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Could We Please, Finally, Move Forward? Reinventing the Wheel in Digital Higher Ed Research

I keep hearing that the pace of change is picking up in digital higher education in 2017; that higher education is in a period of “transformation”.  And yet . . . as if to splash cold water on such happy thoughts, this morning I read a short article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (source) which suggests otherwise.

The National Tertiary Education Union in Australia just released a report that, according to one of the authors, “explodes the myth” that it takes less time to prepare and teach an online course than on-campus courses. (Report: study)

Okaaaay.

As the report suggests, it is important that we have a sense of how much time is devoted to different roles and responsibilities within the institution. But it has been long known that online courses take longer to prepare than classroom versions. Did the authors not do any secondary research? Frankly, they could have simply walked down the hall and asked one of the staff that specialize in online education. We’ve known this for at least fifteen years. How could a major survey like this be funded, involve the participation of multiple academics from different institutions, and yet fail to know that there is little debate about the question they seek to answer.

More troubling, though, is that there are still people working in this field that doesn’t recognize that a well designed and resource-rich online course should take much longer to build if we take our jobs as educators seriously. Much longer. Moreover, most courses shouldn’t be built by a single faculty member – which this report and many others assume. Individual faculty don’t have the range of skills required, the time to devote to the process, ample professional incentives, or funds. As a result, most courses that rely on in-house content development rely on repurposed classroom materials. This approach ensures that the course falls short of realizing the full potential of the online environment.

The Australian study isn’t an isolated incident. Have you attended a conference focused on digital higher education in the last year? I am consistently stunned by presentations by well-intentioned professionals who, one after another, ask and answer questions that were raised fifteen years ago by other professionals – sometimes at the very same conference. By and large, I’ve stopped attending conferences. Sure, they can be useful for setting up multiple meetings, but I’m not hearing much of anything new. Are you?

 

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Betty Crocker cake mixes.

Edtech’s Betty Crocker Moment

Betty Crocker introduced its cake mixes in the 1950s. The mixes made the process of baking cakes less prone to failure. Faster too. For many, especially over-burdened women working at home, this was a huge leap forward.

But the cake mixes didn’t sell especially well. So, using market research and input from psychologists, the decision was made to design the baking process so that the customer would be required to add an egg or two to the recipe. Sales took off. Today, few people bake a cake “from scratch.”

At its core, this anecdote speaks to the need to design technologies with a deep understanding of the context in which it will be used. Big increases in value depend on it.

More Ambitious Educational Software

Edtech is going through its’ own Betty Crocker moment. For us, it’s a shift from instructionally agnostic software to instructionally intelligent software, and from incremental to substantial gains in efficiency.

Consider the LMS our starting point; it’s the environment in which the vast majority of online courses are built. The LMS is a relatively straightforward product. It is designed for use by lone instructors with little to no knowledge of programming, graphic design and, too often, instructional principles. It places (again, by design) no restrictions on what the end-user does with it. It’s an empty vessel to be filled. This aligns the product with traditions of faculty autonomy while also maximising the size of the market for the vendors.

Now, though, things are getting more interesting – but also more complex. There’s a growing recognition that LMS-based courses are inherently limited. There’s only so much a lone instructor can accomplish, given their limited skills, time, and funds. And, we want to start to take fuller advantage of software. We want to use software for what it does best – extend our human capacities; so we can do more given our available resources. Adaptive software, for example, personalises learning to serve each student’s unique needs. Applications that enable automated feedback ensure that students get immediate feedback on their efforts – not once they have moved on to other topics and challenges. In each case, the software captures and embodies our best understanding of what constitutes an effective learning experience, and puts this knowledge to use in a cost-effective way.

A New Mix

Like the LMS, these relatively new, more ambitious educational technologies need to be built so as to fit neatly into higher education. They need to align with the talent mix, budgets, timelines, and other organisational factors.

This was relatively easy with the LMS. We knew “who would be doing what, when and how” because it was (and remains at most schools) based on the classroom model of education: one course, one instructor, limited resources.

But these new types of applications don’t have a ready-made organisational scenario with which to work. We don’t know, for example, how many people will be working on these courses; one, two, ten?. Will they be using all of their own content, or are they planning to lean heavily on publisher content, as some of the faster growing online institutions do now? What level of skills should we assume for the course developers in the client institutions? Do we need to train them? How much time are they willing to put into the course development process?

Whatever scenario we concoct, it’s likely to change quickly. And the division of roles and responsibilities are dynamic: as one changes, so will the others. As faculty roles change, so must the technology. As instructional staff take on larger roles, new instructional strategies become possible, and so on.

This is an important moment in digital higher education. We’re seeking to add far more value; to increase what institutions can achieve in the online environment. We hope to finally bend that iron triangle of cost, quality and access. But moving beyond relatively simple, agnostic software can’t be achieved in isolation; we can’t simply toss the software “over the wall” to our client institutions and hope that it works. Like the good people at Betty Crocker, we need to craft these software applications with a good understanding of the people and the organisations that will ultimately put them to use.

 

Keith Hampson, Ph.D. is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximising value. 

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Production Value in Online Higher Education

In 2012, during a rare moment of clarity, I wondered aloud about the possible impact on the institutional reputation of academics choosing to post their instructional materials online, including lecture videos, for all the world to see. While the efforts by MIT (starting in 2001) and others in the “Open Movement” served as strong social statements about the importance of access to education – if not education, then educational content –  they also put the university on display to an unprecedented degree. University brass was not typically aware of these OER practices, despite its potential significance.

Soon after, MOOCs (a la Coursera and Udacity) arrived and took the potential impact of freely distributed instructional content on reputation to a whole new level, quickly establishing these online courses as a very public platform for inter-institutional competition. As anticipated, the investment in MOOCs by universities climbed quickly, some reaching the $400,000 mark – roughly 2000 percent more than your typical online course. Production value leapt; lighting and sound quality improved, and lectures were no longer freestyle.

Taking Course Design Seriously

We can interpret the rise in production value of MOOCs as a sign of what’s to come for all of online higher education, or as merely an aberration – a by-product of the one-upmanship that characterised the response by elite institutions to the onset of MOOC-mania. I would argue that it’s the former – for two reasons.

First, higher production value and, more generally, a thoughtful, deliberate, and rigorous approach to course design, remains an untapped opportunity in higher education. Most institutions continue to approach online course design as they have classroom education: the responsibility for course design and development falls largely on the shoulders of lone instructors with limited time, insufficient resources and incentives. Budgets are painfully small. Consequently, most institutions have been unable to truly leverage the possibilities of the medium. Too many courses still rely on repurposed static classroom materials and an incoherent pastiche of free content pulled from a variety of sources.

But this won’t last. Enough institutions are beginning to recognise the limitations of what now constitutes the “traditional online course” and are beginning to take course design more seriously – improved production value is part and parcel of this change. Better course designs that incorporate real-time feedback, learning analytics, instructional games and other techniques will generate better outcomes, improve retention and from a purely market perspective, enable the to create a meaningful difference in increasingly competitive, but homogeneous market of learning opportunities.

From Providing Access to Knowledge to Designing Learning

The inevitability of higher production value also stems from long-term changes in access to instructional materials.

The ability of individuals to learn when and how they want independently of educational institutions continues to grow. Resources for learning outside of universities are increasingly easy to find, curate, and of better quality. In light of this broad trend, the institution of higher education will necessarily need to place greater emphasis on its capacity to design and deliver high-quality learning experiences. The historical emphasis on serving as knowledge creators will need to be complemented by an equal commitment toward providing the highest and most productive form of learning, as well.

Changes to access to instructional experiences and materials have been migrating away from single institutions since the first printing press, of course, but the growth of the Internet has sent it into overdrive. The trend is not restricted to education. Family physicians, for instance, have had to become accustomed during the past decade to patients arriving for their appointments with medical information in-hand, detailing possible medical interventions – pulled free from the Internet. Growing consciousness of these changes is one of the factors behind the now common “is college worth it” debate currently making the rounds in North America.

Son of MOOC. Or Lynda.com Meets People Magazine

Masterclass is a VC-backed start-up in (surprise) San Francisco that offers short online courses on popular topics like acting, photography, and creative writing. (Apparently, there’s a shortage of qualified actors, photographers and creative writers.) Each course costs $90 USD and includes video, interactive assignments and social learning opportunities – both online and face-to-face.

While Masterclass seems far removed from the concerns of higher education, its’ similarities to MOOCs offers us a unique vantage point for thinking through changes in production value as well as how instructional resources are typically evaluated.

Production Value +

The first and most obvious similarity is the emphasis on production value, which Masterclass takes to a whole new level. The current crop of Masterclass courses are directed by professional film-makers: Jay Roach (“Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents”) and two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian, Bill Guttentag. The course materials are predictably beautiful.

Screenshot 2015-07-29 18.11.18

Privileging the Source in Lieu of Evidence of Learning

The second and less obvious similarity is the way in which both MOOCs and Masterclass rely on the status of the source of instruction to define the perception of instructional value.

The affiliation with elite institutions is fundamental to the appeal and newsworthiness of MOOCs, as was the choice to present these courses as more or less equivalent to the “real courses” taught within the institution (minus tuition). News services and pundits took notice because MOOCs appeared to offer a desirable, expensive, and scarce resource for free – “Elite Education for the Masses“, Washington Post, 2012. Had these MOOCs come from, for example, a consortium of community colleges in South Dakota, or not been understood as consistent with the actual courses taught at these institutions, they would have generated far less attention.

Likewise, Masterclass leverages the brand names of its instructors – in this case, celebrities from the world of film, sports, and the arts. The first crop of Masterclass courses is taught by Dustin Hoffman (actor), Serena Williams (tennis pro), James Patterson (author), and Annie Liebowitz (photographer).  (While it’s highly unlikely that the celebrities had anything to do with the design of the instruction, this is how the courses are marketed.)

In both MOOCs and Masterclass, then, the value of the courses is based to a considerable degree on the source of the instruction. And in presenting themselves in this fashion, these two examples inadvertently underline the unsophisticated way in which instructional quality is commonly evaluated in and outside of higher education. MOOCs were received well because of the status of the institutions with which they were affiliated. But this status is not typically the result of instructional quality, but exclusivity (admissions and tuition levels) and the research productivity of the faculty. These institutions enrol the most academically gifted students and, as Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has noted, his home institution spends far less on improving instruction each year than does the University of Phoenix. Similarly, the status of celebrities leading the Masterclass courses is not the result of their success as educators or coaches. They are practitioners and each one studies under leading coaches, trainers and educators.

In each of these two examples, consumers are making evaluations of instructional quality on the basis of factors only indirectly related to instructional quality. This isn’t because consumers of education are daft, rather, it’s because, in the absence of easy access to relevant information about instructional value, we tend to turn to proxies of quality to guide our decisions, what Lloyd Armstrong, Provost Emeritus at USC described as “surrogates of quality“.

Consumers need to become more adept at identifying instructional value. But this will require institutions to learn how to measure the impact of different instructional strategies on learning outcomes and to use this information to guide the development of better strategies. Yes, educational quality is harder to measure than most, but not impossible, particularly in the online environment. Intelligently designed learning analytics, for example, can now provide us with accurate and relevant information to enable better assessments of true quality in learning.

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Photograph by Samuel Zeller of a train on a snowy train

Scale, Economies of Scale and Online Higher Education

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The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 

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The “iron triangle” of cost, quality and access in higher education has seemed, at times, unbreakable. The sector has frequently operated under the assumption that improving one of the three objectives – access, quality or price  – is necessarily at the expense of one or both of the others. Like health care,  costs in higher education rise faster than in other industries where technology can be more easily deployed to increase productivity.

Breaking the iron triangle has become a more pressing issue for higher education’s stakeholders as student debt hits record highs, institutional costs rise faster than inflation, and access to higher education becomes a social and economic imperative for nations struggling with challenges of global competition.

“We can’t allow higher education to be a luxury in this country. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America has to to be able to afford.”

President Barack Obama, February 27, 2012.

In this context, the task of finding smart ways to “scale-up” and improve economies of scale is generating more attention. Historically, institutions of higher education have used a number of tactics to increase scale, including:

  • Large, lower-level courses that enrol hundreds of students at a time. While much maligned, the “lecture” course is very economical;
  • Greater reliance on adjunct/sessional instructors, which allows institutions to adjust supply quickly as demand rises and falls, at a far lower cost that full-time faculty;
  • Mega-universities. While not common in Western nations (save for Open University UK), these institutions, according to an analysis by Sir John Daniel, have a lower per-student cost;
  • By simply creating more universities: many Western nations funded a new crop of all-purpose universities in the mid-twentieth centuries to serve the first of the baby boomers and feed an increasingly post-industrial workforce.
  • Participation in consortia with the hope that sharing resources, rather than going it alone, reduces costs. (My own analysis of online consortia found that this objective often remains elusive.)

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The impact of technology-mediated learning in higher education on costs, quality and access have been, to date, moderate. While the online format has added significant value, particularly through convenience for adult and working learners, it has not led to downward pressure on tuition or significantly increased participation rates. Certainly, online education’s scalability pales in comparison to the new breed of Internet-born companies we hear about so often these days. (Instagram was sold for 1 billion dollars when it had only 13 employees.)  For our purposes here, let’s set aside the terrifying labour implications of this particular example.

The challenge of scale in higher education is not merely technological – it’s organisational and social, as well. While achieving scale is fundamental to most enterprises, it can be deleterious in higher education. Increasing access and reducing price can actually hamper an institution’s value in the marketplace.  Value is based, in part, on maximizing exclusivity: an institution’s reputation typically increases when it admits fewer applicants than competing institutions. When we tell friends that our daughter “got into a good school” we mean, in effect, a school that is relatively difficult to get in to. The recent statements by Peter Thiel about the unique economics of higher ed, who made his fortune through highly scalable Internet-based businesses, are amusing in this context:

“[Higher education admissions is] a crazy tournament. It’s a zero-sum tournament. If you were the president of Harvard or Stanford and you wanted to get a lynch mob of students, alumni, and faculty to come after you, what you should say is something like this: We live in this much larger, more global world. We offer this great education to everybody. So we’re going to double or triple our enrollment over the next 15 to 20 years. And people would all be furious because the value of the degree comes from massive exclusion. And what you’re really running is something like a Studio 54 nightclub that’s got an incredibly long line outside and a very small number of people let inside. It’s branded as positive sum, everybody can learn, but the reality is that it is deeply zero sum.”

Photograph by Samuel Zeller of a train on a snowy train
Photograph by Samuel Zeller

The same claim can be made about price: Increasing tuition levels can increase exclusivity, which in turn, increases perceptions of value. New York University and George Washington University have used this tactic according to Daniel Luzer (see The Prestige Racket).

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The good news is that educational technology has matured to the extent that it can now have a major impact on costs, access, and quality.  It scales. Some of the most promising applications of technology include:

  • Software that generates automated, real-time feedback to students on their performance. This instructional technique frequently increases student retention of the curriculum and ensures that the student doesn’t proceed to the next unit of curriculum with misconceptions about the curriculum;
  • Sharing common instructional content across as many courses and programs as is suitable in order to ensure (a) the lowest possible cost per student and (b) access to the highest possible quality (at a given price);
  • Adaptive, personalised learning that identifies and responds to student differences – an instructional tactic that’s not feasible in most mid to large size courses due to the demands it places on instructional staff;
  • Course authoring applications with instructional intelligence embedded within the software. LMS typically don’t seek to guide instructors/authors toward best (better practices). But new, more sophisticated applications have been developed that make it possible to generate learning activities that are beyond the capacity of what most instructors can achieve independently. (In this respect, educational technology will become more similar to other, time and labour saving technologies, such as desktop accounting software that, for example, directs the user toward adhering to accounting standards and rules, or blogging software like WordPress that makes it possible for content creators with stunted design sensibilities to create beautiful, easy-to-navigate sites.)

Most importantly, each of these applications of technology captures what educators have told us is valuable to students. The technology isn’t dictating the instructional method; rather, it reflects our best thinking and practices while allowing us to scale education, one of our most important and precious resources.

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The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 
Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 
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Higher Education is Not a Newspaper (Except when it is)

It has often been suggested that higher education is undergoing the changes we’ve seen unfold in other sectors – notably music recording and journalism. The Internet will do to us what it did to them. Apparently, we won’t like it.

“Look at the music industry. It’s been completely overturned by the Internet. My vision of the world is that everywhere will be like the music industry, but we’ve only seen it in a few places so far. Journalism is in the midst of the battle. And higher education is probably next.” Tyler Cowen

The nature of these changes is described using one or both of these related concepts: disintermediation and unbundling.

Disintermediation: The Internet makes it easier for people to bypass certain types of gatekeepers and mediating organizations to get products and services directly from the source. (Investing directly in the securities market, rather than through a bank, is a well-known example.) What constitutes the “source” differs by sector, but in most cases disintermediation tends to increase the intensity of competition between providers, improve choice for consumers, and drive down prices. In higher education, the vision is that students will be able to find learning experiences beyond what’s available from accredited institutions.

Unbundling: The concept of unbundling is applied in very different ways, depending on the industry. Essentially, though, it refers to the practice of marketing goods and services separately rather than as part of a package. A university degree, for example, can be understood as a bundle of courses. A music album is a bundle of songs; iTunes makes it easy to unbundle albums. Traditionally, institutions have required students commit to the degree/bundle. Public (state/provincial) funds are geared to serve these bundled programs. Unbundling in higher education would allow students to create a personalized compilation of courses from a variety of providers, in the same way that music fans create their own “playlists”.

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There’s no question that higher education is subject to these forces: more learning will occur outside of accredited institutions (disintermediation) and more institutions will make it easier for learners to pick and choose courses from multiple colleges (unbundling). But in their zeal to shake us from our complacency, writers that use these comparisons to the music and newspaper industries often understate important differences between higher education and these other, information-intensive industries.

“Substitute goods are two goods that could be used for the same purpose”

The key difference that warrants more attention is in the degree to which “substitute goods” are available. Consumers of music and journalism are relatively free to select new providers and to use them in new ways without the value of the goods declining appreciably.

Music recording industry (global) has seen its revenue flatline from 38 billion in 1999 to 16.5 billion in 2013. Music fans are purchasing single songs, rather than albums, p2p remains a factor, new platforms allow people to listen songs without paying (e.g. 8track.com), and while revenue from streaming services (e.g. Spotify) is increasing quickly, its yet to make a sufficient dent in earnings.

(insert graph of music industry earnings)

from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/technology/music-industry-records-first-revenue-increase-since-1999.html

For its part, news has seen its revenues drop during the past decade and a half.

Screenshot 2015-06-01 16.54.01

from http://www.journalism.org/2015/04/29/newspapers-fact-sheet/

Screenshot 2015-06-01 22.06.56

from http://www.journalism.org/2015/04/29/network-news-fact-sheet/

Consumers of news have access to a wider range of sources, many of which are free – some of them by professionals, most new sources are simply other news consumers, passing on information via social media.

When consumers seek out and consume news or music from new types of providers or use them in new ways, there’s no penalty or disadvantage. The quality may be lower, in the case of news sources, but rarely. New distribution models for music offer far greater value.

Not so in higher education and the difference, of course, is accreditation – the ability of the provider to offer recognized credit courses and bestow degrees and diplomas. In higher education, accreditation remains a key source of value. A student needs assurance that the education in which they invest their time and money will be widely recognized by other institutions and, in particular, future employers. In an increasingly mobile and mass society, the universality of credits earned becomes only more important. Learning is important, but no more than the ability of the degree to function as a signalling device in a world where CVs are read by computers (seeking keywords), and we apply for work at organizations we’d not heard of until we read the “help-wanted” ad. The importance of formal, widely recognized credentials won’t fade quickly, and as a result, disintermediation and unbundling will unfold far more slowly in higher education than elsewhere.

There is, however, a very strong parallel between higher education and news that, to my knowledge, has been totally ignored. I think it can help us understand how the Internet will impact higher education in the short-term, say the next five to ten years. We’ll examine this in our next post – coming June 9.

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An image of a chasm

The Growing Chasm in the Online Higher Education Market

A chasm is beginning to appear between institutions of higher education that offer online programmes. The divide is the result of the different strategies taken for designing, sourcing and managing online education programmes.

A small number of institutions in the U.S. have adopted methods for producing and supporting online courses that have the potential, if not the likelihood, to improve learning outcomes, increase the speed with the institution improves the quality of teaching and learning, increase value (quality/cost). If present trends continue, these institutions could reconfigure the deeply embedded hierarchy that organises higher education.

A couple of scenarios

An acquaintance of mine, currently an Assistant Professor at a mid-size university, was asked in mid-July by her institution to create and deliver a new online course for the Fall (September) semester. In the time available, she had to define the new curriculum, determine the instructional tactics to be used, collect existing resources, and create new materials, including assessments.

Throughout the process, she worked alone. Although an instructional designer was on-hand, the staff member had little time and offered not much more than a checklist of best practices. The Instructor’s budget for the course development? Nil.

Her experience contrasts sharply with practices at a handful US universities. These institutions typically focus, sometimes exclusively, on online education, offer open-admissions, and have centralised management of teaching and learning. Consider this depiction; a composite of a few institutions I’ve had a chance to investigate:

An academic department – after conducting a thorough, regularly scheduled review of learning outcomes – determines that a full rework of a key programme is required. Starting what will be a twelve-month process, the department conducts a deeper analysis of the current programme, consulting with student support staff, faculty, academic leadership, and industry advisors – to define the overarching set of objectives and instructional strategies for the revamped programme.

A team is assigned to the project, including specialists in learning analytics, subject matter experts, managers of assessment systems, faculty, teaching assistants, student support staff, and technology managers.

The institution’s team identifies a number of things they want to offer their students that can be done more efficiently by forming partnerships other universities, consortia, and vendors, so as to complement internal strengths. The course development process ultimately involves more than a dozen people, three external organisations, and costs more than 100k per course, when including internal labour costs. Following the first year of the new programmes’ delivery, a review is conducted to identify where refinements are needed.

Not an inconsequential impact

There are a number of issues of note:

All things being equal, this handful of institutions will offer students higher quality education. By bringing the right mix of talent, resources, funds, and processes together, the institution has a much better chance of providing students with a well-conceived, thoughtfully-executed, and well-resourced learning experience.

These institutions have considerably greater ability to scale-up learning to meet demand. They can build new courses anprogrammesms more quickly, and with greater assurance that each will meet institutional standards for quality.

These institutions pay considerably more attention to the results of their instructional strategies. Internal reviews are common, and many are now turning to analytics to generate even more detailed and extensive insights into what’s working and what isn’t. This knowledge provides the basis for better decision-making, which in-turn can provide progressively better learning experiences for students.

This last quality needs to be underlined.

Knowledge about how to design and support learning in higher education held by individual faculty – whether online or not – is rarely systematically shared with the institution. Teaching is approached as individual pursuit. Indeed, faculty members can work in the same department as other academics for several years without ever seeing each other teach. Each Instructor operates individually. Strictly speaking, this isn’t by design: it’s a by-product of the traditional organizational structure of the institution and conventions of the academic occupation. But the effect of this characteristic is that it limits the flow of knowledge across the institution about effective teaching.  It fits nicely the centuries-old conventions of the occupation, it may ultimately limit the breadth and depth of the knowledge that is brought to bear on each course within the institution.

These upstart universities see knowledge about teaching and learning as the domain of the institution. The institution, not the individual educator, captures, interprets and applies knowledge about how best to serve students.  Knowledge is applied on an institutional level, not on a course-by-course, instructor-by-instructor level.

Of course, the downside of this approach is the potential to suppress the kinds of innovations that can arise from radical decentralization – letting a “hundred flowers bloom”, if you will.

But supporters of this more centralized approach contend that the benefits of a collective, institutional approach to knowledge building and sharing may be greater at this point in the evolution of online education. Higher quality learning, they argue, requires a more deliberate and disciplined approach. At times, I can appreciate this perspective: conference presentations about “how to teach online” offered in 2014 have striking resemblance to those we heard in 2001. We don’t seem to be making significant headway by placing the burden of course design and delivery primarily on the backs of under-resourced individual Instructors.

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Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

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The Lecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Questioning Lectures

The old-school lecture is taking a thumping. In a world where more and more of our experiences are web-based and disconnected from location and time, the idea that we would find it logical to get students together in a single location at a specific time to hear a presentation seems increasingly odd.

“Imagine”, Donald Clark writes, “if a movie were shown only once. Or your local newspaper was read out just once a day in the local square. Or novelists read their books out once to an invited audience. That’s face-to-face lectures for you: it’s that stupid.”

Others focus more on the instructional value of lectures — regardless of the role of technology. Graham Gibbs:

“More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.”

So why do we hang on to lectures?

Explanations of the persistence of lectures point to the usual suspects: the challenge of introducing new instructional strategies, the dictates of the physical space, class size, the time required to use more interactive instructional experiences, and more.

Privileging the Original and One-of-a-Kind

One factor that we may not have considered is how lectures fit into a broader cultural framework that privileges original and live events (or one-of-a-kind objects) over reproductions and technologically-mediated experiences.

A line was drawn during Modernity between original cultural practices and artefacts – such as paintings – and reproductions of the original, made possible by technology. The original is highly valued; the reproduction, far less so. This basic distinction unfolds in different fields of expression in roughly the same fashion:

  • One-of-a-kind artisan crafts v mass manufactured “crafts”
  • Live music performances v recordings
  • Paintings v photographic reproductions
  • Haute couture fashion v “pret a porter” (or ready-to-wear)

The increased capacity to make reproductions, according to theorists like Walter Benjamin of The Frankfurt School, served to reconfigure the meaning and value of both the original and the copy. The presence of ubiquitous copies can weaken the value of the original, but it still maintains a privileged status. The original has an “aura”. (See “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“, 1936.)

In this context, we can understand the shift from lectures to online higher education as not merely a migration from one instructional model to another, but a shift from a one-time, “original”, live event or object to a recorded and reproducible event or object. As with art and other cultural artefacts and practices, the original is privileged.

The distinctions often reveal themselves through language; the choice of words and the metaphors we use. Defenders of the lecture, like Mark Edmundson tell us that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” The lecture, Abigail Walthausen explains, “is an art, and like other arts such as painting, musicianship and writing, it takes real dedication and many hours of practice to excel at.”

Clay Shirky rightly notes that defenders of lectures believe that face-to-face education is the only “real” education — everything else is a facsimile, at best. (Shirky proposed The MOOC Criticism Drinking Game: take a swig whenever someone says “real”, “true”, or “genuine” when questioning the value of MOOCs.)

Given that we tend to privilege live/original experiences, it is understandable that academics would celebrate the live educational format — and want to protect their place within it. There are few professions that involve strapping on a microphone and speaking to large groups of people — sometimes hundreds at a time — on a daily basis. Fewer occupations, still, call for the professional to offer their own unique perspective on a topic. (The sacred but often questioned link between teaching and research is key here.) I wouldn’t be the first to identify the link between the identity of the academic and the archetype of the lone artist — an individual working doggedly on a personal project before presenting it to the world.

Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

Is That All There Is? Higher Education’s Struggle to Leverage Digital Teaching and Learning

“What would become of such a child of the 17th and 18th centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the 20th century?”
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, what we might now call “the early days” of online higher education, advocates of technology-mediated learning imagined themselves as outsiders, rebels working on the margins of higher education. Their goal, broadly, was to bring the transformative power of Internet technology to a change-adverse, centuries-old institution. Keenly aware of the presence of naysayers among them in the institution who believed that technology was an anathema to “real education”, our rebels adopted an us-against-them stance, the technology evangelists against the Luddites; the cutting edge against those that simply “didn’t get it.”

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It would be difficult for these rebels to maintain the posture of an outsider in 2017. During the last two decades, and particularly the last few years, instructional technology has become thoroughly mainstream across much of education, a major influence on corporate, K12, and higher education. In higher education, online learning has become synonymous with all that is thought to be forward-thinking and innovative in the sector, fairly or not. Digital learning has shifted from a little understood, and marginal activity carried out by a handful of restless academics and dishevelled tech staff working out of the university’s basement, to the single greatest hope for an institution facing unsustainable increases in operating costs, shifting student demographics, and increasingly strident calls for improved and demonstrable learning outcomes.

Even major news sources began to pay attention. The Atlantic, New York Times, Huffington Post and others have helped promote the idea that higher education is being transformed by technology. One after another, university Presidents, not typically revolutionaries, proudly proclaimed that their universities and colleges were part of this transformation. Others in and outside of the academy were less enthusiastic – envisioning Internet technology and its demands would serve as the trojan horse to upset all that was good and holy about this centuries-old institution. Public intellectuals argued that technology would disrupt higher education, just as it did the music recording industry, newspapers, and bookstores. We’re next, they warned.

The Potential . . .

I’ve been working in the digital higher education space since the late-1990s, first as a member of a university faculty, followed by an eight-year stint as the Director of a large online learning unit. I now serve as an analyst and consultant. Over the years, my views on digital higher education have evolved. But through it all, I count myself among the growing number of the allegiant. I’m convinced that thoughtfully designed instructional technology and media can play an important, even transformative role, in teaching and learning in higher education. I’ve seen enough evidence to state confidently that it has the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of learning, meet the needs of a wider range of people, and improve the overall quality of learning. In short, I’m a believer.

The potential is truly extraordinary. Given the unique economics of the Internet, it’s possible to produce and share instructional media with production value that rivals the best of Madison Avenue advertising. Storytelling and other creative arts can engage students in new ways. The rapidly expanding field of data analytics can help us understand how well students are learning and, when done properly, be used to modify curriculum in real-time to meet the unique needs of each learner. Dashboards can help students understand how they learn most effectively and where and when they need help. Simulations can be built that allow students to “learn-by-doing” in a realistic, risk-free environment. Games can increase the time students spend on tasks, thereby increasing their chances at mastery.

. . . And the Reality

I’m confident then about the potential of technology-enabled learning. However, I’ve grown increasingly less confident that the institution of higher education can play a major role in realising this potential. Evidence is mounting that the institution of higher education, as it is currently designed, is largely ill-suited to developing and leveraging more advanced uses of technology for teaching and learning. And given the institution’s near monopoly on widely recognised adult education in much of the West – higher education is likely inhibiting the development of more advanced forms of instructional technology and media, as well as new ways to bring these new forms to people at lower costs.

Since the spread of Internet access in the latter half of the 1990s, colleges and universities have demonstrated a remarkable inability to leverage these networks and related technologies to improve the quality and cost-efficiency of learning. This is the state of affairs despite the fact that universities were quick to turn to the Internet – and before that, various other technologies (e.g. CDs) – for teaching purposes. The situation exists despite the level of attention and investment directed at online learning during the past two decades, and despite the extraordinary advancements in technology that we have witnessed in other sectors over the same period of time.

In the late 90s and early 00’s, a handful of pundits concluded that higher education would have no choice but to be reconfigured by the extraordinary capacity of the Internet. They put two and two together and predicted that students all over the world – once connected – would have access to the very best educators, practitioners, intellectuals. Economies of scale would drive down costs dramatically, ensuring access to high-quality learning opportunities for even under-represented student populations. A new crop of talented professionals from education, design, and software would quickly start building digital-born instructional models that would stimulate learning in ways simply not possible in classrooms, lecture halls, and labs. Education is too important, demand growing too quickly, and costs declining too rapidly for us not to take full advantage of the opportunities the technology could obviously enable.

But for the past two decades, the institution of higher education has made few substantive changes to how it operates. While virtually every institution across the OECD has invested in digital learning, and university presidents now routinely pepper their speeches with the appropriate keywords signalling their commitment to digital education, the actual steps made to leverage the dramatic changes in technology in higher education have remained tentative, unimaginative, marred by self-interest, and ultimately lacking in ambition. Despite endless talk of “transformation”, “revolution”, and, of course, “disruption”, initiatives with the potential to improve learning and reduce costs through technology have either failed to gain sufficient traction, or were rejected out-of-hand because they challenged the culture, interests, and processes of the institution and its’ deeply ingrained conventions.

Tuition for online students has not dropped; indeed, online programs frequently have higher fees than on-campus versions. Students are regularly presented with digital course materials that are nothing more than repurposed classroom materials, reflecting the fact that the bulk of the responsibility for the design and development of course content falls largely on the shoulders of individual academics without the incentives, time, or skills required to do more ambitious work. The dominant technology in online education – the learning management system – serves primarily as a course management tool; an expensive and over-complicated filing cabinet for repurposed classroom materials. The LMS was quickly adopted across higher education not because of its capacity to transform learning, but because the technology fit so easily into the traditional practices, roles, and responsibilities of classroom education.

More troubling still is the mounting evidence that a common understanding has already begun to solidify in higher education about “how we do online learning”. For a surprisingly large number of professionals in higher education, simply “putting courses online” – shorthand for uploading static classroom instructional content into an LMS – is taken as evidence that an institution is a bonafide member of the digital age. After twenty years of online learning, the use of high-quality educational media, simulations, adaptivity, game-based learning, and other experiences made possible by advances in technology and the economics of the Internet constitute a mere fraction of the total higher education experience in North America. Can it be that the value higher education is able to extract from the Internet already reaching its peak? Has the proverbial S-curve of innovation already flat-lined? Is that all there is? (In the immortal words of Peggy Lee. Here’s a much darker version of the song from the post-punk era: Christina: Is That All There Is?)

By no means am I tech evangelist. I don’t believe that digital learning is the silver bullet for all that ails higher education. Despite the great attention it currently receives, digital learning is just one piece of the very large and very complex puzzle of how we improve student learning outcomes. And learning takes many forms. Conversation, reading, writing, travel; all are important. I certainly don’t want my daughters to learn online exclusively. But if we’re going to make digital learning part of the education mix, and I think we should, we need to take it seriously; we need to actually to begin to leverage the possibilities it affords us, which we are currently failing to do.

In a series of upcoming posts, I set out to decipher what stands in the way of significant improvements for the use of instructional technologies and digital media to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of learning in traditional colleges and universities. This effort takes the form of a series of essays (see “Notes” below); each a vehicle for the author – and hopefully the reader – to understand why higher education has yet to take substantial steps toward leveraging the new possibilities and why, in certain cases, it may not.

Notes

I like the logic of the “essay”. Wikipedia provides a good definition: From late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’): alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on late Latin exagium ‘weighing,’ from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial.’ Source: Wikipedia.

Acting Like a Professional, Costs, and Escorts, Et Cetera: Leaders’ Collection 10.25.2016

A hand-picked (lovingly) collection of news, reports,  and essays of interest to leaders in higher education by Keith Hampson, PhD. 

photo-1474776707116-d2ab67d97547Impact and Nonimpact of Online Competition

A summary by Inside Higher Ed of a useful paper by David J. Deming, Michael Lovenheim and Richard W. Patterson (Summary). The original paper is available here (requires sign-in).
The paper finds the growth of fully online degree programs has led to increased spending and falling enrollments at some place-based colleges but had little impact on tuition rates.
“In a well-functioning marketplace, the new availability of a cost-saving technology should increase efficiency, because colleges compete with each other to provide the highest-quality education at the lowest price,” the paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed, reads. “Nonselective public institutions in less dense areas either are local monopoly providers of education or have considerable market power. Online education has the potential to disrupt these local monopolies by introducing competition from alternative providers that do not require students to leave home to attend.”
The researchers, who are based at Cornell University, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the United States Military Academy, used data collected by the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to track enrollment, revenue, expenditure and tuition trends between 2000-2013 — before and after the rule change. They used the data to test three predictions: that competition from more fully online programs would lower tuition rates for face-to-face programs, lead to increased spending on instruction and student support services, and drive down enrollment in areas with low competition between colleges.
The data only provided support for two of those predictions. For one, colleges located in areas with low competition were more likely than others to experience a decline in enrollment. The finding was only statistically significant for less selective private institutions, which saw enrollment declines following the 2006 rule change. Instructional spending also increased at public institutions, though the trend began before the rule change — perhaps because the colleges were anticipating increased competition from online programs, the paper suggests.”
Read the full review of the paper here. The original paper can be found here (sign-in required).

Over Exposed: Where are the International Students?

By David Morris
“To that end, I have compiled data from HESA for the 2014-15 academic year to look at which institutions might be most vulnerable to Theresa May’s challenge to create a business model without international student recruitment. I have also compared the numbers of international students with the results of the EU referendum, to try and establish whether areas that voted to Leave have high numbers of student immigrants that may be causing anxiety in those communities.
Where in the UK are international students?
International students are spread across the UK. Northern Ireland has much lower numbers as a proportion than England, Scotland and Wales. International students are roughly evenly split between undergraduates and postgraduates, meaning that postgraduate courses are far more reliant on international students as a proportion of their total.”

Read the full post here.

Note: WonkHE has followed up the above article with “International Recruitment and TEF: Modelling the Amber Warnings. Available here.

NCAA Confirms Escort Allegations at Louisville

To those outside of the USA, the behaviour of big-league NCAA (college/university) athletics is almost “Trumpesque” in its idiocy and its obvious disconnect from the mission of higher education. This story concerns the use of “escorts” at the University of Louisville for the basketball team. This sort of activity has been going on for years. A former coach of mine was recruited by a SEC university in the 1970s. During his visit to the campus, he was asked to select from a list of available escorts – photos included. (Incidentally, he chose to study in Canada and later earned a Rhodes Scholarship.)
“Last year, Louisville’s supporters scoffed at charges. Now NCAA has confirmed them and the university is objecting to the association’s finding that powerful head coach failed to monitor his program. The coach is invoking 9/11.
The University of Louisville committed four major National Collegiate Athletic Association violations when a former men’s basketball assistant paid an escort service to provide strip shows and sex for recruits and other players, the NCAA stated in a notice of allegations sent to the university Thursday. The Level I violations charge the program’s head coach, Rick Pitino, with “failure to monitor” his employee, a serious allegation that could result in a suspension for the coach.”

Read the article here. 

Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology

An annual report – more useful than most. The highlights are available here. Highlights. The full report can be found here (requires submitting your email address, name, etc.): Full Report.
“Most faculty members say data-driven assessments and accountability efforts aren’t helping them improve the quality of teaching and learning at their colleges and universities, according to the 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology. Instead, instructors and a large share of academic technology administrators say the efforts are mainly designed to satisfy accreditors and politicians — not to increase degree completion rates.
It has been another tumultuous year in educational technology. The past 12 months have seen new ways to deliver education and course materialsnew start-upspromising to revolutionize teaching and research, and new questions about the role of technology in and outside the classroom.”

Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

by Dr Aimee Morrison
A long-overdue rant about the tendency of academics to conduct themselves in an unprofessional manner; failing to learn basic technical skills found in virtually every other work setting, etc. Humorous, but important, too.
“Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won’t check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won’t use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.”
. . .
“My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.”

Student Debt and the Class of 2015

By the Institute for College Access and Success

The average student loan debt has surpassed $30K in the US. Might be worth cross-referencing this report with the one the above (see “Impact and Nonimpact of Online Competition”) which notes the limited impact of costs by online education, to date.

“Student debt for college grads is on the rise, according to the latest figures from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). The nonprofit released its eleventh annual report on the student loan debt of recent graduates from four-year colleges. The report includes national, state and college data on student debt from federal and private loans.”
Read the full report here.

This Week’s Worthwhile Diversion

I Used to be a Human Being

An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.
By Andrew Sullivan

Unbundling, Design Thinking, Et Cetera: Leaders’ Collection 10.18.2016

A hand-picked (lovingly) collection of news, reports,  and essays of interest to leaders in higher education by Keith Hampson, PhD. 

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Unbundling is ‘Separating Gold from Gravel’

Georgetown U’s Carnevale on labour and higher ed shares insights on future of intertwined industries.

Full Interview

An Introduction to Design Thinking: Process Guide

From Stanford’s d.school.

Access the document (pdf)

How to Conduct Strategic Planning

A high-quality description of the strategic planning process – well-suited to higher education. From the World Economic Forum.

Access the document (pdf)

What Makes a College President?

Experts weigh in on critical higher ed leadership traits needed for surely one of the world’s least desirable jobs (IMO). From EducationDive.

Read the full interview.

The Impact of Ambiguous “Student Outcomes” on Technology. By James Wiley, Eduventures.

Read the full article.

The Academic Job Market Is Tottering, But Nobody’s Telling Graduate Students

A reminder of the dismal prospects for graduate students hoping to land a full-time gig – from the Pope Center – one of the few conservative-leaning (US-style) voices in higher education.

Read the full article. 

Universities Are Churning Out the Next Generation of Higher Ed Bureaucrats

Read the full article.

Learnings from colleges that have gone through mergers and transformation from the good people at JISC.

Access the podcast.

Original blog. 

Diversion of the Week

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes . . . (Leaders Collection, 10-11-2016)

This week’s collection of essays, news, and reports for leaders in higher education. 
::

Change Management Canvas: A Model

by Travis Barker
A useful set of tools that outline the process of designing and initiating a change management plan, a concept I on the minds of an increasing number of higher education leaders.

Delivering Design-Led Innovation

A practical, well-written report on how to use design to drive innovation.

4 Lessons for Aspiring Administrators

by Kevin Gannon
A set of tips from Kevin Gannon for new academic administrators on how to navigate treacherous terrain in higher ed.

Google Search Results to Include Student Outcomes Data from College Scorecard

by Marguerite McNeal
In a rather bold move, Google has incorporated data from the College Scorecard directly into its search results.

Disrupting Business Education

by David Rath.
Describes an interesting example of unbundling (on the academic side of the house, no less.)

Public Opinion on Higher Education

by Public Agenda
A sobering and largely ignored report on changing perceptions amongst Americans about the value of higher education.

Read the full report

Majority of Americans Want College to be Free

by Polly Mosendz (Bloomberg
Not surprising, of course. But approximately 1/2 of the survey respondents don’t want to pay higher taxes, as a result.

The Intersection of Higher Ed and Hiring: Q&A with Sean Gallagher

Dr Sean Gallagher is the Chief Strategy Officer for Northeastern University’s Global Network. Sean is a nationally recognised expert with more than 15 years of experience in strategy and innovation in higher education. His first book, “The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring,” was published in 2016.

::

KH: If you publish a book in 2016 that deals with the relationship between higher ed and hiring, I would imagine that you find yourself invariably wading into the headline that’s been bouncing around for the past couple of years: that higher ed is no longer the great return on the investment it was once – at least in terms of employability. What does the research tell us?

SG: On average, college is absolutely worth the investment. In fact, of any investment one can make, it has one of the highest rates of return – incidentally that’s even more true in today’s low–rate world. Yet it’s key to remember any calculation of “return” depends on the inputs – and it matters tremendously what you study, which school you earn a credential from, and how much you spend or borrow. Historically I don’t think students, families, politicians, etc. thought critically enough about that, because the train that is our existing system just keeps moving. What people have increasingly been asking is, are we reaching a breaking point. There are certainly hundreds of mediocre institutions and programs out there, many of them charging too much, and it’s appropriate to get serious about outcomes and costs. But on the whole, the economic data – tens of millions of data points, too – is irrefutable. Employers continue to demand and hire more people with college degrees, and they pay them substantially higher wages.

screenshot-2016-10-02-11-37-16

At the core of my research is interviewing actual employers. Given the headlines that have dominated the higher education media – and even the global business media – you would think employers would say that degrees are useless, that they’re doing away with them in hiring, investing in microcredentials, and only hiring from coding bootcamps. Indeed, degrees are not perfect and are not always the answer, and there’s plenty of inequity in how our system, our marketplace works – but it’s the very rare employer that is not demanding more college graduates, escalating its hiring requirements, or trying to skill up its existing workforce.

KH: That sounds about right. But at the same time, the nature of work is undergoing substantial modifications. And education has always followed the demands of labour, albeit imperfectly.

SG: We’re at an inflection point in a structural economic evolution and a series of fundamental changes in society that have been playing out over many decades. I’ll focus on the U.S., but it’s a similar situation worldwide. 30 or 40 years ago, you could earn middle-class wages and live a fairly comfortable life with only a high school diploma. That was in a more production-focused economy. Beginning in the 1980s and then accelerating in the 1990s, economic growth became dominated by knowledge work. That requires – or at least favors – higher levels of education. Bachelor’s degrees grew to become the ticket to the middle-class workforce. Economists such as David Autor at MIT and others have shown that the workforce has become highly polarized. The better educated are pulling ahead, while those without college education – and especially completed credentials – are falling behind. We can also see this in the polarization in our political dialogues, and the discussion about income inequality and if capitalism is working. Meanwhile, the cost of higher education has risen, and borrowing to fund it has certainly gone up dramatically – and this elevates the scrutiny on is the return worth the investment.

I think some of the crispest work that’s been done on this recently is by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Jaison Abel and Richard Dietz (see Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs? andAre Recent College Graduates Finding Good Jobs?). What’s interesting is I’ve seen one their statistics cited constantly as evidence that there’s a crisis in terms of higher education and how it relates to the job market: that 44% of recent college graduates are “underemployed,” – that is, working in jobs that do not “require” a college degree. That’s not a good statistic, but they show that rate is fairly typical for the historical pattern; spiked due to recent recession; and is, in fact, lower than the rate after the 1990 recession. Yet, the underemployment rate has indeed been rising since around 2000. That’s also when the “college wage premium” flattened out: the wage premium that you earn by completing a degree is right at historical highs, but it’s no longer moving upward like it did in the ‘80s. Interestingly, the premium for advanced degrees has grown – but it’s stayed flat for the bachelor’s. So we’re in a situation where a bachelor’s degree is no longer about “getting ahead” and instead it is many times the price of admission to the professional workforce.

KH: Assessment of learners and learning is one of the connecting points between higher ed and labour. During the last couple of years, we’ve seen a dramatic climb in the interest of higher ed in competency-based education. If it’s taken seriously, CBE could provide employers and other gatekeepers with a far more detailed and comprehensive picture of a person’s abilities. But is this the kind of information that employers want? Are they in a position to make use of it?

SG: The marketplace is definitely trending toward more transparent documentation of learning outcomes and graduates being able to digitally present employers with their skills and capabilities. This is a dominant theme that cuts across many segments of the market and institution types – everything from online microcredentials offered by non-institutional providers, to the traditional undergraduate experience, and professional master’s programs from elite universities. “Badges” for example can be thought about as more micro-level illustrations of the competencies gained in a program – a complement to rather than a substitute for a degree.

I like to think of competency-based education in its simplest sense, as a philosophy in which the educational outcomes are purposefully aligned with specific skills and competencies. For many, the word “competencies” evokes the vocational and technical skills, and thus it gets dismissed it certain circles, but competencies can be things like problem-solving or critical thinking and analysis. CBE has great promise – but employers still don’t fully understand it: there needs to be more “customer education” from higher education institutions in that sense. In 2015, Parthenon–EY did a survey of nearly 500 hiring managers and found that only 9% of employers had a strong understanding of what competency–based education was.

Meanwhile, employers themselves are still moving toward competency-based hiring – that’s a prominent trend that HR leaders are talking about in 2016, and it is increasingly being enabled by technology. Often within employers, job descriptions and goals are not well designed or thoughtful and consistent, and many hiring decisions are still made based on instinct in notions like cultural fit. For competency-based education in all its variants to reach its full potential as a higher resolution signal in hiring, the employer side of the equation needs to have its job definitions and ability to analyze hiring trends in order.

There are many new exciting firms, technologies, and experiments related to things like e-portfolios and extended transcripts – ways to document learning in greater detail and present it to the outside world – but employers are not necessarily ready to integrate more information into their hiring systems, and transcripts and grades aren’t especially meaningful to most. This is where investor Ryan Craig’s notion of “competency marketplaces” like LinkedIn are truly disruptive and bear monitoring – you have central repositories developing that bridge professional work and experience, and learning outcomes and credentials. In general, there needs to be more connectivity and integration between the “data” produced on the educational side and the data input into employers’ hiring systems. Cloud computing and our data-rich society will increasingly enable this. If certain platforms gain traction and become dominant, things can change quickly.

Grade Inflation, Frugal Librarians, and More: Useful News for 09.19.2016

The Typical Undergraduate Takes More Than 5 Years to Graduate

The average undergraduate takes between five and six years to complete a degree, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The average bachelor’s-degree candidate takes just over five years to graduate.

The findings of the report, which pulled data from 3,600 postsecondary institutions across the country, fly in the face of much of the popular perception of college-enrollment patterns, Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, said in a news release.

“These nontraditional behaviors have a dramatic effect on time to degree,” he said. “Each additional term or semester has the potential to increase the cost to the student, both through forgone earnings and additional tuition expenses.”

A photo by Thanun Buranapong. unsplash.com/photos/JbeBraLha7URead the full article at The Chronicle of Higher Ed

Chinese university allows students to pick age of lecturers

A university in China is letting students choose the age and personality of their lecturers, according to local reports.
Students at the metallurgy and chemical engineering department of Jiangxi University of Science and Technology said that they preferred academics aged between 25 and 40 years old, and those who have a “funny” and “positive” attitude, according to the China Daily.
As a result, the university, which is based in the city of Ganzhou in south-eastern China, has assigned a group of young lecturers to teach the cohort.

Grade expectations: An “A” is not what it used to be

“WE DO not release statistics on grade-point averages so we can’t speak to the accuracy of the information you have.” That was a flack for Yale, but other Ivy League colleges—with the partial exception of Princeton—were equally reluctant to discuss their grading practices with the Economist.

Are they trying to hide something? Perhaps. Stuart Rojstaczer, a critic of grade inflation, has estimated average grades over time by combining dozens of unofficial and official sources. The results are startling (see chart). In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A. The students may be much cleverer than before: the Ivies are no longer gentlemen’s clubs for rich knuckleheads. But most probably, their marks mean less.

Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.

Read the full article at The Economist (US)

$1 Million Of Frugal Librarian’s Bequest To N.H. School Goes To Football Scoreboard

News that late librarian Robert Morin left the University of New Hampshire $4 million has been hailed as a symbol of Morin’s dedication and generosity. But the school’s decision to spend $1 million of that money on a new video scoreboard for the football stadium is being criticized.

A life lived in frugality, spent frivolously” on a million-dollar scoreboard, one commenter wrote on a local newspaper site, calling the decision “an assault” on Morin’s life. Others say it’s simply a shame that more of the money didn’t go to the university’s Dimond Library, where Morin spent much of his life.

Read the full article at NPR.org

Why It’s Time to Disrupt Higher Education by Separating Learning From Credentialing

Across modern economies, innovators and entrepreneurs are marshaling the power of information technology to reorganize business processes and reimagine entire industries, thereby improving quality and lowering the costs of goods and services. But higher education has largely escaped such disruption, even as IT and the Internet have created new ways to research, learn, and impart knowledge. The reason is that colleges and universities hold a unique franchise: They are responsible for educating students and for granting them degrees. Schools thus lack incentive to help students learn outside the classroom, even if it would lower costs or be more effective, since it would cut into their revenue, and they lack incentive to raise standards for their degrees because it would drive away customers. Students meanwhile have little incentive to push themselves harder than necessary to earn their degrees, since degrees are opaque, deriving their value from institutional brands rather than clear measures of academic achievement. This paper argues that the federal government should spur reform by promoting alternatives to traditional college diplomas that allow individuals to more effectively demonstrate educational mastery to prospective employers. This would give students the freedom to pursue their own best options for learning, incentivize students to study harder and schools to teach better, and apply competitive pressure on colleges and universities to reduce the costs of education.

Read the full article at ITIF