Can tech break the college monopoly?

Online courses will revolutionize higher education when learners can earn low-cost credentials that lead to jobs, writes Kevin Carey in the New York Times. Carey is the author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere

. . .  traditional college degrees are deeply embedded in government regulation and standard human resources practice. It doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are — if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, it’s illegal for a public school to hire you. Private-sector employers often use college degrees as a cheap and easy way to select for certain basic attributes, mostly the discipline and wherewithal necessary to earn 120 college credits.

However, Carey believes alternative credentials such as badges will break colleges’ “near-monopoly” on job qualifications. And most students go to college to get a better job, he writes.

Not so fast, responds economist Bryan Caplan.

Degrees signal an array of traits: not just intelligence, but work ethic, conformity, and more.  “Harvard dropout” tells the job market, “This person was promising enough to get into Harvard, but so lazy and/or non-conformist that he wasted this golden opportunity.”

Conformity to social norms is a valued job attribute, adds Caplan. “Employers focus at least as much on workers’ general competence and people skills” as they do on specific skill sets.

He’d love to believe Carey is right, but he concludes “the status quo has a massive built-in advantage” because of the importance of “conformity signaling.” Furthermore, “governments at all levels annually cement the status quo’s advantage with hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies.”

National University could make college affordable

Thanks to advances in information technology, we can “create a 21st Century National University that will help millions of students get a high-quality, low-cost college education — without hiring any professors, building any buildings or costing the taxpayers a dime.” So writes Kevin Carey, who directs education policy at New America, in his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

national university was George Washington’s wish, Carey writes on CNN. He even left money for it in his will. Now it’s doable.

Anyone with an Internet connection can log on to Coursera, edX,, and many other websites offering high-quality online courses, created by many of the world’s greatest universities and taught by tenured professors, for free.

Tens of millions of students have already signed up for these courses over the last four years. Yet enrollment in traditional colleges hasn’t flagged, and prices have continued to rise. The reason is clear. The free college providers can’t (or won’t) give online students the one thing they need more than anything else: a college degree. Elite universities like Harvard and Stanford don’t want to dilute their exclusive brands. Nonelite universities don’t want to give away something they’re currently selling for a lot of money.

The U.S. Department of Education could create a nonprofit with the authority to approve courses and grant degrees, he proposes. “Any higher education provider, public or private sector, could submit a course for approval,” paying a fee to cover the cost of evaluation.

While many of the courses will be free, students will bear small costs for taking exams through secure online channels or in-person testing facilities. (Textbooks will be free and open-source). Students will also pay a modest fee of a few hundred dollars for the degree itself, enough to defray the operating costs of National U.

National University wouldn’t have football or fraternities, but many people would give that up for a low-cost credential.

Carey is speaking on his ideas about the future of learning this afternoon (Wednesday). Go here for the livestream.

Competency-based programs give credit for skills learned through work, independent study or other means, writes Matt Krupnick on the Hechinger Report.

That means those students can earn degrees more quickly and at a lower cost — even lower now that the U.S. Department of Education has begun a pilot program under which students at 40 institutions will be able to use federal financial aid to pay for it, which was not previously allowed.

But what about quality?

Competency-based programs “could very easily devolve into diploma mills,” said Amy Laitinen, a former White House and Department of Education advisor who is now deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and an advocate of the concept. “It could go south very quickly.”

Sweet Briar College will close due to financial problems. A residential liberal arts college for women, Sweet Briar charged $47,000 a year, including tuition and room and board. Even with financial aid, the average was $25,000 a year. Not enough young women wanted a single-sex education at that price.

A college shake-out is coming: Sweet Briar won’t be the last private college to fold.

How to blend tech and teachers

Liz Arney’s new guidebook, Go Blended!,  shows “how schools should think about using technology and blended learning to better serve students,” writes Andrew J. Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners.

Arney, one of the contributors to the Blend My Learning blog, is director of “innovative learning” for Aspire Public Schools‘ charters.

Blended learning — using learning software for part of the day — is often used to enable students to work at their own pace, freeing teachers to work with small groups.

No profit left behind

Pearson, the British publishing behemoth,  sells billions of dollars of textbooks, tests, software and online courses in North America, reports Politico‘s Stephanie Simon in No profit left behind.

“Public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective,” writes Simon.

Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses — and treats — attention deficit disorder. The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in the classroom. It advises principals. It operates a network of three dozen online public schools. It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.

Pearson’s interactive tutorials on subjects from algebra to philosophy form the foundation of scores of college courses. It builds online degree programs for a long list of higher education clients, including George Washington University, Arizona State and Texas A&M. The universities retain authority over academics, but Pearson will design entire courses, complete with lecture PowerPoints, discussion questions, exams and grading rubrics.

In peak years, the company has “spent about $1 million lobbying Congress and perhaps $1 million more on the state level,” writes Simon. But, she adds, the National Education Association spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress in 2013.

I think this is the key point:

“The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. “When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills.”

The real question is whether schools need the products and services they’re buying from Pearson and its competitors. As long as Pearson has competitors, it can’t jack up its prices or lower its quality without losing business. For example, it’s losing GED customers like crazy because the new test is too expensive and too difficult. I predict they’ll announce a new new GED or lower prices to regain business.

Unbundling college

Higher Education Is Not a Mixtape, writes Derek Newton in The Atlantic. Entrepreneurs predict college will be “unbundled,” letting students assemble a variety of online courses to produce a lower-cost degree.

However, students (and their parents) “shop for schools, not for professors,” Newton writes.

The consumer choice is for the bundler — the brand, the label, university — and not the individual course content. . . . the 2012 UCLA annual survey of incoming college freshmen found that nearly two-thirds said “a very good academic reputation” was “very important” in their decision on which college to attend.

Prestige is expensive, especially if it includes living in a dorm.

The upper-middle-class want the college experience as one big bundle, but colleges that serve working-class people will be unbundled, predicts Daniel Luzer in Washington Monthly.

. . .  since 1980, inflation- adjusted tuition at public colleges has more than tripled. People are seeking out online education because the United States increasingly fails to makes real college affordable to working people.

Unbundling could help people seeking job skills and credentials. That’s a large group. But Luzer has a point: Four (often five) years of college is now a luxury good, even as we tell young people it’s a necessity.

Disrupt and personalize

Online learning can personalize instruction — and make it less boring — says Michael Horn in a Reason TV interview. Horn is co-author of the new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Cheating for college scholarships

Over 14 years, a community college basketball coach and academic advisor helped hundreds of athletes meet NCAA requirements by cheating, reports Brad Wolverton in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Most needed academic credits to transfer from junior colleges.

Coaches, parents or “handlers” hired “Mr. White” to help basketball, football and baseball players — and golfers.

A few are now playing in the pros.

Players “took” online or correspondence classes.

For some players, he says, he did their work outright. For others, he provided homework answers and papers that the students would submit themselves. At exam time, he lined up proctors and conspired with them to lie on behalf of students.

Mr. White made sure students didn’t do too well. Earning all A’s and B’s would have drawn suspicion.

Several Adams State classes were so easy, Mr. White says, he hardly needed the test keys.

One question on the final examination for Math 155, “Integrated Mathematics I,” a copy of which Mr. White shared with The Chronicle, asked students to find a pattern and then complete the blanks in this series:

5, 8, 11, 14, __, __, __, __

Many of his clients couldn’t have qualified for a college scholarship without his help, says Mr. White.

A different way to do college

Minerva is a selective liberal arts college without a classroom or campus, reports PBS NewsHour.

The dormitory is on one floor of this old apartment building Nob Hill. Students will spend the first year here, and then the subsequent six semesters living and studying in six different cities around the world. Next year, they head to Buenos Aires and Berlin.

But the professors don’t go with them. In fact, they can be anywhere, including home, because they see their students exclusively online, via a proprietary software platform called the Active Learning Forum. It fosters a face-paced, engaging, seminar-style class. No lectures allowed.

Minerva has partnered with the Keck Graduate Institute, part of the Claremont University Consortium, to gain accreditation.

Ohio charters show mixed results

Ohio charter schools work well for low-income blacks, but overall do worse than district schools, concludes a new CREDO study.

CREDO estimates that low-income black students receive 22 additional days of learning in math and 29 days in reading when attending a charter instead of a district school. Cleveland charters also are outperforming the district.

Stand-alone charters do better than those run by non-profit and for-profit charter-management networks.

Charter middle schools perform well, notes Education Gadfly. Charter high schools do not, perhaps because some specialize in “dropout recovery.” Online charters also perform poorly.

Online credits are easy, worthless

When Darren’s math students can’t pass a course, they earn high school credit for an easier online course, he writes on Right on the Left Coast. It’s “educational malpractice,” he argues.

. . . students can pass those online courses, even though they wouldn’t stand a chance of passing the “same” class at our school.  Our school district knows this, too, and still approves such classes for credit.

. . . Our school district also has a computerized “credit recovery” program.  Like “the miracle of summer school,” students who have failed classes — in many cases, failed so many that they’d never graduate on time were it not for credit recovery — can make up their classes via online programs.

. . . I exaggerate only slightly:  a student can read a couple things on the computer screen, answer a couple questions on the next screen about what they just read, and voila! Instant education.

Students can make up semesters of failed classes in a month or two, then receive a high school diploma, writes Darren. “We’re selling meaningless credentials.”