Obama pledges job training, lower college costs

Community colleges will become “community career centers” working with employers to train 2 million Americans for skilled jobs, said President Obama in the State of the Union speech, which also promised to make college affordable for middle-class families.

States cut funding for colleges and universities by 7.6 percent in 2011-12, a new study finds. The federal stimulus money ran out and state budgets couldn’t make up the difference.

Also: More on free and cheap online college courses’ challenge to traditional higher education. It’s all about the credentials.

Badges threaten college monopoly on credentials

If digital badges catch on as a way for people to show what they know, colleges and universities will lose their monopoly on credentials and the ability to keep on raising tuition.

What’s really cool about Khan

Video lessons are the public face of Khan Academy, but the brains of the enterprise is the software that analyzes students’ learning, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Khan Academy’s explicit goal is to teach people fundamental concepts. But in the process, it hopes to break new ground by changing how educators think about teaching, how psychologists think about learning, how employers think about credentialing, and how everybody thinks about the price of a good education.

Registered users watch the videos, which provide short lessons, and solve problems. The exercise platform tracks their efforts.

 “If [a user is] logged in, then we have the entire history of every problem they’ve done, and how long it took them, and how they did,” says Ben Kamens, the lead developer at Khan Academy. “So whenever anybody does a problem, we see whether they got it right or wrong, how many tries it took them, what their guess was, what the problem was, how many hints they used, and how long they took between each hint.”

The Khan engineers are also working to tweak the exercise platform so it does not confuse genuine mastery with “pattern matching” — a method of problem-solving wherein a student mechanically rehashes the steps necessary to solve that type of problem without necessarily grasping, conceptually, what those steps represent.

The goal is to get students to remember how to solve the problem days, weeks and years later. Khan’s team is working on a plan to question students on old problems to analyze how well they “retain their command of different concepts, which in turn would enable them to look back at their original interactions with the concepts and try to spot variables that correlate with long-term retention.”

Sal Khan, who left finance to start his nonprofit, is a critic of buffet-style higher education. A college degree doesn’t guarantee the graduate has mastered his field, Khan said at the Future of State Universities conference in October.

College degrees are “issued by the same institution that is in charge of setting, and enforcing, the standards of that credential,” Khan later complained to Inside Higher Ed, comparing it to investment banks rating their own securities. Credential-granting institutions should be decoupled from teaching institutions, he argued.

In Khan’s ideal world, this would mean an independent third party that tests specific competencies and awards credentials corresponding to knowledge areas in which a student can demonstrate mastery — like the MCAT or standardized tests like a bar exam for calculus, physics, or computer science. “It would be much more useful, speaking as employer, if they show they’re just at the top of the charts on a certain skill set that we really want,” he said.

Reliable, respected certification would be great for independent learners, who may take a few classes on campus, take more classes online, read up on a subject and add on-the-job learning. If they’ve mastered the knowledge and skills, it doesn’t matter how they did it or how long it took.

Badges? Do we need badges?

“Digital badges” certifying skills and knowledge to prospective employers could loosen colleges and universities’ grip on credentials and force innovation.

Online to a college degree

Online degrees could transform high-cost higher education, writes the New York Times.

As Wikipedia upended the encyclopedia industry and iTunes changed the music business, these businesses have the potential to change higher education.

Four years on a college campus may be the ideal, but many people don’t have the time or money — or the academic interests.  For the large number of students seeking a job credential, the lower-cost online classes are very attractive.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, predicted that all but the top tier of existing universities would “change dramatically” as students regained power in an expanding marketplace.

“Instead of a full entree of four years in college, it’ll be more like grazing or going to tapas bars,” Mr. Finn said, “with people piecing together a postsecondary education from different sources.”

The quality of online classes varies. Graduation rates are lower for online community college students, according to a recent study in Washington state.  Professors warn online students will learn narrow job skills but not “critical thinking.”  (Unlike so many traditional college students, who don’t learn job skills or critical thinking.)

Anya Kamenetz, whose 2010 book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, tracks the new wave of Web-based education efforts, says the new institutions will only continue to improve and expand. “For some people, it will mean going from a good education to a great one,” she said. “For others, it will mean getting some kind of education, instead of nothing.”

The Times takes a closer look at Western Governors University, which includes a weekly call from a mentor, the very low-cost Straighterline, Learning Counts, which gives credit for job experience, and University of the People, which offers nearly free courses to Third Worlders.

Reporter Tamar Lewin tried Straighterline statistics and English courses, discovering it’s easy to cheat and hard to learn without a teacher. Lacking motivation and unwilling to buy the textbooks, she quit.

But what about people who don’t have a degree or marketable job skills? They can take out loans for butt-in-seat classes in hopes they’ll graduate, get a decent job and be able to pay off the debt. They can turn to community colleges, which have struggled to handle enrollment growth. Or they can try lower-cost online programs.