Open Courses for Community Colleges

President Obama’s original plan for community colleges included $500 million to create free online courses that individual institutions could then customize for their students. That money never materialized — it was left out of the student aid legislation in last month’s health care bill.

But a foundation-supported effort with similar goals is actually growing. The National Repository for Online Courses (NROC) was hoping for that government money to help expand its existing vault of free courses, says Gary Lopez, the repository’s director. Still, with online education becoming mainstream and many community colleges experiencing enrollment booms beyond their physical capacity, NROC’s membership is on the rise. At the same time, the repository’s reliance on membership fees calls into question how “free” its courses actually are. .

. . While they are free to independent learners, NROC courses are not free to institutions — or, in at least one case, to the students who take them through an institution.

. . . Individuals can sign into the HippoCampus, NROC’s e-learning
portal, and take the courses for free. But if an institution or system wants to deploy the repository’s content at scale, they have to pay an enrollment-based “membership” fee, which can run from $3,000 to $50,000 per year (although the higher range generally applies to state education systems, not single institutions). If an institution or system wants to host the content on its own learning-management systems, it can cost more.

. . . Then again, NROC, which was built on grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is on the brink of achieving self-sufficiency — something most OER projects can only dream of.

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Blackboard Unveils New Learning Suite Incorporating Social Networking Tools

Blackboard announced today the release of a new version of its widely used e-learning suite, with an emphasis on incorporating social networking tools such as wikis, YouTube, Flickr, and Slideshare. “We provided a very intuitive process to search for and add content from YouTube, Flickr and Slideshare to a course without ever having to leave the LMS,” said Stacey Fontenot, a Blackboard vice president, in an e-mail. “And this content can be leveraged not only as stand-alone course content but used in different places like discussion-board posts and assessment questions to provide educators with more dynamic ways to engage and assess learners.” Version 9.1 also has tools that will help better organize and evaluate student contributions to course wikis, Fontenot said. Certain parts of the new version were designed “with WebCT clients in mind,” she added, as part of an effort to “create a familiar environment” for those campuses that used WebCT for their learning-management needs before Blackboard bought the competitor in 2005.

Texas Kills Its TeleCampus

The University of Texas System announced on April 8 that it would shutter its pioneering UT TeleCampus, laying off 23 employees and reconfiguring the online education entity into a smaller operation within the system’s central office.

“Over the last 12 years, the TeleCampus has been successful in helping the campuses develop and administer online courses,” said Anthony de Bruyn, director of public affairs for the Texas system. “As a result, their mission is complete.”

The idea that online education at the University of Texas (or at least some of its campuses) has developed to the point that a centralized driver like the UT TeleCampus is no longer necessary is certainly feasible, said Richard Garrett, who analyzes online learning for Eduventures, a research and consulting firm.

In many ways, such a change — which Garrett characterized as the first of its kind — would be evidence of maturation, and a logical evolution, he said. “It’s reasonable to begin to expect structural changes like this, where the more successful that online becomes, the less it makes sense to have separate structures to support it,” said Garrett.

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Online Providers of Specialty Curricula Vie for Academic Credit

Since the online-education boom, the notion that students could cobble together a curriculum that includes courses designed and delivered by a variety of different institutions — including for-profit ones — has gained traction in some circles.

Much of the talk about this imminent unbundling has come from colleges that predict that students might want to transfer credits from other colleges that might have different missions. But the competition may also come from entities that do not even offer degrees.

Consider Statistics.com, a company that teaches a swath of online statistics courses to mostly adult learners. In eight years, Statistics.com has grown its menu from a half-dozen professional-development classes to more than 80 courses designed and administered by top statisticians, many of them professors at leading universities. It enrolls about 2,500 students per year. And although the company caters primarily to the professional-development crowd, Statistics.com says it is now looking to grow its introductory offerings in a way that could compete with “any university, whether online or brick-and-mortar, that is going after the nontraditional student market,” according to Peter Bruce, its founder and president.

“Organizations that provide the ‘best’ online education in a given subject area will come to dominate others,” he says. In other words, as technology allows students to pick and choose courses from different institutions, the education providers that thrive will be those that concentrate their resources in particular fields.

Skeptics who object to counting credits from courses taken through commercial providers toward degrees at a traditional institution usually do so based on concerns about quality and rigor. But Michelle Everson, a lecturer at the University of Minnesota who also serves as a consultant and an instructor for Statistics.com, says there is, pound for pound, no difference in rigor between Statistics.com’s introductory courses and the ones Minnesota offers as part of its curriculum. She teaches both.

Burck Smith, the founder and CEO of StraighterLine, says that, while the precepts of higher education are difficult to change, he believes the confluence of several economic factors — particularly rising tuition and the unwillingness of many students to take on exorbitant debt, especially as they see their degree-holding peers struggling to land jobs — may force institutions to consider turning to outside specialists if they want to continue offering certain courses.

And if they don’t, Smith says, students will likely turn to the outside specialists themselves.

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iPads on Campus

Seton Hill University, a Roman Catholic institution in Pennsylvania, announced this week that it would be giving Apple’s new computing tablet to each of its 2,000-odd full-time students when they arrive on campus in the fall. George Fox University, a Christian institution in Oregon, will expand its annual laptop giveaway to first-year students to offer students a choice between a Macbook and an iPad. The year after that, there will be no more choice: Everybody will get iPads.

The e-learning giant Blackboard, meanwhile, today is announcing that it is launching an app for the iPad that will allow students to access their courses from the new device.

But the arrival of the long-awaited device has also prompted questions. On Educause’s CIO listserv last week, higher-ed technologists wondered aloud about the costs and benefits of the efforts of some campuses try to seed their student bodies with the gadget du jour.

Greg Smith, the CIO at George Fox, responded, saying that universities should not worry about justifying iPad giveaways with precise cost-versus-value analyses. The shifts that are happening in higher-ed technology — particularly from bound textbooks and research materials to electronic versions — are “bigger than the iPad,” said Smith. Universities know this change is coming, he said, so they should do what they can to enable it. “The iPad appears to be the perfect device for information at your fingertips which places it in the role to ignite the change,” Smith said.

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The Human Element

A growing body of research has all but obliterated the notion that distance education is inherently less effective than classroom education. But even the most ardent distance-ed evangelists cannot deny persistent evidence suggesting that students are more likely to drop out of online programs than traditional ones. The phenomenon has many explanations, not least the fact that what often makes students choose the flexibility of online learning — being too busy to enroll in a classroom course — can also make it harder for them to keep up with their studies.

But Douglas E. Hersh, dean of educational programs and technology at Santa Barbara City College, believes there is another major factor driving the gap between retention rates in face-to-face programs and those in the rapidly growing world of distance education: the lack of a human touch.

And unlike the reality of adult students’ busy lives, Hersh says the human-touch problem can be solved. In fact, he thinks he knows how.

Hersh’s solution is to incorporate more video and audio components into the course-delivery mechanism. Most professors who teach online already incorporate short video and audio clips into their courses, according to a 2009 by the Campus Computing Project. But it is rarer, Hersh says, for professors to use video of themselves to teach or interact with their online students — largely because the purveyors of major learning management systems do not orient their platforms to feature that method of delivery.

That is why Hersh convinced Santa Barbara in 2008 to abandon Blackboard, the LMS industry leader, in favor of Moodle’s open-source platform, which he used to build the straightforwardly named “Human Presence Learning Environment.” The interface is designed so that professors can deliver lessons and messages using videos recorded with a Webcam. It also shows students who among their instructors or classmates are logged into Skype, the video-chat service, in case they want to have a live, face-to-face conversation. As an alternative to text, students using computers that have built-in recording equipment can post audio responses to discussion threads.

. . . For Hersh, engagement goes hand-in-hand with audio-visual communication. The more that exchanges occurring within an online learning environment resemble those that occur in classrooms, he says, the more that students will feel connected to their professors and classmates, and the more likely they will be to stay in a program.

. . . Hersh admits that this return to the emotional dynamics of face-to-face learning may come at a cost: The text-based medium that currently dominates online learning environments may eliminate the prejudices and distractions inherent to visual communication, making conversations in text-based learning environments more focused.

But communicating solely via text is also alienating, says Hersh. Weighing the theoretical advantages of purely textual discourse against the demonstrated engagement benefits of presence-oriented teaching, the latter wins, he says.

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U.S. Dept. of Education Releases National Education Technology Plan

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Technology Education has released an 80-page draft of a five-year National Educational Technology Plan (NETP), which presents a model of 21st-century learning powered by technology, with goals and recommendations in five important areas: learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure, and productivity. Titled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” the report advocates empowering students to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.

“A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies form the basis of what all students should learn, but beyond that students and educators have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and work tailored to individual goals, needs, and interests,” the report says. “To prepare students to learn throughout their lives and in settings far beyond classrooms, we must change what and how we teach to match what people need to know, how they learn, and where and when they learn and change our perception of who needs to learn. We must bring 21st century technology into learning in meaningful ways to engage, motivate, and inspire learners of all ages to achieve.”

The draft technology plan highlights Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, which has built an online one-stop shop to connect teaching resources, assessments, and system-wide data. Teachers use a Web-based system called the Electronic Curriculum Resource Assessment Tool to create and access lesson plans, worksheets, assessment tools, and other resources tied to district-approved standards. Students take assessments online or on paper, and the results help link teachers to resources that will help address specific students’ needs.

“It brings joy to my heart that learning is the first goal,” says J. Ana Donaldson, the recently elected president of the Association of Educational Communication and Technology, about the plan. “Learners are engaged inside and outside the school environment.”

In Public-Private Partnership, Community College Allows Students to Bypass Waiting Lists–For a Fee

Months after purchasing the Penn Foster Education Group, a for-profit career training provider, the Princeton Review is entering the distance education market by teaming up with community colleges to offer fast-track allied health-care programs to students who are willing to pay higher tuition to bypass long waiting lists. While the college pioneering the system sees the move as providing an important new option, some faculty members are calling the idea a cash grab that taints the traditional community college commitment to equity.

The Princeton Review will pilot this new public-private initiative at Bristol Community College, in southeastern Massachusetts. By this fall, the partnership will expand the enrollment capacity of the community college’s programs in general health science, medical information and coding, and massage therapy. Eventually, it will expand to offer further space in the college’s nursing and radiologic technology programs.

The programs offered will primarily be online, but the Princeton Review will also provide a new space near the college for students to take lab and in-person supplements to their courses. The program will use Bristol’s accreditation and instructors. Other than the fact that these programs are being offered online, the only difference between these programs and Bristol’s current allied health care programs – which the college will maintain with waiting lists – is that students who wish to take the programs sponsored by the Princeton Review will have to pay more in tuition.

. . . [O]fficials from the Princeton Review make no bones about the fact that they expect to turn a profit from the deal. They believe this public-private model positions the programs between the face-to-face programs at the community college and those at the on-demand and high-tuition proprietary institutions with which they will now compete.

Bristol officials say the expanded capacity in these high-demand programs is essential. John J. Sbrega, president of the community college, noted that the college received about 1,000 applicants for its 72-student nursing program last year.

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‘Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent’

In his new book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Jossey-Bass), Peter Smith argues that the country needs to reach deeper into its population than it historically has to produce a sufficient number of educated and skilled workers, and that the thousands of current colleges cannot do that job. Following are excerpts of an interview conducted via email by Insider Higher Ed.

Q. Define the “personal learning” that you think is undervalued/under-recognized by the current higher education system.

A. Students are rarely asked, in depth, what they want from their college education and are almost never engaged in an ongoing conversation about it with someone who can affect their higher education experience. Until institutions personally connect the learner with the curriculum and the college experience, the learner is vulnerable. And the ‘at risk’ learner is always more vulnerable.

Additionally, the older one becomes the more experience one has to compare with what they are being taught. So, to fail to integrate someone’s experience into the curriculum both trivializes and frustrates them. That’s why starting with the assessment of prior learning is such an educationally important thing to do.

Q. What are the developments (you call them “game changers”) that make you believe the time is right to create an alternate path to a postsecondary education for these students?

A. You see evidence every day. When AARP solicits proposals for a learning platform for its members, the balance has shifted. When the Peer-to-Peer University moves into its second “term,” the balance has shifted. When StraighterLine is recognized for its courseware alone, the balance has shifted. When the global OpencourseWare Consortium gets three million hits a month, the balance has shifted.

In the book, I devoted a chapter to the “End of Scarcity” and its impact on higher education. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this trend. Colleges are built and organized around scarcity – the expertise of faculty is in short supply, classrooms and labs are limited because they are expensive, and the authority to offer a course of study is limited. Additionally, reputation is built around who you exclude as much as it is who you include and who succeeds. In fact, the whole concept of meritocracy is built on the notion of scarcity because there is not enough room “at the top” for everyone.

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eCornell Named to List of Top 20 Leadership Training Companies

eCornell has been named to Training Industry, Inc.’s 2010 list of The Top 20 Leadership Training Companies. The first annual list was assembled by Training Industry’s review committee to include companies that have demonstrated experience and excellence in providing leadership training services to a variety of clients.

A complete list of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies can be seen online at www.trainingindustry.com/leadership/top-companies-listings/2010/2010-top-20-leadership-companies.aspx.

Selection of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies was based on the following criteria:

  • Thought leadership and influence on the leadership training industry.
  • Industry recognition and innovation.
  • Breadth of programs offered and audiences served.
  • Delivery methods utilized.
  • Company size and growth potential.
  • Strength of clients.
  • Geographic reach.
  • Experience in serving the market.

“Leadership training represents one of the broadest content segments of the training industry,” said Ken Taylor, Chief Operating Officer of Training Industry, Inc. “Our list of the Top 20 companies highlights the best in class organizations focused on the leadership skills critical to driving business performance.”

“It is certainly rewarding to be considered in the top echelon of leadership training providers,” said Chris Proulx, CEO of eCornell. “This is a strong affirmation of the significant capabilities, resources and experience we have assembled at eCornell and brought to bear on our clients’ leadership and management development initiatives.”