How to do a $10,000 degree

A $10,000 bachelor’s degree is a realistic goal, writes Publius Audax, a humanities professor at a Texas university, on Pajamas Media. Gov. Rick Perry wants state universities to offer a low-cost path to a degree. Texas should pick 25 of the most important and popular majors and design three-year bachelor’s programs, Audax proposes. Then the curriculum could be streamlined by “eliminating all electives and standardizing all required courses.” The state would need 412 courses to meet requirements in 25 majors.

Select the state’s top scholars and scientists to design the courses, videotaping the best lecturers, purchasing the copyright of the best textbook materials, and designing a suite of web-based learning tools. This would require a significant one-time investment of approximately $500K per course, for a total of $200 million.

. . . Require all state universities to offer all 412 courses to their students at a cost of only $250 per, plus $400 per semester for registration services and IT support. If a student took five courses per semester for three years, the total cost per student of the degree would be $9,900. Each student would be given free access to the state’s library of videotaped lectures, the online textbooks, and the web-based tools. The university would provide online discussion sections and laboratory sections.

For each instructor teaching 150 students, the state university would receive $75,000 in tuition, he calculates, not counting the administrative fee.

The low-cost, low-touch degree would be backed by an exam to demonstrate mastery.

Provide mandatory state-wide standardized tests for each year of each program, providing an accurate measure of student learning. The College Learning Assessment, as well as CLEP and GRE Subject exams, could be used to measure students’ progress in critical thinking, logic, writing skills, and discipline-specific competencies.

Well-prepared, motivated learners could earn a $9,900 degree in three years. The average college student, shaky on math and writing skills and used to hand-holding in high school, isn’t likely to make it without a lot more support. But it would be very interesting to see how many students would rise to the challenge in hopes of saving time and money.

AP goes online

Advanced Placement courses are going online, reports Ed Week. 

High schools that were once limited in the number of AP courses they could offer—whether from a lack of money, isolated locations, or student numbers too low to justify them—now have a plethora of online providers to choose from and free material to access. At the same time, course creators are learning new lessons about how to organize such information, and online-course requirements from the New York City-based College Board, which sponsors the AP program, are also evolving.

Offering lab sciences online has been a challenge, Ed Week reports. Apex Learning offers a mix of hands-on and virtual labs for physics and biology, but not chemistry.

Because of the element of danger related to mixing potentially hazardous chemicals, (Cheryl) Vedoe said, Apex has restricted chemistry experiments to the virtual kind and has settled for a conditional endorsement from the College Board for the course. The endorsement means the course contains the appropriate AP content, but without the hands-on experiences.

That’s not as good as a real lab, but it extends the AP chemistry option to students whose schools can’t offer the course.

Personalizing online learning

On Community College Spotlight: Inspired by Facebook, the University of Phoenix is working on a platform that would personalize online learning.

K12, which specializes in online learning for K-12 students, and Blackboard, which makes course-management software, will partner to sell online remedial courseware to community colleges.

Bricks, clicks and civics

In a post on “hybrid schools” that combine “bricks and clicks,” Larry Cuban warns that efficiency isn’t the only goal: Schools are not “information factories.”

In some ways, the new hybrid schools are fulfilling progressive educators’ dream of student-centered learning, he writes. Digital lessons are “hand-crafted to fit students for part of or most of the day,” while teachers coach students on what they’ve learned or teach a few traditional lessons. There are fewer teachers and therefore lower costs.

But techno-enthusiasts’ view of public schools is too narrow, Cuban argues.

They equate access to information with becoming educated – more of one leads to more of the other.  These very smart people ignore other crucial and purposes public schools have served historically in a democracy. . . What can be as important as students acquiring information? Try socializing the young, developing engaged citizens, moral development, and, yes, even custodial care of the young.

Schools have never been solely information factories; they have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and  live full and worthwhile lives.

That criticism may apply to click-only education. While home-schooled children often participate in youth soccer, Little League, the church choir, art classes and other group activities, some parents may let their children grow up as loners.

However, it’s not likely that bricks-and-clicks students will go to the same building to learn but never socialize. Do students need to be grouped into classes to learn to be good citizens? Are they more likely to be independent thinkers if they’re taught in a group? What do traditional schools do to develop morals that a brick-and-click schools couldn’t or wouldn’t do?

San Jose’s Rocketship schools, charters with a hybrid model, are rated #5 and #15 in the state among schools with 70 percent or more low-income students. Students, predominantly from Mexican immigrant families, significantly exceed state performance goals. These children will be just as able to “live full and worthwhile lives” as traditionally educated children with weaker reading, writing and math skills.

UC may offer all-online degree

University of California leaders want to offer an online bachelor’s degree comparable in quality to its prestigious campus programs, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

“We want to do a highly selective, fully online, credit-bearing program on a large scale – and that has not been done,” said UC Berkeley law school Dean Christopher Edley, who is leading the effort.

But a number of skeptical faculty members and graduate student instructors fear that a cyber UC would deflate the university’s five-star education into a fast-food equivalent, cheapening the brand. Similar complaints at the University of Illinois helped bring down that school’s ambitious Global Campus program last fall after just two years.

Tomorrow, UC regents  will hear about a pilot program of 25 to 40 courses, which will be developed if UC can raise $6 million from private donors. In the short term, the university needs alternatives to crowded writing and math classes. In the long term, Edley hopes to expand access to a UC education, collect more tuition money and spend less per student.

The model is Stanford University’s online graduate engineering degree, which is highly respected and open to students who never set foot in California.

“Within 30 minutes of a class being taught at Stanford, we’re able to offer it around the world,” said Andy DiPaolo, senior associate dean at the School of Engineering. “We think in many ways it’s comparable (in quality). “

Stanford uses the same admissions process and requirements for online and traditional degrees.

A Berkeley Faculty Association report knocked the online plan:

“The danger is not only degraded education, but centralized academic policy that undermines faculty control of academic standards and curriculum,” it said. “It is also likely that the whole thing will be a boondoggle.”

Furthermore, the report said, online instruction is “inappropriate for many subjects and types of learning.”

UC Online needs a “coalition of the willing,” Edley said, “not universal support.”

UC shouldn’t rush into cyber-education, write a coalition of unwilling professors in the Chronicle. Doing it well requires a lot of money — with no guarantee that the education will match the “face-to-face dialogue that is the hallmark of university education.”

UC’s online efforts should focus on serving California students who hope to transfer to the university, not on marketing the “UC Brand” across the globe, the professors argue. A global UC “would require outsourcing teaching to part-timers who are not researchers, resulting in a decline in quality for those students who are our primary responsibility.”

Furthermore, “simply to extract bits of teaching and put them online out of context would sever the links between teaching and research that make UC special.”

The media generation

If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online, reports the New York Times, quoting a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with electronic devices — plus another hour and a half texting and a half-hour talking on their cellphones.

The study’s findings shocked its authors, who had concluded in 2005 that use could not possibly grow further, and confirmed the fears of many parents whose children are constantly tethered to media devices.

. . . Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston who directs the Center on Media and Child Health, said that with media use so ubiquitous, it was time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

Not surprisingly, the very heavy media users (16+ hours a day), who make up 21 percent of the total, were more likely to earn low grades than the light users (three hours or less), who make up 17 percent.

The heaviest media users were also more likely than the lightest users to report that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school.

The study could not say whether the media use causes problems, or, rather, whether troubled youths turn to heavy media use.

Over the past five years, ownership of cell phones and iPods has soared among 8- to 18-year-olds, growing from 39% to 66% for cell phones, and from 18% to 76% for iPods and other MP3 players.

. . . young people now spend more time listening to music, playing games, and watching TV on their cell phones (a total of :49 daily) than they spend talking on them (:33).

When parents limit TV watching, video games or computer use, children average three hours less usage per day.  But 70 percent of parents set no rules.

About two-thirds (64%) of young people say the TV is usually on during meals, and just under half (45%) say the TV is left on “most of the time” in their home, even if no one is watching.  Seven in ten (71%) have a TV in their bedroom, and half (50%) have a console video game player in their room.  Again, children in these TV-centric homes spend far more time watching: 1:30 more a day in homes where the TV is left on most of the time, and an hour more among those with a TV in their room.

“Black and Hispanic children consume nearly 4½ hours more media daily than whites,” the study found.

Some of the largest differences are in TV viewing: Black children spend nearly 6 hours and Hispanics just under 5½ hours, compared to roughly 3½ hours a day for White youth.

Time spent reading books held steady at 25 minutes a day, with another nine minutes with magazines and newspapers.

Why more reading isn't helping

Young people are reading more — but not improving their reading skills — writes Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet.

More than ever, we are surrounded by printed words. We read text messages. We read web pages. We read instructions and information on computer games.

But if we’re reading more, why is literacy dropping?

Reading comprehension is not a skill, Willingham writes. Once a reader has practiced decoding the letters and become a fluent reader, comprehension requires background knowledge. “If you know a bit about the topic, it’s much easier to understand,” he writes.

. . . A likely solution to the conundrum is that all that extra reading we’re doing is pretty lightweight.

On Core Knowledge Blog, teacher Carol Jago comments on what teachers should make of the research.

32 years in the classroom with teenagers convinced me that more is more when it comes to reading. Relentless readers develop the ease of fluency but learn to intuit how different books need to be read differently, sometimes a tortoise, sometimes a hare. As they gobble up book after book – good, bad, and indifferent – they develop a sense of how stories work. Seemingly without effort these avid readers have wide, rich vocabularies and a broad base of background knowledge. They know stuff. Harry Potter, Count of Monte Cristo, and Twilight readers also know that long doesn’t mean boring.

If online reading is “so short, simple, and solipsistic that it isn’t having the same effect,” then teachers will have to try harder to put challenging books in students’ hands.

“If you liked … , I really think you’ll love …” It’s harder to create this bridge from the online world to the print world. Tweet, tweet.

I was one of the relentless readers she describes. I learned from the books I read — especially biographies, histories and fiction set in different places and eras –  which I used to understand more complex books.

An online teaching surprise

Online teaching may encourage student-teacher interaction, writes Dan Willingham, with surprise, on The Answer Sheet. Online teachers told him they know their students better than when they taught in conventional classrooms.

For younger students, a caretaker (usually the mother) is on hand, and so the teacher does not need to do a lot of prompting to keep the child on task. For older children, the chief distraction of the classroom—other students—is not present.

If there’s a webcam connection, teachers get to see the student’s home environment. Younger children’s “mothers are usually present and so teachers get to know them much better than they ever did in a traditional classroom.”

Third, teachers tell me that older students were more willing to share their personal lives than they were in a regular classroom. Perhaps because there are no classmates to overhear the conversations, teenagers seem less reluctant to open up.

Of course, the online teacher is working one on one. But I wonder if an e-mail-only connection encourages the same teacher-student interaction.

In Illinois, a fifth grader recovering from surgery is Skyped in to his regular classroom.

Teachers sell lesson plans

Teachers are selling lesson plans online, reports the New York Times.

While some of this extra money is going to buy books and classroom supplies in a time of tight budgets, the new teacher-entrepreneurs are also spending it on dinners out, mortgage payments, credit card bills, vacation travel and even home renovation, leading some school officials to raise questions over who owns material developed for public school classrooms.

I see no reason teachers shouldn’t profit from their ingenuity. But some districts are trying to bar teachers from profiting from lesson plans, the Times reports. It also quotes an NYU prof, Joseph McDonald, who says “online selling cheapens what teachers do and undermines efforts to build sites where educators freely exchange ideas and lesson plans.”

So teachers who create value are obliged to give it away? I don’t see it.

Commercial sites include Teachers Pay Teachers and We Are Teachers, which offers lesson plans and online tutoring.

Lisa Michalek, 40, who taught for six years in Rochester and now works for Aventa Learning, a for-profit online education company, said she spent about five hours a week tweaking old lesson plans and creating new ones, like an earth science curriculum that sells for $59.95.

“I knew I had good lessons, so I thought, ‘Why not see what other people think of it?’ ” Ms. Michalek said.

After $31,000 in sales, she has her answer. Alice Coburn, 56, a vocational education teacher in Goshen, N.Y., said she saved two to three hours each time she downloaded Ms. Michalek’s PowerPoint presentations instead of starting from scratch. “I hate reinventing the wheel,” Ms. Coburn said.

While some teachers spend their lesson-plan profits on classroom supplies, others spend the money on themselves. After all, they did the work.

Charter does more with same dollars

A San Jose charter elementary school with low-income students and very high test scores has won an award for financial  efficiency, reports John Fensterwald on Educated Guess.

Rocketship Education saves $500,000 per school per year by using online instruction to supplement classroom teaching.  The savings enables the network to pay for two hours a day of after-school tutoring for low achievers, a year-long internship for new principals, an academic dean to work with teachers and develop curriculum, higher teacher pay (for longer hours) and building new campuses — without relying on private donations.

Under the hybrid model, all 450 students in each school cycle through a block of math/science and two blocks of literacy/social studies in a traditional classroom setting with teachers who specialize in their fields. They also attend one block of learning lab, where they supplement math and reading classes with online work. Because the computer lab is not counted as instructional minutes, it can be run by a non-certified instructor. With three certified teachers teaching four classes, the school requires one fewer teacher per grade and five per school, along with five fewer classrooms.

Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, which primarily serves low-income Hispanic students who speak English as their second language, has an Academic Performance Index score of 926, which is high even for schools in affluent areas. A second Rocketship school opened this fall and more are planned.

John Danner, an Internet advertising software entrepreneur and a former elementary teacher, started Rocketship. He’s determined to run his schools on the same funding available to district-run public schools.

Here’s an Education Next short on Rocketship Mateo Sheedy.