By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I interrupted two students in a small room at Spahr Engineering Library at KU.

Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow doing dynamics homework in new room in engineering library (8)
Tom Ellison, left, and Nathan Marlow at Spahr Engineering Library.

The students, Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow, were working on problems for a dynamics class. Each had tablet computers and used styluses to work problems by hand in OneNote. Ellison’s computer was connected wirelessly to a large monitor on a wall, via an adaptor he checked out from the library, and the two of them conversed and shared ideas as they worked.

It was an impressive scene of collaboration in a space that makes collaboration easy. The room has a table for up to six people and easy access to outlets. A wall-mounted monitor is large enough for everyone at the tables to see, yet it doesn’t get in the way if students don’t need it.

Informal spaces like these are important to student life and student learning. KU Libraries, like libraries around the country, has created more of these spaces, some with tables and chairs, some with whiteboards, others with cushioned chairs and a view of campus. They are constantly in use. The new engineering building has ample numbers of these types of spaces, everything from the small rooms in the Spahr Library to booths in a food court to soft chairs in a bright atrium. Small alcoves with chairs and tables are sprinkled through the building, and students made ample use of all the spaces when I visited the building earlier this week.

These informal spaces make buildings more inviting, but they also reflect a shift toward mobile technology, a shift that is moving ever more rapidly. Within two years, smartphones will provide all the computing power you need at home or at work, Wired reports. It cites predictions from the chipmaker ARM, which recently released a new generation of processors, and a consumer trends researcher. That doesn’t mean the world will change in two years. Adoption of any new technology takes time. It does suggest a tipping point that most universities are ill-equipped to handle.

The size of computer hardware has been shrinking for decades, and if this latest prediction plays out, it will have substantial ramifications for all levels of education. Teenagers have adopted the online world as an important social sphere, with mobile phones an important connection point. Many primary and secondary schools have shifted to a bring-your-own-device model, one that incorporates students’ phones, tablets and laptops into their learning inside and outside the classroom. Pew reports that 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds rely predominately on their phones for Internet access, and that non-White Americans are more likely to have web access only on their phones.

A change by U.S. wireless phone carriers over the summer could add to the pressure to make mobile computing more accessible to students. The carriers began shifting the upfront costs of mobile phones to consumers, rather than building in a sort of installment plan that required two-year contracts. Those higher upfront costs could lead even more people to look at their phones as a primary device for computing and connecting to the Internet, especially if the phones have the power of laptops.

Higher education has generally been slow to adapt to these changes, and indeed there are many challenges in security, compatibility, and capacity of wi-fi networks. It has been even slower in adapting to a mobile web. Everything from university websites to scheduling systems to learning management systems lack basic functionality and usability on mobile.

That has to change, and soon, although the financial challenges are steep. IT departments constantly balance innovation with accessibility, but more than anything else, struggle with the financial demands to stay on top of quickly changing technology. Schools and departments face the same challenges, not only with providing technological access but with modernizing classrooms and other learning spaces to accommodate new technology, collaborative learning, and the flexibility that learning environments so desperately need. Those challenges aren’t likely to change anytime soon, given the hostile attitudes toward higher education in many state legislatures. Institutions simply must address those challenges, though, if they hope to remain relevant in which technology and physical environments can aid or hinder student engagement and learning.

A recent comment by Jay Bhatt, president and CEO of Blackboard, cuts to the heart of the mobile challenge in higher education. Blackboard is hardly a leader in adapting to mobile, though it has made progress of late. Bhatt’s comments are worth taking to heart:

“There is a critical disconnect between what today’s learners want, and how the educational system is serving them. The industry hasn’t changed in years. Today’s learners have a drastically different set of wants, needs and consumer preferences. Learners of all ages and at all points in their learning lifecycle today require something different. They want and expect technology to play a major role in their education. And they want education technology that is as convenient as what they’ve become accustomed to from companies like Apple and Amazon. They want mobile. They want to be able to connect with their peers. They want fast, simple, and intuitive.”

Test-optional application process plays well in university rankings

Colleges and universities that make the SAT or ACT optional may have less-than-altruistic goals in mind.

Stephen Burd of The Hechinger Report says that a test-optional application process is often portrayed as a way of diversifying the student body. The argument sounds good, he says, as standardized test scores often create barriers for minority and non-affluent students.

It usually doesn’t work that way, though.

By making standardized tests optional, Burd says, colleges and universities often draw more applicants, thus increasing the percentage of rejected applications and making themselves seem more exclusive. Students who do submit their scores on the SAT and ACT under such a system generally do so because their scores are higher than average, raising the institution’s overall average and again making the school seem more exclusive.

Those exclusivity figures play especially well in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, providing a boost to test-optional institutions and essentially punishing those that either require the ACT or SAT, or don’t.

As for the diversity argument, Burd says there is little evidence that a test-optional approach leads to a more diverse student body. Rather, it simply allows institutions to pander to the types of rankings that affluent families embrace in making college choices. Others say the test-optional approach simply needs more time to work. It’s definitely worth watching.

Briefly …

A short lecture helps students put readings into better context, Illysa Izenberg argues in an article for Faculty Focus. By short, she means 8 to 10 minutes, with the rest of class time devoted to activities, discussion and reflection. … University Business says competency-based education is “poised for explosive growth,” and it provides advice for creating such programs from institutions that have already moved in that direction. … Writing in Harvard Business Review, Jeffrey Arnett says companies should tap into millennials’ desire to find engaging work that allows them to make positive contributions to society. I’d argue that college instructors should do the same.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Most Americans still see a four-year degree as important, but it is not at the top of the list of things that will help someone achieve a successful career, a recent Heartland Monitor poll suggests.

In the poll, respondents ranked technology skills, an ability to work with diverse groups of people, keeping skills current, and having family connections above a four-year college degree.Graph showing poll responses about the importance of college from 1978 through 2015. The percentage of Americans describing a college education as “very important” peaked in 2010 before declining substantially. The decline looks much less dramatic, though, when the two “important” categories are combined.

They certainly didn’t dismiss a college education. More than half said a college degree was very important and 87 percent said it was either very or somewhat important. Those between age 18 and 29 ranked the importance of a degree slightly higher than those 30 and over (55 percent vs. 53 percent). Blacks and Hispanics looked at a degree more favorably than did whites.

The poll was sponsored by National Journal, Allstate and The Atlantic. In interpreting the results, the organizations said the responses about college were “a startling admission in the United States, where college has long been seen as a Holy Grail to the good life.”

Maybe. In context, though, it doesn’t look so startling.

I pieced together data from the Heartland poll and several polls conducted by Gallup for the scholarly organization Phi Delta Kappa. (Most of those are available through the database JStore.) Polls in 1978, 1983, 1985, 2010, 2013, and 2014 asked a question about the importance of college very similar to the one asked in the Heartland poll.

Most certainly, the percentage of Americans saying that a degree is very important has declined substantially since a peak of 75 percent in 2010. If the categories for “very important” and “somewhat” or “fairly” important are combined, though, the decline isn’t nearly so steep.

Those combined totals rose from 82 percent in 1978 to a peak of 96 percent in 2010 before declining to 87 percent in 2015.

In 2014, Gallup said the decline in the percentage of people who view a college degree as very important was surprising.

It is.

Most people still see a college degree as an important factor in achieving success on the job, yet they have also begun to look at other options, especially as a growing percentage of potential students delay their entrance to college for financial reasons.

Rather than stirring a panic for higher education, though, the polls add one more reason for colleges and universities to clean up their tarnished reputation.

The tech connection

Let’s dig a little deeper into the importance of technology skills.

In April, I wrote about a report from the Educational Testing Service that raised concerns about American millennials’ poor skills when compared with their counterparts around the world.

A report by a group of CEOs offers its own evaluation of that and other data, saying that 58 percent of millennials lack the basic skills they need to solve problems with technology. This is even as millennials use digital media for 35 hours a week, on average, the report said.

The CEO group, which is called Change the Equation, says that this lack of technological know-how will diminish millennials’ job prospects, if it already hasn’t. Most millennials don’t seem to understand how their lack of skills is hurting them, the report said, although only 37 percent of employers say young workers are prepared to stay current with new technologies.

“We must make a point of incorporating technology into how students learn to tackle problems. This does not mean that every young person needs to become a computer scientist, though more certainly should. Instead, students must learn to realize the full potential of technology as a critical aid to human productivity and invention,” the report said.

I don’t dispute the importance of technological savviness. I push my students to use technology for problem-solving, and I emphasize the importance of digital literacy.

Technology isn’t magic, though. Yes, students need technological skills, but that means using hardware and software to solve problems, answer questions, test ideas, communicate solutions, build communities, and stretch our potential.

That all starts with critical thinking, which should be the primary focus of all education. We must incorporate technology into that process. Technology is simply a means to an end, though.

Briefly …

JStor, the online archive, has started a teaching newsletter aimed at helping instructors integrate JStor material into lesson plans. … Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University, warns universities against pursuing easy scapegoats in the quest to reduce sexual assault and sexual harassment. In an article for The Guardian, she says “we must avoid enabling institutions to blame particular students or activities for problems they themselves have had a hand in creating.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Higher education has an image problem. And a trust problem.

That should come as no surprise, given the drubbing that public colleges and universities have taken from state legislatures over the past few years. They have also taken criticism from federal policy makers – along with parents and students – about costs and transparency.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

The latest sign of flagging trust comes from a national poll from the Robert Morris University Polling Institute in Pittsburgh.

More than half of parents polled said colleges and universities weren’t staying current with the demands of the job market or maintaining strong relationships with employers. Jerry Lindsley, president of the Center for Research and Public Policy at Robert Morris, put that into some disturbing context. In a press release from the university, he said:

“Our corporate clients strive to attain overall satisfaction ratings in the high 80s. Even health insurance companies and most utilities receive positive ratings in the high 80s.”

Ouch!

Adding to the sting, the poll found that the number of Americans who rate the value of a bachelor’s degree in positive terms had dropped more than 23 points in the last 10 years, to 44.6 percent.

Not surprisingly, given the rising cost of college, Americans increasingly see a college degree in purely economic terms. An overwhelming 82 percent of those in the Robert Morris poll said job training and preparation at colleges and universities were more important than academic work.

Interestingly, students in the United Kingdom say much the same thing. In a recent poll there, students said that professional experience and training in teaching were more important in instructors than being an active researcher, The Guardian reports. Students who study more, have more contact hours with instructors, and take classes with 50 or fewer students are more satisfied with their education than other students are, the poll said.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, points out the danger of a narrow, consumerist view of education. College isn’t a commodity, he argues in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. Rather, it’s an awakening. “It’s a challenging engagement in which both parties have to take an active and risk-taking role if its potential value is to be realized.”

You can’t just buy an education, walk off with it and plug it in. Students’ success depends in large part on the work they are willing to put into that education.

“The ultimate value of college,” Rawlings writes, “is the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge.”

He’s right. I’ve made that case myself. And yet those of us in higher education face an enormous challenge in making that case to students, parents and legislators who increasingly see education as a means to a very specific end, not as a process of mental development.

We have our work cut out for us.

Sage advice about non-traditional students

Jeff Fanter, vice president for enrollment, communications and marketing management at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, offered this excellent insight during an interview with The Evolllution:

“I firmly believe many non-traditional students come into the door of higher education with one foot outside the door at all times. If you give them a reason to take their other foot back outside the door and walk away they will.”

Briefly …

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, will explore the influence digital text formatting has on reading abilities in middle school students, The Journal reports. … Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Robert Reich argues that the United States needs to reinvent its entire education system. … Minnesota’s public colleges and universities will receive their full appropriation from the state legislature only if they meet several guidelines, including increasing graduation rates and job placement, Minnesota Public Radio reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

No one disputes that college tuition has risen substantially over the past 20 years.

Ask why, though, and you’ll get vastly different answers.

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado, dismisses the idea that declining state subsidies have led to rising tuition. Instead, he writes, “the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education.”

That partly depends on when you start measuring.

chart showing college costs from the 1960s to 2010s
Vox provides this chart as part of a larger package on college costs.

Adjusted for inflation, funding for higher education is 10 times higher than it was in the 1960s, Campos says. Some of that increase has been driven by a larger percentage of Americans going to college, he says, although tuition has risen even faster than legislative financing. He attributes much of the rise to the “constant expansion of university administration.”

Campos says an argument can be made for the increases in spending and the growth in administration, except for the skyrocketing salaries of top administrators. Ultimately, though, he argues, tuition increases aren’t tied to state cuts.

Tom Lindsay of Forbes cheers Campos’s argument, adding his own figures to back up those Campos provides. Lindsay says his own research about Texas shows “that a mild decrease in state funding … has been accompanied by a wild increase in university tuitions and fees.”

On the other side of the spending argument is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on how government policies affect low-income Americans. Its latest report shows that state spending on higher education has dropped more than 20 percent since 2007-08, with some states cutting more than 35 percent. Tuition has increased 29 percent during that time.

Some states have increased funding to higher education by an average of 3.9 percent over the past year, the center said, but 13 states have continued to cut.

So who’s right? All of the above, at least to an extent.

There’s no dispute that financing for public colleges and universities has risen considerably since the 1960s. Nor is there any dispute that education at all levels has taken substantial cuts in state financing since the 2008 recession.

Have tuition increases since 2008 been tied, at least in part, to declining state support? Of course they have. Do those state cuts fully explain the tuition increases? Definitely not. What about the longer term? That’s where Campos and Lindsay have a strong argument. Tuition rates grew enormously even as public spending on higher education rose from the 1960s to 2008.

Whatever your take on rising tuition and state cuts, those issues need to be framed in terms of bigger questions:

  • What type of public higher education system do we want?
  • How much are states and potential students willing to pay for the education those institutions deliver?
  • And how can we keep public education from becoming an elite-only opportunity? That is, how do we keep it truly public?

Those are the harder questions we have yet to answer satisfactorily.

That other big college expense

Discussions about rising tuition rates often overlook an even bigger expense for many families: room and board.

According to NPR, those costs are rising even faster than tuition rates.

It cites statistics from the College Board, saying that the cost of room and board at public universities has risen by more than 20 percent since 2009.

Among the drivers of cost, according to NPR: aging dorms that need to be replaced; student demand for gourmet menus and luxury rooms, along with universities trying to keep pace with one another in this area; use of higher-priced local food; and extended hours for dining halls.

It also points to another cause: As colleges and universities have been pressed to keep tuition increases down, some have pushed up the cost of student housing to help fill budget gaps.

Briefly …

U.S. college enrollment fell by about 200,000 between 2012-13 and 2013-14, The Hechinger Report says, and the proportion of students who moved immediately from high school to college dropped four percentage points between 2009 and 2013. More students are also enrolling part time, Hechinger says, and a slightly higher percentage of students are staying after their freshman year. … Penn State researchers will use Apple watches to interact with students in class, send notifications outside of class, and promote reflection on learning, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

I often roll my eyes at articles that take millennials to task for not measuring up to the standard of the day. All too often, baby boomers and those in generations before seem to wag their fingers at young people and spew out curmudgeonly laments that inevitably start with, “When I was your age …”

question on reading a chart from ETS survey
Sample questions, above and below, from the international survey of millennials’ skills

As I dug into a new report by the Educational Testing Service, though, I began to buy into the concerns it raises about the skills of American millennials when compared with those of their counterparts worldwide. (ETS creates the GRE and TOEFL tests, among others.) The new report, written by Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, is called “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”

Across the board, data from the study suggest that Americans rank near the bottom in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (things like using digital maps and calculating the price of tickets from a kiosk). This holds true for high school graduates and for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’” the authors write. “Now it is below even that.”

More education, fewer skills

The 82 million American millennials – those born after 1980 – have received more formal education than any previous generation, the authors write, yet their demonstration of skills in literacy and numeracy are middling at best. The U.S. is the wealthiest among 22 nations where the test was administered, but it is also “the most economically unequal.”

Given the poor performance of American millennials on these tests, the report says, we should “consider critically the value that higher education in the U.S. is contributing to the skills of our young adults,” adding: “For education to be a vehicle to future success, for it to fuel the American Dream, it has to be aligned with an economy that values the skills it imparts, and those skills must be translatable to tangible opportunities.”

One of the most interesting – and ominous – assertions the report makes is that the growing economic inequality in American society today is very likely to compound the disparity in skills. Students whose parents hold college degrees generally have greater skills in literacy and math than those whose parents have only high school diplomas. As the cost of college rises and economic inequality grows, those at the top will have great access to education and the opportunities it brings while those at the bottom will have fewer opportunities.

sample map from ETS survey“A very real danger lies in perpetuating a cycle where low skill levels, less income, and less access to quality education will beget a further entrenchment of deep inequality, with some segments of society more at risk than others,” the authors write.” This is the very opposite of what a meritocratic society purports to offer.”

For instance, scores of blacks and Hispanics were 15 to 24 percent below those of their white counterparts, depending upon the age group. As the report explains, though, whites and Asian-Americans still scored below the average for all those who took the tests internationally.

What can we do?

Tests of all kinds tend to do a much better job of measuring students’ ability to take tests than they do in measuring their ability to apply skills in a realistic setting. I’m also suspicious of “the sky is falling” reports about education. The sky has been falling since at least the 1970s. As I said earlier, though, I’ve had trouble finding fault with this study.

Perhaps the main weakness in the study is its lack of solutions. It makes a strong case that the skills of American millennials rank below those of their international counterparts. It doesn’t explain why or how to fix the problem, though. Here are some obvious ones:

De-emphasize standardized testing. Instead of fixating on standardized testing, give teachers the freedom to help students learn in meaningful ways. Many are doing that already with blended learning, project-based learning, team-based learning, and other methods. Until schools adopt a teacher evaluation system that uses standardized tests as a small part of a much larger portfolio, teachers will focus on test scores.

Make skills matter. Today’s academic culture promotes the idea of education as a product rather than a process of learning. Reversing that will require more meaningful demonstrations of skills over grades and a diploma. And until universities stop basing admissions decisions on standardized test scores, the ability to take those tests will matter far more than than more meaningful skills.

Emphasize active learning. As Maryellen Weimer writes in Faculty Focus: “We can’t seem to disavow ourselves of the notion that teachers should do most of the talking.” Active learning helps students gain crucial skills. Wide-scale of adoption of active learning is unlikely occur, though, until instructors are rewarded for taking risks.

Value teaching. Higher education still lacks a meaningful reward system for high-quality teaching. Until we change that, teaching will play a diminished role that results in diminished skills for students.

The problem is far more complex than any of those solutions, but those areas can at least provide an entry into a much-needed and, as the ETS report emphasizes, increasingly urgent problem.

Briefly …

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State, Pueblo, says that the university tenure system “is on life support” but deserves to be saved because it “is the best form of quality control that higher education has.” … The UK is struggling to recruit and retain teachers, investment in education has dropped, and student skills lag, The Guardian reports, saying, “Education has never mattered more, so why won’t the UK invest in it properly?” … Educause has joined other organizations in expressing concern about the discriminatory aspects of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Information Act. In an email message, the organization’s president and CEO, Diana Oblinger, said Educause had been looking for alternative sites to Indianapolis for its October conference and had written a letter to Indiana’s governor. … Three white papers issued by the U.S. Senate “show that lawmakers are considering significant changes in the ways colleges are evaluated and held accountable for student outcomes,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Faculty often see the benefits of online education for students but not for themselves, Karen H. Sibley and Ren Whitaker write in Educause.

Development of online courses takes precious time away from other activities that generate greater rewards for faculty. The way to change that, Sibley and Whitaker argue, is to offer incentives to move into online education. They give these examples:

  • Providing compensation as salary, research funds, or time (e.g., a course buy-out)
  • Appealing to a sense of curiosity and a desire to develop new skills for those attracted to experimental work or invigorated by the chance to reimagine their courses
  • Delivering training and support to lower the barriers and to decrease the time and effort needed to develop or adapt new instructional approaches
  • Activating a sense of mission and loyalty to their students and the institution
  • Increasing a sense of relevance for those who want to remain current in the rapidly changing environment of higher education
  • Recognizing effective engagement in online learning in the institutional reward systems

    Outside of Spooner Hall at KU, with "wisdom" in brick
    Spooner Hall, University of Kansas (Photo by Doug Ward)

Online education is really just one example of a much larger problem in the way higher education values (or doesn’t value) innovative and reflective teaching and learning. Sibley and Whitaker offer good steps to promote change. Ultimately, though, two enormous cultural barriers stand in the way.

First, attitudes about the value of teaching must change. Many faculty members see teaching as a crucial part of their role and their identity, and most understand its importance at colleges and universities. Too often, though, teaching is seen as a bother, as something that gets in the way of far more important and more highly rewarded pursuits (research). High-quality teaching doesn’t magically appear with a Ph.D. Nor will it thrive until a critical mass of administrators and faculty members value it enough to create a truly meaningful rewards system.

Second, higher education is an inherently conservative profession, at least in terms of techniques. Professions promote conformity by passing on values, ideals, methods, and expectations to new generations, as Leonard Cassuto writes this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most instructors teach the way they were taught, and those with the Ph.D. learned in environments where teaching was generally an afterthought.

So to Sibley and Whitaker’s list, let me add these ideas for generating more interest in online courses:

  • Add instruction in course development and online instruction to graduate programs
  • Hire faculty members based not only on their research skills but on their ability and willingness to teach in innovative ways and to reflect on their work with students
  • Reward new faculty who are willing to develop their classes with active learning and take on development of online courses
  • Change the promotion and tenure standards to reflect the time and effort that innovative, reflective teaching deserves

In a recent issue of Change Magazine, Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate and a professor of education at Stanford, writes that faculty will indeed shift their attitudes and behaviors with the right incentive systems.

So if we want innovative teaching, we need to reward innovative teaching, just as we reward innovative research. It’s that easy, and that hard.

Briefly …

The Atlantic reports that proposed changes in 529 plans, the college savings accounts, would allow students to pay for such things as computers, software, and Internet access. … Poor technical production can inhibit good pedagogy in online courses, eCampus News says in one of its takeaways from the recent South by Southwest conference. NPR offered another list of education-related discussions from the conference, including the important role that online discussions are taking in teacher development. … Politico casts a skeptical eye on U.S. universities, saying that few have done anything to prepare for students who have completed the Common Core curriculum in high school.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

In a discussion among faculty earlier this week, a conversation about online education quickly turned skeptical.

We were exploring the model of the Minerva Schools, which uses a combination of online and experiential learning with a small group of students. It aims to reduce the cost of college by using technology, rather than physical classrooms, and to create cohorts of students who live in and explore different international locations each year. Minerva’s first class of students started last fall.

One faculty member in our discussion at CTE said that her most memorable undergraduate experiences took place in hands-on labs or in field experiments where students explored the many facets of the natural universe. How is it possible to replicate that experience online? she asked.

smiley face drawn on snow-covered university seal outside Budig Hall at University of Kansas
Photo by Doug Ward

Another faculty member talked about the difficulty of having deep discussions online. Yes, students and instructors can share thoughts and debate gray areas on a virtual discussion board, but those discussions lack spontaneity. Even live discussions with webcams don’t provide the same interactions or visual cues as in-person discussions. They also lack the same verve of classroom interaction, he said.

Those doubts are understandable. They are also widely shared.

A report released earlier this month by Babson Survey Research Group and the Online Learning Consortium showed a tempering of enthusiasm for online undergraduate courses. Growth in online courses has slowed considerably from a few years ago, though it is still at 3.8 percent annually. The authors of the report write:

“While the number of students taking distance courses has grown by the millions over the past decade, it has not come without considerable concerns. Faculty acceptance has lagged, concerns about student retention linger, and leaders continue to worry that online courses require more faculty effort than face-to-face instruction.”

Babson’s survey of chief academic offers found that faculty acceptance of the “value and legitimacy of online education” declined over the last two years to 28 percent, nearly the same percentage as in 2003.

The report provides a central reason that faculty members have doubts about online courses: There is “no agreed upon measure of educational quality – either for face-to-face or for online education.”

We have no common, definitive way of comparing, so we go with our gut, and our gut tells us that in-person learning is better than online learning.

I understand faculty concerns about online courses. At the same time, I see great value in those courses and see a need to continue expanding them. I’ve been leading development of a mostly online master’s degree in Digital Content Strategy that will start this year. Online courses for undergraduates provide an important means for students to keep on track toward graduation, especially during the summer and intersession. We can also use online courses to reach out to students who stopped their education at some point, giving them the opportunity to complete their college education.

One reason online education raises such doubts at traditional universities, though, is that those universities fail to explain its role in undergraduate education. At one point, administrators pushed online courses because they saw them as a way to save faculty time and universities money. (They don’t, if done right.) Or they pursued them because everyone else was, and they didn’t want to get left behind.

Beyond that, though, they haven’t addressed some crucial questions: Are universities developing online courses for student convenience? For faculty convenience? Are they intended to help improve graduation rates? To provide new ways of learning? And if they expand their online offerings, how do those courses fit with on-campus instruction? Most important, are students learning what they need to learn in whatever format courses take?

Those are just a few of the challenging questions we have to consider. Those questions loom especially large at universities that have invested millions of dollars in a physical infrastructure, that have specialized in personal interaction and hands-on learning opportunities, and that have sold students on the idea of an on-campus “experience.”

Until faculty members see a strategy to online course development, until they buy in to the why behind online course offerings, and until they alleviate valid concerns about online courses’ ability to deliver deep, meaningful learning, they will continue to express skepticism. And rightfully so.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I wrote about the unlikelihood of competition and cultural forces pushing higher education to “unbundle” its degrees and services.

Jeff Young of The Chronicle of Higher Education provides yet another take on that notion. Young says that providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have pledged to democratize education, allowing anyone to become an educator and a learner. He describes platforms like Udemy, edX and MOOC.org collectively as the “sharing economy meets education.”

In one example, a 25-year-old entrepreneur with no teaching experience has made tens of thousands of dollars through his app-building course on Udemy. An Iowa State professor makes $2,500 a month from a collection of online courses he calls the Critical Thinker Academy, and aspires to work on that full time.

abstract image of ceiling of Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
Doug Ward

As Young explains, there’s a growing audience for learning among motivated people who have degrees (or not) and want to keep learning but don’t want to pursue another degree. These people aren’t afraid to step outside the traditional realm of education.

“The bigger, more immediate threat to colleges is indirect,” Young writes. “These sites that let anyone teach courses might just change the way people think about the value of education, about the nature of expertise, and about what teaching is worth.”

There are no surprises here. This is just part of a much longer conversation on the role and value of MOOCs and the future of higher education. It is yet another sign of the need for colleges and universities to change, though, and another reminder of the opportunities for those institutions that can effect that change.

More unconventional learning

While we’re on the topic of unconventional approaches to learning, I’d recommend reading Jessica Lahey’s Atlantic article “What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show.”

Lahey profiles Michael Stevens, host of a high-energy YouTube education channel called Vsauce. Stevens takes on such quirky topics as “Is Cereal Soup?” and “What If the Earth Stopped Spinning?” and (shudder) “What Does Human Taste Like?” She writes:

Stevens understands that the best teachers don’t just hurl vast shovelfuls of wisdom at their students, hoping some of it sticks as it whizzes by. Great teachers know that education is a long game, and much of the time, the lesson at hand is not the final destination but an opportunity to contextualize and support future learning.
Stevens’s ability to connect with audiences – his 10-minute videos get millions of views each – goes beyond great titles, pun-filled presentations and sharp visuals, though. Lahey writes:

You don’t learn from a Vsauce video because you put out a lot of effort to do so; you learn because Stevens makes the information matter.

That, perhaps more than anything, is what those of us in higher education need to take away from the popularity of Vsauce, Udemy and other unconventional forms of education: We have to make information matter. We have to make learning matter. We have to make education matter. We have to help students see the connections among the topics we teach, and among the topics our colleagues teach.

That ability to connect – with students and among topics – is a central component of the future of education.

Generate! Blah-blah-blah. Repeat! Blah-blah-blah.

In a post last month, I wrote about Audrey Watters’s list of vapid academic jargon and her prediction that the blah-blah-blah would continue unabated in 2015.

Since then, I’ve run across a wonderful tool called the Jargon Generator, which was created by Andy Allan, a high school teacher in California who maintains a site called ScienceGeek.net.

Allan says he was inspired to create the Jargon Generator after reading new guidelines for AP Chemistry. The generator was modeled on a similar tool on Dack.com.

The Jargon Generator is a must-see amusement for anyone who has slogged through a poorly edited academic journal, suffered through a grant application, endured an administrative meeting or survived a speech by an educational consultant. Just push the “Generate jargon!” button and see such amazing empty phrases as these:

  • We will visualize school-based pedagogy across content areas.
  • We will aggregate shared differentiated lessons within professional learning communities.
  • We will cultivate shared concept maps across cognitive and affective domains.

For even more fun, try an active learning experiment and string together some of the sentences on your own:

We will discern bottom-up paradoxes with a laser-like focus, ultimately integrating synergistic technologies within the new paradigm. We fully expect that to agendize college and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities and operationalize diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

My only complaint with the Jargon Generator is that all the sentences it creates are in active voice. True jargon is dipped from a cesspool of passive:

Bottom-up paradoxes will be discerned with a laser-like focus, and the new paradigm will ultimately be integrated with synergistic technologies. College and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities are expected to be fully agendized upon the operationalization by diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

If that doesn’t make you want to run for the exits, you’ve no doubt been reading too much of the Journal of Cooperative Paradigm Processes for 21st-Century Learners. You have my sympathy.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.