Hacking higher ed

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers, I write on Mozilla’s new e-mag, The Open Standard.

CBE lets students progress at their own pace. They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Most programs work with employers to design the competencies, so students — nearly all are working adults — will have the skills employers are seeking.

President Obama has endorsed the idea. The Education Department is experimenting with student aid for CBE students.

Western Governors University was the pioneer, but now state universities — the University of Wisconsin and, just this week, the University of Michigan — are offering online CBE programs.

Educating without ‘Bricks and Mortar’

Online learning doesn’t have to be second best, argue Jeffrey Scarborough and Raymond Ravaglia in Bricks and Mortar: The Making of a Real Education at the Stanford Online High School.

As a seventh grader, my daughter learned algebra through Ravaglia’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, an early distance-learning venture. It got her out of a badly taught “new new math” pre-algebra class.

In MIT’s MOOC, everyone learned

MOOCs — massive open online courses — work only for the well-educated, many believe. However, MOOC participants learned as much or more than traditional students in a MIT physics class, a new study concludes. Less-capable students did as well as similar students in the traditional class.

Competency degrees help working adults

Working adults are turning to online competency-based programs to cut the cost and time of earning a degree.


Virtual ed works in Florida

“Virtual education” is working for Florida high school students, concludes a Program on Education Policy and Governance working paper.

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) students taking Algebra or English I earn do as well or better on state math and reading tests as those in traditional courses, report Matt Chingos of Brookings and Guido Schwerdt of the University of Konstanz.

FLVS has expanded access to Advanced Placement and other courses, the study found.

Technology can support at-risk students’ learning concludes a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). “Well-designed interactive programs allow students to see and explore concepts from different angles using a variety of representations.”

Textbook publishers design online classes

Textbook publishers are developing complete online courses with texts, videos and automatically graded quizzes and essays. Students at different colleges and universities take the same course, paying the local tuition rate.  The professor doesn’t have to do anything.

‘College of the future’ improves outcomes

Graduation rates are high at Arizona’s innovative Rio Salado College, which is known for online courses.

Study: ‘Hybrid’ learning works in college

“Hybrid” or “blended” learning worked well for college students in a University of Maryland experiment. Students taught in the hybrid format earned similar grades and answered more exam questions correctly, compared to students in a traditional course.

In college courses, interactive online learning typically involves video lectures, extensive opportunities for discussion and interaction with instructors and peers, and online assignments and exams. Hybrid forms of such courses combine online learning components with traditional face-to-face instruction.

In this study, college students enrolled in hybrid sections of biology, statistics, pre-calculus, computer science, or communications or in sections that used the traditional face-to-face format.

Disadvantaged and underprepared student did as well in hybrid as in traditional classes.

Interactive online learning has the potential to lower college costs, the researchers believe.

College future

“A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries,” writes Graeme Wood in The Atlantic. Is this the future of college?

The Minerva Project was founded by 39-year-old high-tech entrepreneur Ben Nelson. He thinks his “online Ivy” will remake higher education. An accredited for-profit university, Minerva is starting with 33 students in San Francisco and plans sites in at least six other cities around the world.

The first class is all on scholarship, but future students will pay about $28,000 a year, including room and board. They will move each year to a new city. Buenos Aires, perhaps. Then Mumbai, Hong Kong or New York City.

Minerva will not teach introductory classes. Students are expected to pick up a book or a MOOC and learn that on their own. “Do your freshman year at home,” says Nelson. 

The technology of learning has changed little in the past half millennium, writes Wood.

The easiest way to picture what a university looked like 500 years ago is to go to any large university today, walk into a lecture hall, and imagine the professor speaking Latin and wearing a monk’s cowl. The most common class format is still a professor standing in front of a group of students and talking.

Minerva classes will be small seminars, not massive open online courses. They will use a proprietary online platform developed by a former Harvard dean, Stephen M. Kosslyn, a psychologist. In a test run of the online platform, a French physicist named Eric Bonabeau taught inductive reasoning.

Bonabeau began by polling us on our understanding of the reading, a Nature article about the sudden depletion of North Atlantic cod in the early 1990s. He asked us which of four possible interpretations of the article was the most accurate. . . . Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and Bonabeau displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them.

Bonabeau led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions—that the cod had disappeared because of overfishing, or that other factors were to blame. . . . Bonabeau bounced between the two groups to offer advice as we worked. After a representative from each group gave a brief presentation, Bonabeau ended by showing a short video about the evils of overfishing. (“Propaganda,” he snorted, adding that we’d talk about logical fallacies in the next session.) The computer screen blinked off after 45 minutes of class.

The “continuous period of forced engagement” was “exhausting,” writes Wood. There was no time to think about larger aspects of the material, “because I had to answer a quiz question or articulate a position.”

I was forced, in effect, to learn. If this was the education of the future, it seemed vaguely fascistic. Good, but fascistic.

Minerva will attract people who are good at learning independently, writes Jordan Weissmann in Slate. Nelson expects Americans to make up only a tenth of Minerva’s students. The model will provide an alternative for well-off Chinese and Indians who want an American-style education but can’t get into elite U.S. universities.