MOOCs are hot, but do they work?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, but how much are MOOC students learning?

Community college students are more likely to drop out of online classes and earn lower grades, a new study finds.

The college advantage is narrowing

College graduates’ earnings advantage is narrowing slightly, according to two new College Board reports.

Flip MOOCs to help community college students succeed, suggests Bill Gates.

Attention must be paid

Instead of catering to short attention spans, schools should teach students to pay attention, writes Benjamin Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor, in Slate.

Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience.

Maintaining attention is a skill that can be learned, he argues. Students need to exercise their “attention muscle” to strengthen it.

Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

Young people raised on brief, simplified info-bits won’t realize what they’re missing, Schwartz believes. “Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.”

“In the age of information overload, no one has time, so everything has to be short,” writes Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog.

 Tl;dr is an abbreviation used often online, in forums like Reddit, as a way of commenting on and dismissing someone else’s rant, diatribe, or impassioned outpouring. It stands for “too long; didn’t read.”

Articles are shortened to lists. Blogs are shortened to Tweets. And, Schwartz notes, with MOOCs the 45-minute college lecture–his own cherished medium–is being shortened to a series of five to eight- minute long video chunks interspersed with comprehension questions.

Kamenetz sees the “pithy, attention-grabbing intellectual style” as a sign of a new power dynamic.  ”Many people have something to say.” In the traditional classroom, “traditional professors, by virtue of their traditional power, claim the droit du seigneur to bore the bejeezus out of everyone by droning on with no editing whatsoever.” On the Internet, no one has to listen to anyone else.

Attention spans haven’t diminished, she believes. “It’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?”

Udacity: Online pass rates are up

San Jose State suspended its partnership with Udacity due to low pass rates in for-credit online courses. Pass rates improved significantly in the summer term, exceeding on-campus pass rates in statistics, algebra and programming, but falling short in psychology and entry-level math.

Most faculty members are skeptical of online courses, especially MOOCS, but those who’ve tried teaching online are more positive, a new survey shows.

Why college costs so much

Growing federal subsidies have inflated the cost of college, economist Richard Vedder tells the Wall Street Journal.  ”It gives every incentive and every opportunity for colleges to raise their fees.”

Colleges build luxury dorms and recreation centers, says Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. They hire “administrators to manage their bloated bureaucracies and proliferating multicultural programs.”

“Every college today practically has a secretary of state, a vice provost for international studies, a zillion public relations specialists,” Mr. Vedder says. “My university has a sustainability coordinator whose main message, as far as I can tell, is to go out and tell people to buy food grown locally. . . . Why? What’s bad about tomatoes from Pennsylvania as opposed to Ohio?”

Federal spending hasn’t made college more accessible for low-income students or improved graduation rates, says Vedder. Only 7 percent of recent graduates come from the bottom-income quartile compared with 12 percent in 1970 when federal aid was scarce.

President Obama’s proposal to tie federal aid to graduation rates, and other performance metrics, will spur grade inflation, Vedder predicts.

“I can tell you right now, having taught at universities forever, that universities will do everything they can to get students to graduate,” he chuckles. “If you think we have grade inflation now, you ought to think what will happen. If you breathe into a mirror and it fogs up, you’ll get an A.”

Online education could reduce costs, says Vedder, but don’t expect the government to take the lead.

“First of all, the Department of Education, to use K-12 as an example, has been littered with demonstration projects, innovation projects, proposals for new ways to do things for decades. And what has come out? Are American students learning any more today than a generation ago? Are they doing so at lower cost than a generation ago? No.”

Government can help by getting out of the way, Vedder says.

Many professors are “disappointed” by President Obama’s higher ed plan, reports Inside Higher Ed.

. . . the plan focuses on certain measurable student outcomes – such as graduation rates – but would do little to ensure actual student learning.

Some called it a No Child Left Behind for higher education.

Linking student aid to graduation rates and earnings would encourage colleges to reject disadvantaged students and humanities majors with low earning potential, writes Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution.

Low pass rate puts MOOC pilot on hold

San Jose State and Udacity have put their low-cost, for-credit MOOC experiment on hold for a semester because of high failure rates. After a semester off to rethink the design, online courses will resume.

Community colleges are creating free online courses and study guides to help students learn basic skills and avoid remedial courses.  A Cleveland community college is using game-based learning to help high school students prepare for college-level courses.

A MOOC education

To be a superprofessor (a MOOC prof) is an act of aggression, writes Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State history professor. Massive open online courses aren’t as educational as traditional courses, even if they’re cheaper, he argues.

Being a Luddite is an act of absurdity, responds Matthew Ladner, who believes in creative destruction.

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MOOC mania may be slowing

MOOC mania may be slowing. Even boosters of massive open online courses wonder if they’re just a fad. So far, few MOOC students are applying for college credit, in part because many already have earned degrees.

How will technology change higher education? Instead of listening to lectures, students could learn in personalized online environments.

Confused? Your computer can sense it

Computers can monitor students’ facial expressions and evaluate their engagement or frustration, according to North Carolina State researchers. That could help teachers track students’ understanding in real time, notes MIT Technology Review.

Perhaps it could even help massively open online courses (or MOOCs), which can involve many thousands of students working remotely, to be more attuned to students’ needs.

It also hints at what could prove to be a broader revolution in the application of emotion-sensing technology. Computers and other devices that identify and respond to emotion—a field of research known as “affective computing”—are starting to emerge from academia. They sense emotion in various ways; some measure skin conductance, while others assess voice tone or facial expressions.

The NC State experiment involved college students who were using JavaTutor software to learn to write code. The monitoring software’s conclusions about students’ state of mind matched their self reports closely.

“Udacity and Coursera have on the order of a million students, and I imagine some fraction of them could be persuaded to turn their webcams on,” says Jacob Whitehill, who works at Emotient, a startup exploring commercial uses of affective computing. “I think you would learn a lot about what parts of a lecture are working and what parts are not, and where students are getting confused.”

MOOCs: A head start on college — but kids need help

High school students could use MOOCS (massive open online courses) to earn college credits, Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller tells Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger Digital.

“There are so many studies that demonstrate the benefit to students in high school in having access to college-level material. It encourages them to go to college and complete college. But that opportunity has largely been available to the most advanced students at highly endowed school districts that have teachers that can teach college-level subjects. It’s been a very inequitable offering.”

With the help of a MOOC, a high school teacher who is “passionate and motivated, but not necessarily expert” can teach a college course, Knoller says.

Ohio is looking at MOOCs to prepare students for college and prevent the need for remediation.

The San Jose State Plus pilot, a partnership with Udacity, offers three remedial and entry-level math courses to high school, community college or university students. The for-credit courses cost only $150.

At the Oakland Military Institute, a charter school with predominantly low-income students, some students didn’t have the computers or Internet access at home needed for the college statistics course, reports the San Jose Mercury News. And “many needed personal attention to make it through.”

To make it work, the institute had to issue laptops to students, set aside class time for them to focus on the online course, and assign teachers to make sure they stayed on task.

. . . With more than 700 students in grades 6 through 12, the school had to devote much of its computer lab space, equipment and staffing to online courses for the roughly 45 students taking the Udacity courses. A donation paid for the course fees.

Answering questions and keeping students on task consumed much of his time, said Omar Solache, a computer teacher with two other job titles. A second teacher was assigned to help ease his load.

“They’re so used to having teachers right there with them,” Solache said.

Students watched short videos, chatted with online tutors available around the clock and moved at their own pace, reviewing what they didn’t understand. An evaluation of the pilot will be available in the fall.

Here’s a research report on San Jose State’s partnership with edX on an introductory engineering MOOC.