealth University administration would ever present the following data to its Board of Visitors — or anyone on the board would ask for it to be presented this way?

Consumer Price Index (2008-2012): up 6.6%
Virginia median household income (2008-2012): down 5.5%
VCU in-state tuition and fees (2008-1202): up 32%
Average VCU student debt upon graduation: $28,889*

Here’s where the money is coming from:

Source: State Council on Higher Education in Virginia

Source: State Council on Higher Education in Virginia. Note: E&G stands for “Education and General”

Here’s where the money is going:

Source: Knight Foundation on Intercollegiate Athletics

Source: Knight Foundation on Intercollegiate Athletics

The solid line shows average spending per full-time-equivalent student. Hmmm. It trended slightly down. The dotted line shows average spending per athlete. Hmmm. It trended dramatically higher. Let’s summarize:

  • Virginians’ median household incomes down by about 5.5%
  • VCU tuition and fees up 32%
  • Academic spending per full-time student down 9.2%
  • Athletic spending per athlete up $40,000 up 86%

What are VCU students getting for their massive increases for tuition and fees? The privilege of rooting for a Top 25 basketball team. Anything else? Better academic quality? More prestigious, better paid professors? (Hah!) Better career prospects?

Looks to me like VCU is a prime candidate for being dismembered by Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or other variants of online- and technology-based education. At the end of the day VCU has a solid medical school and a few pockets of excellence like the advertising Brand Center and a top-tier art school.  How long will students for other programs be willing to pay VCU tuition and fees for the value they’re getting in return?

* Average debt for the 63% of graduates who carried debt. Does not include the debt incurred by those who did not graduate.

Nuke the MOOCs

Is this guy taking a MOOC?

Is this guy taking a MOOC?

After a rash of enthusiasm about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the counter-reaction is setting in. Only a tiny percentage of the hoards of people enrolling in classes actually complete them. Many students drop out because they have competing demands for their time; others get bored by the inability to have meaningful interaction with the professor or anyone else, even on online chat boards.

Rachelle DeJong enrolled in two MOOCs and declared them massively boring. Here’s what she wrote for “Minding the Campus“:

One of the main defects in MOOCs is the sterile, disengaged character that afflicts many online courses,  especially massive online courses. If a course is to be more than an intellectual IV dripping raw facts into the mind, it requires articulation of questions and synthesizing of answers, discussion and debate over claims and analyses, and some form of intellectual community that helps turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. Mere physical presence doesn’t guarantee any of these things, of course, but they do depend in varying ways on personal connection, which is much harder to replicate online.

Undoubtedly, there will be a niche for MOOCs, but I don’t see massively open online courses overthrowing conventional education. More likely the industry will gravitate to blended models that integrate computer learning, online learning and personal interaction — a model that combines the advantages of personal contact with the economies made possible by education.

The experimentation will continue…


Higher Ed Shakeout Hits HBCUs First

NSU: Gleaming on the outside, troubled on the inside.

NSU: Gleaming on the outside, troubled on the inside.

by James A. Bacon

All colleges and universities find themselves under unremitting pressure these days as consumers balk at relentless increases in tuition & fees and new business models coalesce around online education. But few are as stressed as the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which have special problems all their own.

Sidney A. Ribeau, the president of the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., announced his retirement Monday following a 6.3% decline in enrollment this year and a decline in its Moody’s credit rating from A3 to Baa1, according to the Wall Street Journal. That incident follows the recent firing of Norfolk State University (NSU) President Tony Atwater and the closing of St. Paul’s College in Southside Virginia this summer.

“There are so many teetering on the edge right now … without some kind of intervention, 20% to 30% [of HBCUs] cannot survive another decade,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

Some problems are particular to the historically black institutions, which tend to have small endowments and rely heavily upon tuition and fees to meet expenses. The savings of black families were devastated by the 2007-2008 recession, and the 2010 tightening of eligibility requirements for Plus Loans (federal loans taken by parents on behalf of their children) impacted low-income families disproportionately. A WSJ survey found that enrollment had declined at a third of the 85 HBCUs surveyed by 10% or more between 2010 and 2012.

A longer-term trend has been the increased competition other higher ed institutions for black students; 90% of black students today now enroll outside HBCUs. Like the black-owned hospitals, banks, insurance companies that arose to serve blacks during the Jim Crow era, HBCUs have struggled to redefine their role in a desegregated society.

Online learning may provide the coup de grace. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), hybrid MOOCs and other permutations of online learning have the potential to slash the cost of delivering educational instruction. While students craving the residential experience at elite institutions such as Harvard, MIT or the University of Virginia may continue to pay a premium tuition, others, less willing to run up tens of thousands of dollars in debt, will gravitate toward online learning. The “existential threat,” to borrow a phrase from former UVa Rector Helen Dragas, will hit the HBCUs first.

Here in Virginia, Norfolk State has the most visible problems, but Virginia Union University (private) and Virginia State University (state-supported) may have slender margins for error. My impression is that Hampton University (private), one of the strongest HBCUs in the country, has the best chance to find its way in the new era.

Other universities will be tempted to dismiss the travails of the HBCUs as unique to that set of institutions. But they would be foolish to do so. HBCUs are simply located the closest to shore when the tsunami hits.