Thursday, February 20, 2014

Big Data and the Rights of Students

In December 2013, the Times Higher Education website in Great Britain published an article about the use of big data in higher education. 

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute, was interviewed on the eve of the Online Educa Berlin conference about the increasing use of “big data” by higher education.  He cautioned against using big data to track students and narrow their choices as they begin their academic careers.  Quoting from the article:

“Until the beginning of the big data age, a student could write in his or her application…an argument outlining why the data might not be complete enough, and might not give a comprehensive prediction,” he said.
“I fear that as we move into the big data age…this argument will not hold much currency any more. Then I worry that the predictions will take over, and schools, universities and college swill not take any risks any more.”

The concern that use of big data will make it harder for students to chart their own educational—and, by extension, professional and societal—futures is important.  Institutions need to make sure that, in the process of trying to optimize student success, they don’t deny students choice.  At the same time, we need to make sure that we honor our other commitments to students.  Some points for discussion:

·      It is important that students know what data is being collected and how it will be used, individually or in aggregate.  Given the ways that big data can be used to guide the student’s experience in the curriculum, it is essential that students be aware of how their actions are being captured and used by the institution. 

·      Institutions need policies regarding how they use data they collect.  For instance, can the data be used to disqualify a student from a direction the student clearly wants to take? 

·      Institutions need to control the use of data.   What is the student's right to privacy in this environment?   For instance, should institutions be able to use student data for purposes other than helping the student succeed?  Should they be able to use it, in aggregate, for recruiting?  Should institutions be able to sell data or use it to promote non-academic products and services to students?  If a third-party is used to collect information, what use, if any, can the third party make of the data? 

·      Who, besides an individual faculty member, should have access to student data gathered during a course?  Historically, universities have protected communications in a course.  Should institutions that collect student data in courses be able to share that data—individually or in aggregate—with other faculty, with advisors and other student services professionals, or with third parties (parents, potential employers, etc.)?

·      At the recent UPCEA/ACE conference on online learning, one presenter described how big data was being used within courses to track how students use online content.  The presenter described a case in which the course allowed students to request a “hint” when they were having difficulty with a problem.  She noted that one student always used the “hint” as a first resort, which raised the question of whether the student was actually learning the course content.  This raises two broad ethical questions:  (1) In cases like this, should students be made aware of how over-use of a feature like hints will be seen by the instructor and encouraged to use the feature sparingly? and (2) If help is provided, should using that help be seen by faculty as a sign of weakness on the part of the student?  It is an area that calls out for new rules and better communication about expectations.

Clearly, big data has great potential to help institutions better understand their students and, potentially, to help them guide students to success.  However, for this benefit to be fully realized, institutions—and individual faculty—need to integrate the collection and use of this data into its culture and into the relationships that exist with students at the course level, the program level, and the institutional level.  At the process, institutions must ensure that students are made aware of and are empowered by the data that the institution is collecting.

Friday, February 14, 2014

MOOCs Arrive in Harper's Index

The March 2014 issue of  Harper's Magazine came today and had these items in the "Index":

*Percentage of students enrolled in a massive open online course who view no more than one lecture:  49.
*Percentage who complete the course:  4.
*Percentage of students enrolled in such courses at UPenn last year who had already earned a college degree:  79.

Interestingly, the "Index" also has these items:

*Percentage of U.S. students who started college in 2007 who have not completed their degrees: 1/2.
*Percentage change since 1980 in the rate of labor-force participation among U.S. women: +5.7

Clearly, we have not yet found the best role for MOOCs here in the U.S.  However, it is also clear that there is a significant societal demand to help adults complete their college degrees so that they can be more competitive in the workforce and so that our society can better compete in the new global economy.

At the same time, it is clear that we need to greatly increase the impact of agricultural and other research in developing countries so that they can participate more equally in the new economy.  Here, perhaps, is a way that America's research universities--and, especially, our land grant institutions with their long history of research transfer and extension--can make good use of MOOCs.

The "Index" also had some bad news from the K-12 realm:

*Portion of white U.S. students taking AP math exams last year who received passing scores: 2/3.
*Of black U.S. students: 1/3.
*Number of 882 SAT takers from Camden, New Jersey, in 2012, who were scored "college ready": 3.

If we are to meet the workforce needs of the new economy, we desperately need to produce more high school graduates who are prepared to go on to college.  Here, again, MOOCs might help by making available to teachers open educational resources in critical disciplines and developing the teacher's ability to effectively use them.

There is a future for MOOCs in the U.S.  We just need to focus on the societal need.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Responding to the New Student Revolution

This week, "Inside Higher Education" carried an article -- 
 Ready or Not, Change is Coming | Inside Higher Ed --
about the dramatic shift in student circumstances and student expectations of higher education. 

The author, Marni Baker Stein, notes that not only is this generation of students more likely to work while attending college, they have very specific expectations of higher education, including that they (quoting Ms. Stein here):
  • attend, perhaps more than ever before, to the outcomes of their education; 
  • expect a return on their investment and increasingly demand
  • internships, practical experience and direct windows into possible
    employment paths from the very start of their post-secondary careers;
  • value personalization that is embedded in their day-to-day experiences
  • and that responds to both their weaknesses and strengths;
  • prefer optimized pathways that recognize and credit prior knowledge and experience and allow them to move at their own pace;
  • opt to work across multiple institutions and multiple instructional contexts to get to goal; and
  • demand a student experience accessible anytime, anywhere, and on any device.
This suggests to me that colleges and universities must begin to pay more attention to the unique opportunities that online technology provides to not only increase access and convenience for students, but to meet their expectations that an education is more than taking lecture notes and passing tests.  Specifically:

*Increasing the use of competency-based learning

*Integrate learning with practical experience, building on the fact that online learning eliminates geography as a defining factor in the student's experience, allowing them to mix formal learning and practical experience.

*Creating learning communities and adopting a pedagogy that encourages collaborative and active learning based on inquiry, research, and problem solving.

*Facilitating collaboration across institutions (such as the Great Plains IDEA and CIC CourseShare) so that all students have access to the best possible courses and experiences.

*Encouraging use of mobile devices to sustain active learning communities.

In short, online learning must evolve beyond simply providing access to ensuring a learning environment that will help today's students--on-campus, off-campus, and in between--be successful in a globalized information society.   This is the real challenge for the second generation of online learning.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Thanks to the Beatles on their 50th Anniversary in the US

Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ premiere on American television—The Ed Sullivan Show—back in 1964. 

I was working at Little Italy, a family-owned restaurant in Hermitage, at the time.  The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop, brought in a TV and we watched it there.   

I saw the Beatles in 1966.  They were playing at the Cleveland baseball stadium.  That was the year I graduated from high school.  I was working at the local Arby’s, and a group of us drove up to Cleveland for the concert.  We parked outside the city and took a trolley into town.  We had lunch and then went over to the hotel where the Beatles were staying.  Saw nothing, but enjoyed the crowd.

In those days, the amplification systems were not yet powerful enough for full-stadium concerts, so the stage was set on second base and the seating went around from first base to third base.  Our seats were close to first base.  The Beatles were great.  But, when the opening guitar riff for “Day Tripper” started, the crowd went wild and kids stormed the stage.  Police had set up snow fence around the track and tried to hold back the crowd, but to no avail.  The Beatles retreated to a trailer set behind the stage until things got settled down and then came out and finished their set.  On the trolley back to our car, we saw several people who carried souvenirs of the concert.  One had one the first (or third) base bag.  Another had the neck of a guitar.

The Beatles—along with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and a few others—continued to provide social markers for us through college.  I remember the day the White Album came out, for instance, and we gathered in a friend’s apartment to listen to it for the first time.  Many thanks to them all for giving a soundtrack to our generation.

Putting the Social Mission First

Last week, at a conference for online learning leaders, I was reminded of a tendency of many in and around the online learning community to see our work in corporate/industrial terms.  The idea of defining everything we do in business terms is unsettling for someone whose entire professional career has been in the service of public institutions.

Public and most private higher education institutions do not operate by “free market” principles.  Instead, our colleges and universities—excepting the small number of for-profit companies that offer accredited degrees (often to students who fund their tuition with public funds)—are complex organizations that are largely funded by the public and serve a public purpose.  Some are owned by their states; others are nonprofit corporations.  All operate with significant financial support from the public through a combination of direct government funding and tax-supported financial aid for students.  In doing so, they fulfill a social contract that they will address the public’s need for educated citizens and professionals in many walks of life.  To speak of these institutions as if they were for-profit businesses denies the fundamental social purpose and values that define them.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why this perception has some to the fore.  One is a broad array of for-profit companies have arisen that sell services to institutions that want to offer online programs but that lack the technical and support infrastructure to quickly achieve scale without help. 

Another part of the problem is that, typically, these operations are expected to be “self-supporting.”  I put that in quotation marks because very little of higher education is truly self-supporting.  What I mean when I say that online learning is self-supporting is that, for the most part, they do not benefit from direct state subsidies.  As a result, they typically are expected by their institutions to pay their own way and not divert public funds from other aspects of their institution’s mission.  Because they represent a new expense, they must generate new revenue.  That said, many of the students that they attract may be funded by taxpayers through public scholarships or loans.  The public mission is maintained. 

As a new mission at many institutions, there has been a need to isolate the online learning initiative so that it does not, in the attempt to serve new students, take resources away from existing programs serving more traditional students.   Similarly, in most institutions (again excluding a small number of for-profit companies) after-cost revenue from tuition and fees is re-invested in the institution.  Typically, this is what funds new program development, technological enhancements, professional development for faculty, expanded student services, etc.  In some cases, excess revenue is distributed to academic units, where it can be used to support faculty research or other academic unit projects or returned to the central administration to support the institution in general.  There is no “profit” involved. 

Why do we offer online higher education?  For many of us, online learning is a simple extension of a mission that we have pursued since 1892, when three relatively new American universities—Penn State, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin—launched correspondence study, the first generation of American distance education.  Our purpose—then as now—was to extend access to higher education to adult students who otherwise could not practically pursue higher education.  Over the years, distance education has adopted many new technologies—from radio and film in the 1920s to broadcast television in the 1970s, satellite and interactive video in the 1980s and, since the mid-1990s, the Internet. 

Today, the need for colleges and universities to extend access to adult students has never been greater.  Our society is changing. The U.S. Department of Education has noted that, to ensure that our society can thrive in a global information economy, we need to increase the percentage of high school graduates who go on to higher education from the current rate of 39 percent to 60 percent.  Currently, most high school students who are qualified for higher education do, indeed, go to college.  In order to meet the societal need, then, we must reach out to adults were not able to pursue higher education at the traditional 18-22 age or who find themselves needing additional education in order to grow professionally.  This is our social mission:  to empower adult Americans to meet the demands of a changing society.  To see online learning only in profit/loss terms only diminishes that critical mission.

Online learning often began, by necessity, on the fringes of our institutions.  However, it is clear that this innovation will find its proper place in the institutional mainstream as the long-term societal need--and our ability to respond to it--become better defined.  At this critical juncture—when we are no longer an experiment but are not yet accepted as part of the core mission—it is essential that we maintain our sense of purpose and not be distracted by corporate thinking.  Innovations with online learning are not about how best to exploit a market but how to realize a mission and to serve the greater good.  It is time for those of us who have championed online learning innovations at our universities to stand proudly for our real mission: to structure higher education so that it can best serve the needs of new populations and, ultimately, the communities in which they live.