Pilot Program Forces Discussion of Online Learning, MOOCs, Student Retention, and the Future of Higher Education

Earlier this week, the California State University System (CSU) announced an online pilot program with Udacity, a for-profit provider of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  Udacity will provide a remedial algebra course, a college level algebra course, and a statistics course as part of the pilot that will initially be limited to 300 students at San Jose State University and several local community colleges.  The cost of each course will be $150.  Udacity will provide mentors to the students to answer their questions and encourage them to complete the assignments and stay enrolled in class.  San Jose State is receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effectiveness of the online classes.

Shortly after the announcement, Techcrunch published a blog article by Greg Ferenstein.  Ferenstein claims that this move “spells the end of higher education as we know it.”  He reasons that lower level courses are the financial backbones of part-time faculty and departments, particularly the humanities, and automating the courses and offering them for $150 each will reduce the margins for the department as well as the livelihoods of many part-time faculty.

Berenstein confidently states that college courses can be automated and “computers can successfully replace teachers.”  Based on this premise, he predicts the following to occur as a result of programs like the one between CSU and Udacity:

  1. The pilot will succeed and expand to more universities and classes.
  2. Part-time faculty will get laid off, more community colleges will be shuttered, extracurricular college services will be closed, and humanities and arts departments will be dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?).
  3. Graduate programs will dry up once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes.
  4. Competency-based measures will begin to find that online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems will offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses.
  5. A few Ivy League universities will begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates.  In the near future, learning on a college campus will return to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty.

The key to the outcome of Ferenstein’s prediction is the first item – the pilot succeeds.  While it’s a little to soon to predict whether it will succeed or not, if 50 percent of all entering students at San Jose State or California community colleges drop out because they cannot pass remedial and college math, the success of this program would theoretically keep those students enrolled versus dropping out.  If that happens, finding a successful way to allow students to learn college algebra, statistics, and other lower division level classes will increase demand for instructors and professors at the upper division level.

While MOOCs are receiving a lot of buzz these days, The New York Timesarticle describing the pilot quotes Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, as stating “I am personally troubled by the 90 percent drop out rate [of MOOCs].”  The student mentors in the Udacity/CSU pilot will hopefully reduce the dropout rate.  The “Ivy League/elite” content of Udacity’s MOOCs could possibly direct more colleges and universities to standardize content of lower division courses, but research indicates that student persistence is much more complicated than improving the content of a few courses.  Engagement with faculty, social interaction with fellow students, finances, background characteristics of students, and other factors influence student retention.  Adult students’ attendance and success may be influenced by additional factors such as job/career, family, or other life factors.  Online classes make student swirling (attending one or more institutions sequentially or at the same time) easier.

Clayton Christensen and his co-authors posit in their book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, that usage of online courses will increase at the high school level because of their ability to be designed to accommodate multiple learning modes versus traditional textbooks that are written by successful academics who are likely to have a similar learning style to other successful academics.  If the MOOCs offered by Udacity and others include an automated ability to determine where a student is weak in learning and how to convey the material in a mode that correlates most closely with that student’s learning style, then outcomes should improve.  However, engagement with students will require more than an automated pop-up message.  Clearly that’s why this Udacity/CSU pilot includes student mentors.

I think it’s a little too soon to call this pilot a tipping point.  MOOCs are the buzz, but their 90 percent drop out rates are a concern.  Incidents of plagiarism have become a concern, but most of the MOOCs are now offering fee-based proctored exams for students who want to earn a certificate of completion that may transfer for academic credit.  Robo-grading and peer grading are techniques that are evolving and which I believe are problems that technology is capable of solving. The course grade is currently the only indicator of successful student learning.  I believe that evaluative assessments of learning, particularly for remedial courses in math and English (note that English is not included in this pilot), will require more than a 300 student pilot.

Best practices in learning outcomes require evaluations not just from individual courses but from sequences of courses and final program outcomes.  This initial pilot is oriented toward entry level college algebra which, based on current enrollment patterns, could benefit the 22 percent of students who choose business degrees.  Writing and reading impacts all college students, however, and so the real game changer will be a successful pilot implementation in remedial English and Introductory English.  If the California State University System can succeed with that, more students should be able to complete college.  Initially, the instructors released through automation and scale initiatives should be able to teach other classes that will be overloaded due to the additional throughput.

While I may take exception to some of the specific directions outlined by Gregory Ferenstein, I agree with the last sentence of his blog posting:  “Either way, change is coming.”  When multiple online educators develop and embrace collaborative technology, it has the potential to improve remediation, adapt for learning styles, and increase our college graduates.  We will still need to improve engagement in online courses and programs as well as find unique ways to assist adult students to complete work despite life’s other obstacles.

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