The Real “Trouble” With Technology, Online Education And Learning

It’s probably too early to say whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a "tsunami" or a "seismic shift," but, continuing with the natural disaster theme, the last few months have seen a massive “avalanche” of press commentary about them, especially within the last few days.

Also getting lots of press attention (though not as much right now) is Adaptive/Personalized Learning. Both innovations seem to fascinate us, but probably for different reasons, since they are so fundamentally different at their cores. Personalized Learning, like more traditional concepts of education, places the individual at the center. With MOOCs, groups and social interaction take center stage and learning becomes a collective enterprise.

This post elaborates on this distinction, but also points to a recent blurring of the lines between the two – a development that could be troubling.

But, first things first: What is Personalized/Adaptive Learning, what are MOOCs, and why are they different?

Cheating In Online Courses

Our guest author today is Dan Ariely, James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and author of the book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty (published by Harper Collins in June 2012).

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that students cheat more in online than in face-to-face classes. The article tells the story of Bob Smith (not his real name, obviously), who was a student in an online science course.  Bob logged in once a week for half an hour in order to take a quiz. He didn’t read a word of his textbook, didn’t participate in discussions, and still he got an A. Bob pulled this off, he explained, with the help of a collaborative cheating effort. Interestingly, Bob is enrolled at a public university in the U.S., and claims to work diligently in all his other (classroom) courses. He doesn’t cheat in those courses, he explains, but with a busy work and school schedule, the easy A is too tempting to pass up.

Bob’s online cheating methods deserve some attention. He is representative of a population of students that have striven to keep up with their instructor’s efforts to prevent cheating online. The tests were designed in a way that made cheating more difficult, including limited time to take the test, and randomized questions from a large test bank (so that no two students took the exact same test).

Higher Education: Soaring Rhetoric, Skyrocketing Costs

Over the past several years, the mantra of “college for all” has become ubiquitous, with Americans told that a college education is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, for any individual who aspires to a middle-class life in the 21st century economy.  And indeed, many studies tend to confirm that persons with a post-secondary education enjoy  lower unemployment rates and higher wages over time

Simultaneously – sometimes in the same articles – we learn that soaring tuition rates have put college out of the reach of many, if not most, families.  In fact, for the past few decades, college costs have been rising faster than health care costs.  In the last year or so, the news is that students who tried to borrow their way around this seemingly intractable problem only dug themselves a deeper hole. Outstanding student college loans have reached – or soon will reach – the $1 trillion mark.

The average student graduates college with a debt burden of nearly $25,000; others, especially those with professional degrees, are buckling under a debt load in the six figures. Since bankruptcy forgiveness does not apply to student debt, even unemployed and underemployed graduates can expect to carry this debt with them for years, perhaps decades, to come. With a slow economy exacerbating the problem, it’s no surprise to find that the national student loan default rate for 2009 (the last year for which data are available) was 8.8 percent and rising. At for-profit schools, the rate was 15 percent.

Pay Equity In Higher Education

Blatant forms of discrimination against women in academia have diminished since the Equal Pay Act and Title IX became law in 1964 and 1972, respectively. Yet gender differences in salary, tenure status, and leadership roles still persist among men and women in higher education. In particular, wage differences among male and female professors have not been fully explained, even when productivity, teaching experience, institutional size and prestige, disciplinary fields, type of appointment, and family-related responsibilities are controlled for statistically (see here).

Scholars have argued that the “unexplained” gender wage gap is a function of less easily quantifiable (supply-type) factors, such as preferences and career aspirations, professional networks, etc. In fact, there is extensive evidence that both supply-side (e.g., career choices) and demand-side factors (e.g., employer discrimination) are shaped by broadly shared (often implicit) schemas about what men and women can and should do (a.k.a. descriptive and prescriptive gender stereotypes – see here)

Regardless of the causes, which are clearly complex and multi-faceted, the fact remains that the salary advantage held by male faculty over female faculty exists across institutions and has changed very little over the past twenty-five years (see here). How big is this gap, exactly?

The ‘Snob’ Debate: Making High School Matter For Non-College-Bound Students

Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.

The current debate about “college for all” centers on a recent speech made by President Obama in Troy, MI, in which he argued that all young people should get at least some post-high school education or training. Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum, in a misreading of Obama’s remarks, responded with a focus on four-year degrees alone—suggesting, among other things, that four-year college degrees are overrated and that the president’s emphasis on college devalued working people without such degrees. The political chatter around this particular back-and-forth continues, but the issue of “college for all” has rightly raised some serious issues about the content and direction of U.S. education policy both at the high school and post-secondary levels.

Statistics seem to show that the college-educated  graduates of four-year institutions earn more money and experience less unemployment than their non-college-educated peers. This has fueled the argument is that college is the surest path—perhaps the only path—into the middle class. But the argument confuses correlation with causality. What if every U.S. citizen obtained a community college or university degree? Would that really do anything to alter wage rates at Starbucks, or increase salaries for home healthcare aides (an occupation projected to enjoy the highest demand over the next decade)? Of course not.

Deprofessionalizing Higher Education

Books criticizing higher education are gaining in popularity,  judging from the number written and published in the last year or so (see here, here, here, and here for just a few examples).  Naomi Riley’s The Faculty Lounges And Other Reasons That You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, which I was asked to review by the publisher, has just joined these ranks.

In her book, Riley tackles an important question facing the U.S. higher education system – that is, whether the increasing number of contingent faculty, including adjunct professors and part-time instructors, has eroded the value and quality of a university education.

According to recent estimates, more than half of all instructional staff now consists of part-time and contingent faculty. Although some have argued that this can help to lower costs and increase flexibility, most research indicates that tenured faculty members are more effective and produce better results (e.g. greater student retention and engagement) than adjunct faculty (see here and here), leading to campaigns for more tenure-track positions. In other words, permanent tenure-track positions are seen as the “gold standard."

Riley looks at these same trends and turns this argument on its head. Instead of advocating for an expansion of tenure-track positions, she argues that tenure itself should be abolished.

Can I Have Some Faculty With My College?

The growth of contingent faculty reflects the increasing tendency of higher education institutions to operate like businesses. It’s no secret that this is a major feature of for-profit colleges, most of which have effectively eliminated tenure on the grounds that this will help flexibility and innovation.

But what is the actual staff breakdown in traditional and for-profit colleges?

I examined data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) combined with data from the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.

There were several surprises.

College Isn't Quite The (Self-Perceived) Middle Class Ticket It Used To Be

In a previous post, I presented some simple data on “subjective class identification," which is the practice of asking people to place themselves within a class structure. The data show that, despite constant political rhetoric appealing the U.S. “middle class," more people actually consider themselves to be working class than middle class, and that this hasn’t changed much over the past thirty years.

I also noted that there is even a fairly significant “working class presence” – about 25 percent – among the highly educated (those with a bachelor's or higher). This struck me as interesting, given the fact that having a college degree is sometimes called “the ticket to the middle class," and also given that the income advantage for college graduates – the “college wage premium” – is substantial (and it's actually increased over the long term). I found myself wondering whether the relationship between having a college degree and “gaining entrance” to the middle class (at least by one’s own judgment of his or her class position) had changed over time. In other words, when it comes to subjective class identification, is college less of a middle class “ticket” than it used to be?

I couldn’t resist taking a quick look.

College For All, Profit For Some

The ideal of "College for All”—usually interpreted as meaning the acquisition of a four-year degree—is every bit as noble as it is unattainable, at least judging from actual graduation rates. It is within this tension that for-profit colleges wish to live—a kind of pseudo knight in shining armor riding gallantly into the battle for equal opportunity. But too many for-profit colleges (a.k.a., career colleges) are not solving educational issues. Rather, they are perpetuating inequalities and obscuring the fact that what is preached (e.g., “College for All”) has nothing to do with what gets achieved.

Many have pointed out that, by enshrining a path so few end up traveling (to say nothing of completing), we may be doing a great disservice to our youth. This argument is loud and clear; what may not be totally obvious is the variegated ways in which this constitutes a disservice. By idealizing the B.A./B.S. path, not only are we discouraging young people from exploring equally valid post high-school options, but we inadvertently may have also made them more vulnerable to the allure of disreputable for-profit colleges and/or encouraged for-profits to exploit this vulnerability.

As a matter of fact, one consequence (unintended, I am sure) of the “College for All” ideal may have been to widen the niche for for-profit career colleges. I am hardly the first to point out that the worst career colleges sell fake dreams by arm-twisting and sweet-talking potential students into taking out unsustainable—often federally-subsidized—loans for products of uncertain value. For-profit colleges did not create this dream. We did. They have only done what we would expect a for-profit entity to do: Exploit it.

K-12 Standardized Testing Craze Hinders Enthusiasm And Creativity For The Long Haul

Our guest author today is Bill Scheuerman, professor of political science at the State University of New York, Oswego and a retired president of the United University Professions. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

A recent study by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Esther Cho, entitled Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Project, should make us all take a closer look at student learning in higher education. The report finds that students enter college with values at odds with academic achievement. They party more and work less, but this lack of effort has had little or no effect on grade point averages. The study indicates that some 36 percent of current college graduates did not improve their critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills, despite having relatively high GPAs. In other words, more than a third of new graduates lack the ability to understand and critically evaluate the world we live in.

Nobody is arguing that we should go back to the good old days when college access was limited to the elite. Politicians and business are united in the goal of the United States once again attaining the highest percentage of college graduates in the world.

Notably, in the face of rising global competition from China and India, President Obama has called this the "Sputnik moment" for math and science education in the U.S.