Studying the Long-Term Effects of Online Education

July 2nd, 2013 by

 


Online learning has grown into an integral element of higher education. No longer an experimental novelty practiced by a handful of tech-loving pioneers, digital classrooms have enjoyed a steady surge in popularity for their low cost and ease of access. But you can’t change the way people approach learning without permanently impacting a few things along the way. Recent studies offer plenty of insight when it comes to better understanding how online and blended courses influence the students enrolled in them. And current trends and undertakings might reveal some of the possible hamstrings they might encounter — and, thankfully, some of their possible solutions.

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AS IT STANDS NOW

According to the Sloan Consortium, more than 6.7 million American college students are currently enrolled in at least one online course. This follows a steady increase from previous years, and educators these days generally look upon blended or wholly Internet-based classes favorably. Seventy-seven percent reported that they believe that the learning outcomes for such courses met or exceeded those of the traditional in-person options. And when it comes to administrators, 69.1% say online education is a major component of their future plans.

The U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 evaluation of online learning unearthed compelling reasons to keep providing digital classrooms. Like the Sloan Consortium after it, the organization noted that students from online classes display the same amount of competence as their counterparts; however, they did not see the same examples of them performing above the stated objectives. Individuals enrolled in blended courses merging online and face-to-face educational strategies yielded the highest results of all. These findings provide schools with more evidence towards greater on-campus tech integration.

Because online education has proven itself a viable alternative — if not outright replacement in some instances — to brick-and-mortar institutions, it is now available for military personnel and their qualified dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Even if they enroll in Internet-based degree programs, they receive a living stipend, just like their equivalents in more traditional classrooms. Most online education options have by and large proven themselves well worth the investment.

The COST of Going to Class

And with tuition at more traditional colleges and universities increasing, online schooling might very well supplant face-to-face in the coming years. College Board findings noted that the published tuition and fees for public, four-year schools “increased by 31% beyond the rate of inflation over the five years from 2002-03 to 2007-08, and by another 27% between 2007-08 and 2012-13.”

If these numbers continue to rise, the comparatively low cost of online courses and programs might force more and more students toward them. Education experts, investors, and innovators agree. Brick-and-mortar schools cannot survive unless they become more affordable.

As The New York Times noted in 2008, gas prices also impact the decision regarding which type of classroom students opt to enter — digital or face-to-face. The same sentiment holds true now, when the national average hovers around $3.776 per gallon. So many economic factors influence the sustainability of online education, all of them currently favoring its status as a permanent option.

Size Really Does Matter

Although they’ve been around since 2008, it wasn’t until 2012 that massive open online courses (MOOCs) hit the mainstream. Although these classes, with enrollment in the hundreds or thousands, have made education more accessible for many students, they aren’t without their downsides. The Sloan Consortium study discovered that despite all the press and positivity levied towards MOOCs, most professors and academics remain skeptical regarding their efficacy.

And these concerns are not unfounded. While online classes’ more “traditional” form typically engages and educates on par with face-to-face learning, MOOCs still need some maintenance to meet these standards. Ten percent of students (or fewer) enrolled in these courses complete them, with 20% held up as a victory. Only 9.4% of American schools plan to incorporate MOOCs into the curriculum, and just 2.6% have them already. It’ll take some tweaking and following through on these promises of democratizing the learning process before more colleges and universities embrace the relatively new approach.

The Physical Tolls of Online Learning

Because the structure of online courses places learners behind a computer or smartphone screen all day, concerns unique to them arise — and require addressing. Research may prove that pursuing an Internet-based class or degree plan undeniably proves a fine academic undertaking. But that doesn’t mean that potential issues should go ignored.

Face-to-face interaction is a necessity in social education, and even advocates of online lessons believe the best programs need to account for this discrepancy. Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together analyzes how the rapid influx of technology has dramatically altered human communication. Digital spaces provide more conduits for connecting with others than ever before in history, but the MIT professor noted how they also promote more instances of loneliness and inauthenticity.

Mental health isn’t the only concern: optometrists worry about the physiological side effects of spending too much time on a computer. An estimated 50% to 90% of individuals behind the screen suffer from some degree of eye strain as a direct result of their technology usage. For the ones with astigmatism and other visual impairments, this means even further damage over time. Computer Vision Syndrome could escalate and compromise ocular health if online education entirely overtakes the traditional campus. At the present moment, all enrollees can do is adjust their screen settings and take regular breaks to give their eyes a rest.

How Things Can Get Better

“Learning needs to become more open, mobile, social, and analytical because today’s students — active learners — demand it,” says Stacey Fontenot, Vice President of Product Marketing, Academic Platforms at Blackboard. Just because there are concerns regarding online education doesn’t mean it needs to disappear altogether, especially since most of the concerns have fixes in place or currently being developed.

“Engagement with the learning should always be the primary focus (after the content itself), and that means dynamic, participatory experiences,” she continues. “The question isn’t whether education tools are physical or digital, but rather which tools are interactive and which ones are static. Digital is not a requirement, but adaptive and flexible are … The new education experience will be more consistent with what teachers and learners have come to expect from current technology.”

MOOCs are only about five years old, which means educators are still looking for comparatively solid strategies. It stands to reason that more schools will warm to the idea of online courses for hundreds of students once the pioneers discern how to approach the inherent problems; some of the solutions will come simply from trial and error. In November 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated more than $13 million toward 12 grants experimenting with the MOOC format. Nine of these went to colleges such as Georgia Institute of Technology (which partners with provider Coursera) and University of Wisconsin (whichpartners with Desire2Learn). All of these schools and their associates plan to develop MOOCs in subjects like English and math, tracking the positives and negatives along the way.

Even beyond the generous Gates Foundation gifts, other progress in the MOOC sector might reveal the tactics necessary to keep them for phasing out into just another higher education fad. The MOOC2Degree initiative offers free, professionally developed courses that participating institutions accept for credit. Major MOOC provider Udacitynow proctors final exams for its Intro to Computer Science course, thanks to its relationship with Pearson. University of Colorado accepts transfer credit for select Udacity courses. All of these pushes might hopefully uncover a valid solution for the retention issues currently inspiring skepticism and apathy. Improving MOOCs could very well lead to spreading the perks of online classrooms to even more students.

Another way to increase MOOCs’ sustainability might involve incorporating more social media, blogs, and wikis. Pearson studies noted that 33.8% of higher education professionals now include at least one of these tools in their curricula. Although wikis and blogs remain the most popular media, all the aforementioned digital resources increase student engagement and knowledge retention. Both of these benefits might promote MOOCs as an attractive option in due time.

Collaborative textbooks, sometimes in wiki format, open up even more possibilities for greater learning opportunities. These not only make education more accessible through teamwork, but they often lower the cost of required reading materials as well — if they don’t eliminate them altogether. One of the most show-stopping examples of an effective multimedia textbook is Smarthistory. Run by Khan Academy, professional art historians and other approved contributors lend their knowledge, photos, and more to cover the entirety of humanity’s creative achievements in the visual arts. For free. The Dynamic Textbook Project, presented by University of California, Davis, provides an ever-changing online academic environment where allowed participants promote the STEM fields. Visitors receive a comprehensive look at chemistry, biology, physics, geology, and more at no cost. Visitors who truly love these industries and have something to offer are encouraged to contribute to the overarching body of work.

Blackboard also embraces the push toward group efforts with its upcoming xpLor initiative. Teachers upload course materials, and their contemporaries or students (or both) alter them as they see fit. Everyone enjoys a chance to contribute their own creativity and perspectives in a dynamic environment, rather than merely downloading an assignment and working straight from the instructions. Built-in copyrighting and Creative Commons tools allow educators to share work for others to alter without worrying about plagiarism. “Versioning” help them keep track of changes without requiring loads of documents. The xpLor initiative launches in summer 2013.

The socialization might bother some parents and educators, but they don’t need to worry. K12 Inc.’s 2009 study on the subject, which focused on the comparatively more vulnerable kindergarten through high school demographics rather than higher ed, proved that students enrolled in full-time online courses boasted social skills at or exceeding their mainstream classroom counterparts. Just because their classes take place on the Internet does not mean they completely disconnect from kids their own age. While they foster many of their communication and collaboration skills online, they do participate in field trips and extracurricular activities for face time.

At the college level, Meetup.com groups based around online courses are available for study groups, field trips, and general hangouts. Students hoping to collaborate face to face take advantage of the site (Facebook as well) to organize a wide variety of events, so they never have to fret over slipping into antisocialism. MOOC leader Udacity tackled the problem with its laudable Udacity Meetup efforts. More than 3,000 students in nearly 500 cities participate in the offline communities to share their love of collaborative learning beyond the digital walls.

In the long term, online education seems destined to keep traveling a positive path. Some aspects, particularly when it comes to guarding against vision loss and building sustainable MOOCs, still require some adjustment. But more studies and more experiments will hopefully unveil more solutions. For now, though, the overall student and professor reports illustrate how things are and will probably continue to be largely fine in the online learning classroom.

Impact of MOOC’s on College & University Administration

June 18th, 2013 by

Students at computer 2
Hardly a day goes by without reading an article about some aspect of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the potential for this educational paradigm to transform higher education. Some of the information is positive. Other articles stress the negatives associated with this new delivery model.  Several authorities write about the disruptive nature of MOOCs, the need for a new business model to replace the current one, and the inevitability of some combination of online and classroom instruction in the future.  Other authorities voice objections based on fear of change.

There are some facts that few can dispute:

All of us, including students in the earliest stages of their education, are connected most of the time.  We live in a 24/7 world. Young people, beginning in elementary school, have begun to relate to “devices” easier than to books or lecture-style instruction.  Those are the students who will be sitting in college and university classrooms in the future.

The current business model of many schools around the world is to increase tuition annually, ramp up fundraising activities and send representatives around the world in search of full paying students.  Most chief financial officers would agree that this is not a sustainable way to operate an educational enterprise.  Most families would agree that student debt is a problem.

Despite valiant efforts, graduation rates remain stubbornly stuck at around 51% in the U.S.  Colleges and universities spend a great deal of money admitting and enrolling students and graduating far fewer than admitted.  Most enrollment and retention managers would agree that this is not a recipe for enrollment or retention success.

The academic year is, at many institutions of higher learning, based on a fall and spring semester.  This translates into students essentially attending class half a year. Buildings remain vacant for the rest of the time and potential revenue is lost.

Current MOOCs facts

What is written today on this subject will soon change, perhaps be outdated by the end of the week.  But the following are some of the facts we know about MOOCs in March, 2013:

Approximately 2.6% of colleges and universities currently offer a MOOC and about 10% are considering offering a MOOC in the future.

The majority of academics believe that the learning outcomes in online education is the same or better than classroom instruction.

The majority of academic leaders and financial administrators believe that online learning is essential if their school is to survive in the future.

It is impossible to give the number of students who have enrolled in a MOOC, completed the course, and were granted a certificate of completion.  The number changes daily.  Coursera statistics alone indicate that more than 2 million students from more than 200 countries and 1,400 cities have signed up for courses.  It is also foolish to produce the names of participating institutions.  The list changes daily.

The American Council on Education has initiated awarding transfer credit for five MOOCs offered by Coursera. Worldwide, there are several schools planning to accept MOOCs for transfer credit.

While there are many articles and debates about the potential academic implications of MOOCs, there is little discussion of how MOOCs will change current higher education administrative structures and the college and university staff who manage enrollment, admissions, including international admissions, retention and career counseling.  That is the focus of this article.

Enrollment  Management

Many enrollment managers are tasked with meeting enrollment goals based on their school’s financial needs.  This has become, in recent years, more and more difficult, especially at private, high priced schools, with little or no brand name recognition.  Teams of admission counselors are assigned “territories” and the ROI (Return on Investment) is carefully evaluated.  But what are these administrators “selling” and how are they reaching their target audiences?  Are admission counselors informed of the potential changes that online courses and MOOCs could bring to the way they market their schools?

In most schools admission counselors can only “sell” two semesters.  How much more powerful is the college or university admission counselors’ presentation if they can offer students the option of taking classes in three semesters or taking an online or MOOC class in addition to regularly scheduled classes?  How would this new paradigm change the strategic marketing plans of enrollment managers and directors of admission?  How will this change the way articulation agreements are crafted and college and university partnerships drafted?

International Recrutment

MOOCs are likely to change the way international students are recruited. The National University of Mongolia recently announced that will award ten students credit for the edX course they completed on circuits.  Coursera will be offering courses in French, Chinese, Italian and Spanish.  Those course offerings will open up millions of potential online students in Europe, Asia and Africa.  Coursera’s current enrollment is 34% from the United States and 66% from other countries.

International students, who for a variety of reasons, cannot travel abroad to take classes, will have the opportunity to study and learn while at home and in the company of students from all over of the world. Offering transferable MOOCs to an international audience has the potential to grow the international piece of a school’s overall enrollment goals.

How will the acceptance of MOOCS affect the international strategic plans and current recruitment practices of colleges and universities? Will this herald the beginning of fewer on-site international visits and more digital, social media outreach marketing?

Retention

Several colleges and universities worldwide have agreed to accept MOOCs for transfer credit.  And the American College on Education has designated five Coursera courses appropriate for transfer credit.  ACE course recommendations could potentially mean that the approved courses could be accepted for transfer credit in up to 2,000 schools.   The Gates Foundation has granted funding to ACE to assess how online courses could be used to improve college access and completion.  California is investigating how MOOCs could help the nearly 400,000 California residents waiting to enroll in college.

Does online education have the potential of increasing progression to the second year and increasing graduation rates?  How will MOOCs affect the role of academic advising and the methods retention managers use to keep more of their students in their schools?  What will an academic transcript look like in the future?  Do MOOCs have the potential to influence who awards credit and how many credits are needed for graduation?

Career Counseling

Governments and policy makers around the world clamor for the need for skilled workers.  Employers complain that college graduates do not have the technical skills needed for today’s workforce. Is it possible that one day employers may come to recognize MOOCs as an alternative credential to the traditional three or four year degree?  Will employers scan college transcripts looking for courses relevant to their workforce needs?

Coursera has an employee matching service, called Coursera Career Services.  Facebook and Twitter, among other high-profile companies, have signed up.  Udacity, another MOOC provider, has a similar service.  Job placement is part of Udacity’s package.  Some of its courses are designed with input from Google and Microsoft.

How many career counselors are preparing for the opportunity to market accepted MOOCs to potential employers?  Do student career counseling sessions include information on how an online course could positively impact future employment?  MOOCs have the potential to dramatically change the current functions of the “traditional” career counseling office and elevate its functions in the higher administration hierarchy.

Conclusion

The jury is still out on the future of online education in general and MOOCs in particular.  If successful, MOOCS have the potential to change the current business model in many colleges and universities, lower the cost of a college education, increase graduation rates, and enhance a graduate’s chances for securing a suitable job after graduation. In essence, there is the potential to change the way higher education is delivered.  The new model unbundles learning from credentialing and focuses not on how many students are rejected for admission but how many complete an online course. MOOCs have the potential ability to unite students worldwide and make college courses affordable to students in remote parts of the world.

The line between online learning and classroom instruction is blurring, making the development of new administrative structures necessary.  Enrollment managers, admission counselors, retention managers, academic advisors, registrars and career counselors will need to develop a new skill set to match the changing higher education landscape. Integrating administrative functions with the academic changes MOOCs would create, needs to take place if online courses and hybrid programs, are to succeed.

College and university administrators should get ahead of the potential disruption and begin to consider how to best accommodate students now and in the future. The time has come for administrators, not only academics, to consider the impact of MOOCs on the future of higher education.

Marguerite J. Dennis has been a higher education administrator for more than 30 years, first at St. John’s University, then at Georgetown University and finally at Suffolk University.  She is currently a private higher education consultant.

 

More Information on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

May 7th, 2013 by

Students at computer 2There is a wonderful quote attributed to Sam Goldwyn:

“Never make forecasts, especially about the future.”

Hardly a day goes by without reading some new information about the potential impact of MOOCs on higher education.  In colleges and universities around the United States and around the world, conversations and debates, pro and con some integration of MOOCs with traditional classroom instruction, take place daily. (more…)

Vietnam

March 12th, 2013 by

Why Vietnam? 

A recent World Education Services (WES) report identified Vietnam as one of four emerging markets for international student recruitment, along with including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
(more…)

A Tale of Two Enrollment Mangers

February 26th, 2013 by

This is a tale of two enrollment managers who received the following memo form their president:
Dear Enrollment Manager,

Enrollment projections for next year are not good.  I anticipate a revenue shortfall as a result of fewer first year students enrolling and fewer students progressing to the second year.

I know that international higher education is a big “business.”  I read a report issued by the World Bank citing that students studying outside their home countries is a 400 billion dollar enterprise.  International students contributed $21 billion to the U.S. economy in 2011 and by 2025 the global demand for seats in higher education is projected to reach 200 million students. (more…)