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What to Make of All the Rapid Innovations in Higher Education?

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I was a panel participant at a conference last Thursday in Washington, DC.  The conference was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and was called Stretching the Higher Education Dollar.  The five panels that were convened included:  The Case for Reform, Opportunities and Obstacles at Existing Institutions, Unbundling College Degrees in Theory and Practice, College in Pieces: Cost Effective Approaches to Student Services and Credentialing, and Implications for State and Federal Policy.  Videos of the discussions are available at the previous link and papers written by some of the panelists on the topics will be available as well.

While any of the panel discussions would make for an interesting article, the conversation of participants and the audience at the breaks was just as  interesting.   Most of those conversations evolved around topics like online education, online courses, and credentialing for the free online courses.  Naturally, all of these topics were included in some, if not all, of the panels, but the “buzz” among attendees was more along the lines of “how do you intend to deal with the issue of offering credits for students who complete these free courses?” (courses from Coursera and EdX were cited the most) and “do you think either of these entities [Coursera or EdX] offering free courses will ever offer a degree?”

When asked, my answer was “I don’t know yet.”  At the same time, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about these new innovations.  Coursera is offering free courses in the form of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  Most of the universities providing the courses are among the world’s elite institutions.  Participating so far are Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Duke University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, University of Toronto, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, California Institute of Technology, University of Washington, University of California at San Francisco, University of Edinburgh, University of Virginia, and Georgia Institute of Technology.  EdX offers free courses from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley.  These courses appear to be very well designed.  I encourage anyone interested to look at the course offerings at both sites.

When Harvard’s and MIT’s presidents discussed the EdX venture, they mentioned that the courses would provide them with insights into the way that people learn.  A recent TED talk titled, “What We’re Learning From Online Education,” by Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, provides several interesting examples of the ways in which a course can be modified for personalized learning styles and interests.  Koller also discusses ways in which the professor can learn how to improve the course design based on students’ answers to questions in quizzes and exams.  I particularly liked the example whereby 3,000 students in the Machine Engineering class of 100,000 answered with the exact same wrong answer.  As Koller stated, a professor can take the time to improve the explanation of the concept when presented with data like that.  So far, the leaders of the Coursera and EdX projects have stated that the business models for their free courses are evolving.  Two things are likely in my opinion: 1) they will continue to offer these courses for free although they may charge for grading in the event that some students would like a certificate of completion and a grade, and 2) they will not offer degrees from any of the participating institutions since these free courses would cannibalize their existing pricing. 

The tougher question to answer is “will institutions accept certificates from students for the completion of these courses as appropriate credit for transfer?”  I think the answer is yes.  Among the questions with unknown answers are:  1) how many institutions will accept credit for transfer for these courses?, 2) will there be other conditions placed on a student before the completion certificate will be accepted for transfer (i.e., competency exam score above X%)?, and 3) will there be a cap on the amount of credits from this type of course that an institution(s) will accept for transfer?  There will be yes, no, and maybe answers to these questions and I’m sure it will vary by institution.

Another more difficult question to answer will be how to critique and improve a course for different types and educational levels of learners.  Published dropout rates in these courses have been high but that is to be expected with adult learners, particularly those who are not seeking a degree or who have not made a financial commitment to the course.  Nonetheless, as the landscape changes and other institutions offer credit for course completers,  individuals with different intellectual skills and abilities to learn may enroll.  Additionally, many of these early course offerings are very technical because of the perceived difficulty of teaching large scale humanities courses online.  Nonetheless, the potential for course designers at these institutions or others to provide remedial education in college level math, reading, and writing is something that could be a game changer for many students in the United States and elsewhere as well as for the institutions that serve them.

Though many questions remain to be answered, most agree that the rise of MOOCs and the advent of online education in general have upended the traditionally-held image of higher education.  Online education has attracted the non-traditional student for the last  decade at least.  MOOCs are  receiving enrollments from these non-traditional students but thanks to the “free” price tag put on MOOCs, they are attracting not only non-traditional students but also students who may otherwise have no opportunities at higher education as well as non-students who simply have an interest to learn about the topic.  Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng was quoted in a recent article as saying, “’If a poor kid in India cannot take the class, I think that would just be a tragedy.  If a place like Princeton could teach millions of students, I think the world would be a better place.’” 

The non-traditional, perhaps money-strapped student is not the only one who will benefit from the rising popularity of MOOCs.  Professors are able to gain significant and voluminous insight into their methodologies and course content through MOOCs.  For example, in a MOOC with 10,000 students, if 5,000 get the same quiz question wrong, the professor will know that the topic related to that particular question should be examined either in a new way or in greater depth.  Professors may also find that the advent of MOOCs actually frees up much of their time from administrative work to more direct and valuable contacts with students and research.  There may also be great benefits for colleges and universities struggling to meet their economic bottom lines; moving courses online (whether in the “traditional” class form or via MOOCs) lessens the expenses associated with physical space.  Regardless of perspective, there seems to be little doubt that  the way that we pursue and disseminate higher education will continue to change and that MOOCs may accelerate that pace.  The naysayers who refuse to see the changes to education coming through  MOOCs and online platforms will do so at their own peril.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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