July 1, 2014

Adjusting to post-recession realities in higher education

For the past 10 years, college enrollment rates have been on a roller coaster ride. With record high enrollment rates followed by record drops in enrollment, it’s no wonder that some schools are struggling with staying on budget and fully enrolled amidst a sluggish post-recession economy.

In 2008, enrollment rates for people aged 18-24 grew to a record high of 40%.  This enrollment boost was the result of the convergence of several factors. First, a population spike meant that a record number of students (3.3 million) graduated in 2007, then a higher percentage of those students proceeded directly to college, and finally the economic downturn and labor market crash meant a greater motivation for high school graduates to earn a degree. According to a Pew trend report, the majority of this enrollment boom was made up of minority students attending community colleges, reflecting both a demographic shift in the population and the deterioration in the earning power of teens and young adults.

Colleges and universities had nothing to complain about when they experienced a sudden increase in applicants in 2008. When a school receives more applications, they can also reject more applicants, which helps to boost rankings because the school then appears more selective.

Unfortunately, the 2008 enrollment boom was just a flash in the pan. The landscape has changed drastically during the Great Recession.

Six years later, colleges are struggling with issues of under-enrollment and the prospect of more lean years in the future. The applicant pool began to shrink after the big rush to school in 2007-8. The shrinking applicant pool is proving to be a long-term trend. After the huge size of the 2007 high school class,  K-12 classrooms are showing a downward growth trend. This downward growth is exacerbated by the state of the economy. “Enrollment tends to level off or fall when the economy is improving,” says Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education. “Given how much enrollment surged during the economic downturn, a reduction was inevitable.” Within these smaller applicant pools, colleges and universities will be competing fiercely to attract those students who have to ability to pay in full.

In addition to the demographic trends at play, a value shift is also taking place in reaction to the shaky economy. As reported in the results of a Sallie Mae and Ipsos Survey on Inside Higher Ed, people are now less willing to page huge sums of money for schooling. Sarah Ducich, one of the study’s authors, concludes, “The study highlighted that since the economic downturn in 2008, higher education consumers have been more receptive to lower cost alternatives such as community colleges or colleges closer to home in order to avoid the cost of living on campus… Even though college costs continue to increase, the amount that families are spending is holding steady, meaning they’re making choices in a mostly cost-conscious construct…”

These gloomy trends are not necessarily going to impact every school; some programs are so desirable and their endowments so large that they might never see a substantial drop off in profits. Smaller private schools, on the other hand, are already feeling the pinch. Private colleges are generally more expensive, dependent upon tuition revenues, with less name recognition, smaller endowments, and narrower profit margins. As a result, smaller schools are already having trouble covering budgets and enrollment goals.

Some schools are getting ahead of the problem with cost cutting and revenue-building measures:

With demographics against schools and consumers less likely to accept continued tuition hikes, there are rumblings of a sea change in higher education. Houghton University President Shirley Mullen spoke commented, “I don’t believe there is any going back… I think whatever happens going forward is something different than we’ve seen before.”

May 19, 2014

Eliminating Admissions Error Online

frustrationAdmissions management software like AMP make the admissions process simple and easy by automating many routine tasks. With the click of a button, you can now complete jobs that used to consume days or weeks of your admissions office’s precious time! But it can be dangerous to rely too heavily on automation. Admissions error is, if anything, an even bigger cause for concern with digital systems. One click of the button can now send a mistake to hundreds of students, which can become a costly headache.

In the past few years, several schools have had problems with erroneous admission notices:

  • In 2010, Vassar University cited “computing error” when 122 students were mistakenly told they were accepted. In this case, a test acceptance message was erroneously left on the site when it should have been replaced with a rejection notice. Vassar ended up refunding the affected student’s application fees in addition to calling each student to directly apologize for the gaffe.
  • In 2011, the University of Delaware accidentally notified 68 rejected students that they were accepted. After admissions decisions went out, students were able to login to their student portal. While the landing page displayed the correct messaging, an interior page told every student “Congratulations!” and invited them to sign up for accepted student visitation days. The error was blamed on human error; a chunk of code caused the incorrect page to be visible to rejected students, even after testing.
  • In 2012, UCLA accidentally told 894 waitlisted applicants that they had been accepted in a form email. The email ended with a sentence meant only for accepted students, reading “Once again, congratulations on your acceptance to UCLA,” which caused confusion among the already waitlisted students. The mistake was blamed on human error.

The thing is; even when an admissions error is blamed on “computer error,” it all comes down to human error. Whether it was a coding issue that occurred during development or an office employee sending out the wrong email template, safeguards need to be in place at every step in order to avoid problems.

When implementing and utilizing an electronic admissions system, errors are always preventable if appropriate protocols are in place.

  • Choose your admissions software carefully. The right admissions software will take care of all tasks, with no gaps in the process. For complex admissions processes, AMP Paperless Admissions is recommended.
  • Prior to launching an online admissions system, a strong communication between your internal team and your software team is paramount. An effective software team will continuously test your system system, but it is equally important to have your internal team thoroughly test the software to ensure that everything meets your needs before launch.
  • Provide thorough training of your admissions staff on a software system, while always keeping a user manual handy for reference.
  • A series of checks and balances should be implemented at every step of your process, and especially before any batch email notifications are sent to applicants. More eyes on an email means more chances of catching silly errors. Every large-scale form email should be first proofread by a peer, then emailed to a test account, and then sent to the entire list – particularly for important emails such as admissions decision announcements.
  • Create a work environment that encourages and/or rewards the reporting of errors. If an employee fears punishment or blame for pointing out an error, then it is less likely that those errors will be reported.

Modern admissions systems might be automated, but that does not mean that they are infallible. Software is only as effective as the people who are using it. Admissions employees and stakeholders need to approach every step of the process with a doubting attitude. Every step in the admissions process needs to be checked, double checked, and triple checked before moving forward.


May 5, 2014

New Changes to the SAT

This year, the SAT is implementing big changes in their test structure and content. Most notably, the mandatory essay section of the test will now be replaced with a revamped optional writing section, and scores will again be marked out of 1600.

The now defunct mandatory writing section was introduced in 2005 and has drawn a lot of criticism. Test prep tutors and students alike quickly discovered loopholes and methods for gaming the system. Many students were advised to pre-write a generic essay and then make small adjustments to suit the prompt. Les Perelman, a former director of writing at M.I.T., once tutored 16 students on tricks to ace the writing section. To gain a high score, he advised the students to write a long essay, sprinkle in some advanced vocabulary, add lots of details without worrying about factual accuracy, and to cite famous quotes from prominent historical figures regardless of their relevancy to the topic at hand. Fifteen of sixteen in the group scored in the 90% percentile for SAT scores (Balf, New York Times).

In a recent news release, the College Board admitted that the old essay “has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam..” The new SAT test has been restructured to assess traits valued by these educational stakeholders. The new test emphasizes reasoned analysis of source documents in the writing portion. The reading/writing portion will test evidence-based reasoning, deriving the meaning of powerful words from contextual clues, and the ability to explain their thought process in selecting an answer. The new test discourages memorization of “SAT words” by instead testing students on words that can change meaning in context and will be commonly encountered in everyday life. The math section will also change, narrowing the focus to multi-step problem solving, algebra, and advanced math.

09sat2-blog427-v2The new SAT also seeks to minimize the proven correlation between income and test scores in two ways. First, the College Board will be issuing fee waivers to qualified low-income students. Second, they are embarking on an unprecedented partnership with the free online educator, the Khan Academy. The Khan Academy now offers free, guided SAT test prep made available to everyone at no cost. Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, says, “For too long, there’s been a well-known imbalance between students who could afford test-prep courses and those who couldn’t.”

“Like any other truly significant change, there will be debate,” says William Fitzsimmons, the Nacac chairman and head of admissions at Harvard. “Sometimes in the past, there’s been a feeling that tests were measuring some sort of ineffable entity such as intelligence, whatever that might mean. Or ability, whatever that might mean. What this is is a clear message that good hard work is going to pay off and achievement is going to pay off. This is one of the most significant developments that I have seen in the 40-plus years that I’ve been working in admissions in higher education.” (Balf, New York Times)

The coming years will prove if these changes have an effect on low income student accessibility and the score gap. Do you anticipate adjusting your program’s admissions policy in response to the changes in the SAT?

April 14, 2014

Humboldt State University admissions event ends in tragedy

Last Thursday, a Humboldt State University tour trip ended in tragedy when a Fed Ex truck drifted over a grassy highway median and hit a charter bus filled with teenaged prospective students. Ten lives were lost in the resulting crash and fire – two drivers, three chaperones, and five high school students.

The students on board the bus were recruited by Humboldt State to come to campus for an in-depth tour, orientation, and overnight stay in the dorms. They were selected as part of a program called “Preview Plus,” which seeks to enroll low-income and first generation high school students. Historically, the orientation weekend is a very successful recruiting tool for these students. After attending the free orientation event, 45% of Preview Plus students end up enrolling at the school. This bus crash represents a huge loss to both Humboldt State and the student’s communities.

Two other buses arrived safely to the orientation weekend. An evening barbeque was cancelled as students were informed of the fate of their peers. The rest of the orientation weekend proceeded as scheduled, but with an understandably altered tone. In response to the tragedy, Humboldt President Rollin Richmond and the vice president of public affairs went to area hospitals to visit survivors of the bus crash. A hotline was set up to field incoming calls about the welfare of the orientation attendees.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends, and communities affected by this unfortunate accident.


April 9, 2014

The Adjunct Issue

The recent implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has had an unfortunate impact in the world of higher education. Reacting to a provision that mandates employer-provided healthcare  for employees who work 30+ hours per week, many colleges & universities have cut adjunct hours in order to remain in compliance. This has caused further hardship on adjunct faculty, an already struggling segment of the educational workforce.

L4535690946_e3b88b7941ow-paid, part-time adjunct faculty represent a growing majority of educators in higher education. In 1969, 18.5% of professors were part time. From 1975 to 2011, that number has grown by 300%. Today, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, part-time professorships represent 75.5% of educators, or 1.3 million people. One big motivator for this shift has been cost; it’s simply easier to fill courses with part-time faculty instead of full time, salaried professors with full benefits. With this trend maintaining traction for more than 40 years, it is no huge surprise that the Obamacare coverage mandate has only added fuel to the fire.

At the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, David Hoovler, the executive assistant to the president, says it was “simply unaffordable” to expand health coverage to would-be qualified adjuncts, although the college would have preferred to provide access. CCAC has an annual budget near $109 million and providing health benefits to the ~400 eligible part-time employees would have cost the school upwards of $6 million (Dunn, 2013). However, it can also be argued that trying to live on an adjunct salary is also “simply unaffordable.” Of 152 respondents who provided their estimated annual teaching salary in an Adjunct E-Forum Report, the average was $24,926, with the median at $22,041. In contrast, the median pay for a full time faculty member is $47,500. In order to garner comparable wages, an adjunct would have to teach nearly seventeen courses per year. To put this in perspective, researchers consider a full course load to be eight courses in an academic year.

One educator reports “My university pays $2100 per class which means even if I work at 100% – 10 classes per academic year – I would only make $21,000,” a salary that hovers right above the poverty level. In the Adjunct E-Forum Report, one educator tells her story of survival on an adjunct salary;

“Because I was also the sole support of my two children (both of whom are gifted and honors students, I am proud to report), I relied on Medicaid to pay for the medical bills of my daughter. And, during the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty.”

The big problem with tying medical coverage to adjunct hours is that administrators must also consider the time spent prepping for classes, grading assignments, attending meetings, and communicating with students. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the IRS has advised schools to calculate total hours worked by accounting for an additional 1.25 hours of outside work for every hour spent in the classroom. Prior to this recommendation, many schools acted preemptively to avoid taking the risk that an adjunct would go above 30 hours per week, enacting blanket measures to slash schedules and cap adjunct course loads.

With so many adjuncts and recent Ph.D. graduates trying to forge careers in academics, the supply of teachers will continue to outstrip demand. Schools are already extremely motivated to hire these extremely well-qualified professionals as cheap part-time labor. Once hired, adjuncts are often doomed to a life of poverty and uncertainty, where their classes can be canceled and their livelihood compromised at a moment’s notice. “There are really no opportunities for advancement because there [are] very few full-time opportunities available, most likely because the schools are using more and more adjunct instructors instead of adding the higher-paid full-time positions (with or without tenure),” reported one educator.

As a result of their permanent part-time status, many adjuncts choose to teach classes at multiple schools in order to make ends meet – and even a crushing workload doesn’t guarantee a livable wage. “I was teaching five classes at three different campuses. I was quickly going broke and my student debt was still growing,” said Gillian Mason (Lewin), a former adjunct with a Ph.D. in Literature from Boston University.

With the Affordable Care Act bringing this issue to a tipping point, adjuncts are looking for ways to advocate for change. Some activists are looking at unionization, while others have already taken their case to Congress. After hearing congressional testimony from adjuncts, California Representative George Miller said of adjuncts, “You look at their credentials, their background and experience—there has to a conscious decision to treat them this way,” he says. “Then you start to look at it through a student’s eyes, and then you think, I’m getting a person who’s stressed out, maybe just drove three hours to get to my class, doesn’t have time to see me afterward, and you think, Wait a minute, there’s some false advertising going on here.”

The adjunct situation is far from over, so we will be certain to keep you posted on the latest news regarding acts of congress, unionization, adjunct activism, and school reactions. How has your school reacted to the roll out of the Affordable Care Act? Do you think it has affected your school’s treatment of adjunct faculty?

April 1, 2014

Taking the Grade to Court

It’s the classic “he said/she said” in the world of education. A student claims that a professor unfairly gave out a bad grade. The professor counters that grades aren’t given; they are earned. In the case of Megan Thode v. Lehigh University, a judge ruled in favor of a school’s right to use their own discretion in awarding grades.

Megan Thode sued Lehigh University in an effort to have a C+ grade retroactively changed to a B and claimed $1.3million in damages for lost wages because she had to change her career path. The low grade meant that Thode could not advance in her chosen field of study, counseling psychology, and she instead pursued a master’s in education and human development. Thode received the C+ because she received zero credit for in-class participation in her graduate level Therapy Internship course. In this particular course, participation credit requires students to conduct themselves with professionalism, to self-reflect on their personal behavior and perspectives, and to collaborate with other students.

Thode claimed that Amanda Eckhardt (née Amanda Carr), the course’s student teacher, discriminated against her because of her support of gay marriage and that the grade was retaliation for voicing her opinion during class time. Thode had attended every single class session, making the mark of zero all the more suspect. Her lawyer, Richard Orloski, argued, “My client stands alone in the history of Lehigh in getting a zero in class participation.” Steven Thode, the plaintiff’s father and former professor of Finance at Lehigh, supports this point, “I have never heard of a case, not just at Lehigh, where a student achieved a zero in class participation where they attended and participated in every class,” he said.

The defense claimed that, while Thode had indeed attended every class session, she had not met the aforementioned requirements of professionalism, self-reflection, and collaboration. While testifying, Eckhardt defended her decision to award zero participation points to Thode based on her inability to participate appropriately in her internship, citing outbursts, swearing, and emotional instability. During the semester in question, Eckhardt knew that Thode’s behavior was leading her down the path to a failing participation grade and she gave Thode a letter addressing her concerns and advising her on ways to improve her participation. After the warning, Thode failed to change her attitude and became defensive when confronted, at one point saying “I need to get a lawyer.” When awarding final grades, Eckhardt consulted with other faculty at Lehigh before deciding to give Thode no credit for participation. Although she acknowledged that the grade was unprecedented, “I … believed she received the grade she earned,” said Eckhardt.

Eckhardt also addressed the allegations of discrimination, saying that while she believed that marriage was between a man and a woman, she wouldn’t allow her personal opinion to cloud her professional judgment. She also noted that her own sister is a lesbian and that she would support her if she chose to get married.

Throughout the court proceedings, the elephant in the room was the sticky situation of having few precedents for a court to change a student’s grade. In previous court cases of this kind, judges have upheld the respective school’s policies in awarding and appealing grades except in the most extreme cases. In fact, the judge in this case, Emil Giordano, said that he is “unconvinced that the judiciary should be injecting itself in the academic process.”

In the end, Giordano ruled in favor of Lehigh. The school affirmed his decisions. In a statement, Jennifer Tucker, vice president of Public Relations and Communication at Lehigh, said

“Our faculty have a responsibility to evaluate students fairly and accurately as to their attainment of competency in their field and grant a Lehigh degree only when those standards for competency are met. We are defending the right of the university and the right of our faculty to exercise their professional judgment as educators.

Looking at this case from an outsider’s perspective and seeing all of the time, money, and resources that have been tied up in this litigation, I can’t help but think – Why would Ms. Thode abandon her career aspirations (and the supposed $1.3 million that would come with it) simply because she got a C+? While I personally agree that a zero was too harsh for a student who did, at least, attend every class, it is evident that Ms. Thode had plenty of chances to take personal responsibility and turn her grade around without involving the courts.

As demonstrated in the defense testimony, she had ample opportunity to improve her class participation after receiving a written warning and advice from her instructor. And, as noted by a Lehigh student in an editorial, all Lehigh professors are required to hold office hours every week so that students may meet with their instructors and voice their concerns. If Ms. Thode was truly determined to stay in good standing in the counseling psychology program, she could have easily met with Ms. Eckhardt to create a plan of action and remedy the situation. Furthermore – even after receiving the poor mark, she still had the option of re-taking the course in an effort to perform better than the first time; an option that is always available for students.

In the end, Ms. Thode was disappointed to discover that the judicial system could not be used to punish Lehigh for awarding a failing grade, and university professors everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. University professors; how have you approached a difficult student when they were at risk of failing?

March 25, 2014

Competency Based Financial Aid

Not long ago, we reported on the Carnegie Foundation’s announcement to reevaluate the Credit Hour unit of academic measure. It has been speculated that the Carnegie Foundation will begin to shift away from time-based measures in favor of competency-based units of learning. While the results of the Carnegie Foundation’s study won’t be expected for years, the Department of Education is introducing pathways for utilizing competency measures in financial aid reward packages.

financial-aid-101Competency-based programs in the US began at Excelsior College (formerly known as Regent’s College). Introduced in the 1970′s to benefit homemakers, returning veterans, and adults looking to further their education, Excelsior offered associate’s degrees based on standardized tests and credit transfer. The model spread to other institutions, and today there are more than 20 schools that currently use or are implementing competency-based programs. These programs can award degrees based on a number of factors including testing, clinical observation, portfolio reviews, and other methods that cater to the field of study under review.

While these programs have been widely accepted, the Department of Education historically had no way of incorporating competency credits into the process of awarding federal financial aid. But on March 19, 2013, the Department of Education announced the amendment of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005 to allow for the consideration of competency-based direct assessments of learning in lieu of credit hours for financial aid. This means that competency-based programs will no longer have to convert their learning assessments into credit hours and eliminates the dubious estimation of “seat time” in measuring learning in these cases.

It should be noted that these measures have not yet been tested in practice, and that the Department of Education is keeping the dialogue open with colleges and universities. Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, a regional accreditor, said, “Experience will show how workable this process is.”

For a school looking towards non-traditional admissions procedures, a non-traditional admissions software is a very important tool. AMP paperless admissions offers software built to suit your specific admissions needs, and their technical analysts can help to advise your admissions office on best practices for non-traditional admissions requirements.

March 10, 2014

Rethinking the Credit Hour

In 2013, the Carnegie Foundation announced plans to reevaluate the United States’ standard of measuring learning – the “credit hour.”

You might be surprised to learn that the credit hour was never intended to measure student learning. Andrew Carnegie invented the credit hour in the early 1900′s as a way to create a pension system for college professors. Under Carnegie’s new credit hour system, professors were considered full time if they taught in the classroom for a minimum of 12 hours per week in a 15 week semester. But a few decades after the credit hour pension system was put into place, colleges swelled with veterans of WWII. Universities needed a method for measuring classroom “seat time” and the credit hour was the most convenient way to track student progress. It soon became the national standard for determining the amount of learning that a student received.

Using a unit that was never intended to measure learning has many drawbacks. First, credit hours aren’t a standard unit to measure competency; they are simply a measure of hours spent in the classroom. There is no way of determining if credits at one school will deliver the equivalent amount of learning as the same course at another school. One college might give a science course a weight of 3 credit hours – but those credits won’t necessarily be accepted by another school. Schools simply don’t trust the credit system beyond their own internal standards because there are no external standards to measure the credit hour. Technically, grades are supposed to be the external standard for measuring competency but grade inflation is widespread, exacerbating the problem. For students who transfer schools, this results in difficulties meeting course requirements and wasted money on credits that don’t transfer.

Another drawback to the credit hour is the recent trend towards online learning. Measuring classroom time seems a little silly when there is no classroom, doesn’t it? But online course offerings have little choice but to measure in credit hours if they want to give their students credit. This has led to abuses of the credit hour system. In November 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a damning report about an obscure online college that offered 3 college credits for 10 days of online classes. Their highly questionable courses were especially attractive for student athletes. “You jump online, finish in a week and a half, get your grade posted, and you’re bowl-eligible,” says one Big Ten academic adviser. Abuses like this further dilute the shaky legitimacy of the credit hour.

Another problem with the credit hour is that it doesn’t take into account independent learning opportunities outside of the Ivory Tower. Employees can gain valuable high-level knowledge while on the job without ever setting foot into a classroom, but there is no way for them to actually measure the level of the skills they have gained. With the democratization of education through non-credit bearing MOOCs, the credit hour falls further into obscurity. The value of MOOCs will no doubt be closely tied with the quality of curriculum, not the number of “classroom” hours arbitrarily attached to courses. It seems that the solution to this problem lies somewhere in creating a standard for competency across many disciplines; a baseline for informing students what they need to know in order to be successful in their chosen field.

With more than 100 years of using the credit hour, changes will be slow to arrive and difficult to implement. Hopefully the Carnegie Foundation will introduce a new method for measuring student learning that can be equated across all schools and learning styles. In the meantime, the credit hour will remain king as the standard for measuring student learning for graduation and for admissions.

Can you imagine a world without the credit hour?

March 4, 2014

Shaking Up the Status Quo of Med School Admissions with Holistic Review

Amidst a looming doctor shortage, the use of holistic review in medical admissions is gaining traction. Holistic review is a an approach to admissions wherein the applicant’s non-cognitive attributes such as personality, empathy, investment in learning, and confidence are reviewed alongside the typical cognitive focused admissions criterion such as test scores, letters of recommendation, and GPA. In taking a step back to look at the applicant as a whole person instead as a set of applicant data, medical schools hope to increase student diversity and engagement, and to ensure the quality and preparedness of future physicians.

Holistic review has been implemented in a handful of medical admissions departments as throughout the country and the Association of American Medical Colleges has shown its’ support by introducing an initiative to explore the topic.  This initiative aims to develop best practices in implementing holistic review in medical schools through inter-institutional collaboration, professional support, and research. For the AAMC, the end goal of holistic review is to ” increase the presence of individuals from underrepresented populations in medicine.”

As defined by the AAMC, holistic review is

“…a flexible, highly-individualized process by which balanced consideration is given to the multiple ways in which applicants may prepare for and demonstrate suitability as medical students and future physicians. Under a holistic review framework, candidates are evaluated by criteria that are institution-specific, broad-based, and mission-driven and that are applied equitably across the entire candidate pool.”

Holistic review offers many benefits for schools that aim to achieve focused changes within their applicant pool. Boston University School of Medicine implemented holistic review in 2003 and later found favorable results in their medical school classes; while standard measures of success (such as test scores and GPA) remained about the same as previous years, they found that diversity increased as well as overall student engagement, both in the classroom and outside.

“The general sense of the faculty, particularly those who teach our small-group problem seminars, is that the students are more collegial, more supportive of one another, more engaged in the curriculum, and more open to new ideas and to perspectives different from their own.” (Witzburgh & Sondheimer)

When considering a jump to holistic review, medical school admissions offices must first carefully evaluate best practices for holistic review, their programs’s mission, and the school’s long term admissions goals. It is important to approach this change with preparedness in mind. AMP paperless admissions is the perfect software tool to handle your new admissions process because their development team recently custom-built a module specifically for a holistic admissions workflow. Very few admissions software companies cater to new trends in admissions, but AMP paperless admissions has always been on the cutting edge of building tools for new admissions processes.

February 25, 2014

MOOCs: The Democratization of Education

On the tip of many tongues in the world of higher education: MOOCs.

You might be wondering: What the heck is a MOOC? Put simply, it is a “Massive Open Online Course,” a class offered via the internet for free and is available to anyone with an internet connection. A small number of courses have a payment option to qualify the student for actual college credit upon completion. However, the goal of MOOCs is not to earn a degree. It is more focused on providing individual course instruction to a large audience.

While the concept of open & universally available higher education has been around for decades, the implementation of online open education began in 2008 with a course on Connectivism instructed by Dave Cormier, which was presented to 25 paying students at the University of Manitoba and 2,300 students online. Ever since the first MOOC, the concept has been adopted by many universities and professors. It has also spawned the creation of fully online MOOC “universities” such as the University of The People and Coursera.

MOOC: Democratization of EducationWhile students in a MOOC have less of an opportunity to interact with their instructor, they are still highly interactive. The courses involve more than simply watching an instructor lecture via video stream; they also include interactive online assignments and the opportunity to connect with fellow students. At Coursera, they are dedicated to improving the interactivity of their educational platform. According to Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, “We have devoted extensive attention to assessment and feedback. We believe that exercises where students receive meaningful feedback are a critical part of the learning experience. If you don’t get feedback, you may not complete the work or learn the material properly.”

With some speculate that MOOCs foretell the death of higher education, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Tom Katsouleas,  Dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering predicts that they will have the opposite effect and will spur schools to improve their reputations by offering high-quality free courses from talented teachers, thereby increasing recognition and attracting students to their degree programs. Additionally, MOOCs aren’t cannibalizing the demand for undergraduate education because they tend to attract working professionals. With that in mind, he speculates that Master’s programs will be the first to feel the pinch from MOOCs. Says Katsouleas, “In our visits to corporate partners like Apple and Cisco, it was clear that most top engineers and executives are using MOOCs for their lifelong learning in a way that some used to use corporate sponsored masters programs.” Of course, a MOOC education could never replace the prestige and pay raise that often comes with a Masters degree.

And although MOOCs are relatively new to the tech world, their popularity is massive. Since launching in January, Coursera has attracted 1.7 million users. Increasingly, top-tier schools are jumping on the bandwagon and offering select courses for free online (but not for credit). This includes Harvard, Yale, MIT, and more – and where the elite universities go, many will follow. With this educational medium still in its’ infancy, we will be watching the evolution of MOOCs closely in the coming years.

Has your school considered offering a MOOC to the public?