Columnist Michael Horn: How To Get Blended Learning Right

Michael Horn is Executive Director of Education at Innosight Institute, the co-author of "Disrupting Class."
Michael Horn is Executive Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and the co-author of “Disrupting Class.”

Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation

By Michael Horn

In a recent piece, my colleague Tom Arnett dissected the question, “Does blended learning work?” His answer? It depends.

He is right. Researchers and school leaders asking that question are asking the wrong one. The question isn’t whether online or blended learning works—we have more than enough evidence (see here and here, for example) that it does in certain circumstances when done well. Equally so, just because a school adopts blended learning does not mean it will automatically achieve good results. A better question is how to do it well for different students in different circumstances.

This question matters—and receives far too short shrift. It is also among the questions that motivated Heather Staker and I to write our just-released book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. The book is meant as a practical design guide for educators to help them with the front end of creating sound blended-learning environments.

For example, from the get-go we seek to help educators avoid one of the biggest mistakes in implementing blended learning, which is deploying technology for its own sake, rather than to solve a meaningful problem or achieve an important learning goal.

Schools around the world are adopting blended learning to personalize learning, increase access and equity, and control costs. They want to create a student-centered learning system for all students, and blended learning is the most promising way to do so at scale. What the educators in those schools want to know are what are the right strategies and tactics to use so that blended learning boosts each student’s fortunes?

It’s not easy to get it right. When the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), the state of Michigan’s school turnaround district, launched in the fall of 2012 with 15 schools, hopes for rebirth in Detroit were high in many quarters. The system’s first superintendent, John Covington, adopted an ambitious blended, competency-based model for its schools powered by Agilix’s Buzz software. Has it worked? It’s complicated.

The Fordham Institute recently published an important report, Redefining the School District in Michigan, in which it discusses the competing evidence and details the EAA’s many travails.

According to certain measures, the schools seem to be succeeding, whereas other measures and analyses paint a bleaker picture. In Blended, we write about one of the apparent success stories. At Nolan Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, for example, in 2013, at the end of its first year of turnaround, 71 percent of students achieved one or more years of growth in reading and 61 percent in math. Nolan ranked third out of 124 Detroit schools in reading growth. Nolan uses the Flex model of blended learning—a disruptive innovation relative to the traditional classroom—which many schools in the EAA use.

Today’s “years of growth” measures are often tricky though—both to equate to a state’s accountability system as well as to understand what they really mean. Certain assessments that produce measures of growth, including that used by the EAA, do not do so on an absolute scale but on a relative one.

In other words, if an assessment says a student has grown two years, it generally does not mean today that the student went from, say, a “second-grade math level” to the “fourth-grade level.” Instead, the measure is likely comparing that student to others in his “norm group”—students with like characteristics such as level of achievement, age, and so forth. If the student grew more than the average child in that group—which would be calculated to equal one year of growth—then the assessment report would say she grew more than a year.

Here’s the challenge: If students in a norm group toward the bottom of achievement—at the 5th percentile, for example—don’t grow much on an absolute basis, then two years of growth might not be all that impressive. If students toward the top, say, at the 95th percentile—grow a lot on an absolute basis each year, then less than a year of growth might not be that bad. Assessments that calculate growth trajectories in this way could, in other words, bake in lowered expectations for some students and exceptionally high expectations for others.

My takeaway from the Fordham report though is that whatever problems the EAA’s schools have had, it doesn’t seem as though the learning model has been the prime cause of those problems per se. The report’s description of the model was quite positive, and reports by various visitors indicate that the models are working well. Governance issues seem to be more at the heart of the EAA’s challenges.

With that said, the level of execution required to implement a disruptive model of blended learning in the hardest-to-serve parts of Detroit flies in the face of the recommendations from our new book. Disruptive solutions are in general meant for the simplest problems at the outset, not the most complicated that need sustaining, not disruptive, innovations. In general today, sustaining models of blended learning are better matches for core problems. Not every school chooses to follow this advice, and that’s certainly OK, but the caution for schools choosing to use a disruptive model for a core problem is that implementation is likely to require far more effort to explain the choice to the community, prepare for the launch, and execute than if the school had gone with a sustaining model of blended learning.

Given the complex situation surrounding the EAA, that might be a caution worth thinking through.

Michael Horn is Executive Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, the co-author of “Disrupting Class.” He’s a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School. This post first appeared on

Michael Horn: What Critics Can Learn About Student-Centered Learning

Michael Horn is Executive Director of Education at Innosight Institute, the co-author of "Disrupting Class."
Michael Horn is Executive Director of Education at Innosight Institute, the co-author of “Disrupting Class.”

In his piece, he attacked the logic of teaching around multiple intelligences and pointed to some of the research that shows that tailoring learning opportunities to common assumptions around visual, auditory, and other such supposed learning styles are not good ways of teaching different students.

A problem with Loveless’s argument is that many of my fellow “disruptors” and I who think that it is important to disrupt the education system think this way not under the mindset that it will—or should—help with multiple intelligences or learning styles, but instead because of a simpler and more rigorously tested notion that is far less ideological than Loveless assumes.

Today’s factory-model education system, which was built to standardize the way we teach, falls short in educating successfully each child for the simple reason that just because two children are the same age, it does not mean they learn at the same pace or should follow the same pathway. Each child has different learning needs at different times.

Although academics, including cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and education researchers, have waged fierce debates about what these different needs are—some talk about multiple intelligences and learning styles whereas others point to research that undermines these notions—what no one disputes is that each student learns at a different pace. Some students learn quickly. Others learn more slowly. And each student’s pace tends to vary based on the subject or even concept one is learning. The reason for these differences, in short, is twofold. First, everyone has a different aptitude—or what cognitive scientists refer to as “working memory” capacity, meaning the ability to absorb and work actively with a given amount of information from a variety of sources, including visual and auditory. Second, everyone has different levels of background knowledge—or what cognitive scientists refer to as “long-term memory.” What this means is that people bring different experiences or prior knowledge into any learning experience, which impacts how they will learn a concept. If a teacher assumes that everyone in a class is familiar with an example from history that is only ancillary to the point of a particular lesson, for example, but uses that example to illustrate a particular point, then the students who are unfamiliar with the example or who have misconceptions about that example, may just miss the point of the lesson or develop misconceptions about the point of the lesson itself. This isn’t under dispute.

There is also widespread agreement that, as a result, targeting learning just above a student’s level such that it is not too easy or hard is critical to helping students be successful (Daniel Willingham, who Loveless cites in his discussion debunking the learning-style theory, writes extensively about this in his book Why Don’t Students Like School—in the first chapter). If Loveless had kept up with our writing (not that I blame him for not) or read Disrupting Class with a bit more of a nuanced eye, he would have seen that we didn’t pin our argument on multiple intelligences or learning styles per se—we were quite up front that we are not experts in the learning sciences by any means. Instead, we asserted broadly that students had varying learning needs and used learning styles as a device to illustrate the point. Mea culpa on using that example, as I’ve written more extensively here, but at the same time, it doesn’t refute the fundamental point of our argument that customization—or personalization—is needed if we are to help every child reach his or her fullest potential.

Understanding this helps us understand the logic of personalizing learning and moving away from the current system that mandates the amount of time students spend in class, but does not expect each child to master learning. Because our education system is built to standardize, not personalize, transforming it through disruptive innovation is critical.

This seems to play into one of Loveless’s core worries though, as he seems to have a love for some of the assumptions embedded in the factory model of education. As he wrote, “Moreover, individualized instructional programs, whether delivered exclusively online or through ‘blended’ regimes, are antithetical to the goal that all students learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” The challenge, of course, with his argument is that today students do not in fact learn or master a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time; they are merely taught them—which is far different from truly learning them.

Why is Loveless concerned about students learning the same thing at the same time? First, because learning some things in common, he says, are important. I agree. Learning some things in common—of course not all things, but a strong foundation—is important. Again, although I am no expert, the research suggests that a strong foundation of knowledge is critical for future learning and meaningful participation in and contribution to society (but it’s also not sufficient, which is why developing deeper skills and dispositions are so important—a false either-or from which we need to move away). This isn’t antithetical to blended or student-centered learning; if Loveless thinks it is, I recommend he visit one of the KIPP LA elementary schools. What he sees might surprise.

Second, Loveless assumes that because students may learn these things at different times in a blended-learning world, that it will exacerbate the achievement gap—a legitimate worry. We need more research here, but the evidence seems to suggest that the achievement gap is exacerbated in the factory-model system when a student does not master a concept, develops holes in her learning, and the teacher just moves on to the next concept the next day. Instead, what we’ve seen in Chugach, Alaska and elsewhere, is that when we move to a competency-based learning system concerned with rigor—in which students move on to new concepts only upon mastery (and there exists the notion of a minimum pace so students who are falling behind get more attention and gaps don’t grow too big)—that students who would typically be left behind and see their gaps grow bigger and bigger, instead experience a sea change when misconceptions are corrected, they master foundational knowledge and skills, and they can then accelerate much faster than anyone would have expected. Different students also struggle at different points. Who struggles and where is often unpredictable ahead of time—in other words, “the smart kids” group and “the slow kids” one aren’t fixed. Will competency-based learning exacerbate some gaps? Certainly. The most talented students—who we under-serve and hold back today—will be able to accelerate even faster. The hope though is that these gaps will have less to do with race and wealth than they do today, but we don’t know for sure. We do know though that the status quo factory-model system—in my mind the opposite of a student-centered one—is failing along this dimension.

I’ve also heard Loveless attack personalized learning, one of the two components of what I think of as making up a student-centered education system (the other being competency-based education). Loveless looked up studies that purported to be implementing “personalized” learning and found that the approaches weren’t necessarily effective.

The challenge though is in assuming once again that everyone means the same thing by the term or did the same sorts of interventions; simply looking up personalized learning in the peer-reviewed research is too simplistic.

There are lots of notions and differing definitions of what personalized learning is, but when I, and many other disruptors use the phrase, we mean learning that is tailored to an individual student’s particular needs—in other words, it is customized or individualized to help each individual succeed. The power of personalized learning, understood in this way, is intuitive. When students receive one-on-one help from a tutor instead of mass-group instruction, the results are generally far superior. This makes sense, given that tutors can do everything from adjusting if they are going too fast or too slow to rephrasing something a different way or providing a different example or approach to make a topic come to life for a student.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. Studies show the power of this kind of personalized learning for maximizing student success. Benjamin Bloom’s classic “2 Sigma Problem” study, published in 1984, measured the effects of students learning with a tutor to deliver personal, just-in-time, customized help. The striking finding was that by the end of three weeks, the average student under tutoring was about two standard deviations above the average of the control class. That means that the average tutored student scored higher than 98 percent of the students in the control class. Furthermore, 90 percent of the tutored students attained the level of summative achievement reached by only the highest 20 percent of the students under conventional instructional conditions. A more recent meta-analysis by Kurt VanLehn that revisits Bloom’s conclusion suggests that the effect size of human tutoring seems to be more around 0.79 standard deviations than the widely publicized 2 standard deviation figure. But even with this revision, the impact is hugely significant.

The problem is that having a human tutor for each student is prohibitively expensive; so to educate large numbers of students in the early 1900s, we adopted the factory model of education we have today. The logic behind blended learning is that we can gain the benefits of mass customization—many of the effects of a personal tutor in other words—without the costs.

Now, of course, as we implement blended learning, we may learn new things about how learning works. The opportunity to collect empirical data in near real time will be far greater, so we can test out different approaches for different students and see what works, for whom, and under what circumstances. And as we do so, perhaps we’ll learn that learning styles—not the simplistic notion we have today, but, as Jose Ferreira, CEO of Knewton wrote, “that different ways of learning certain concepts are more or less productive for certain students”—do indeed exist.

But we don’t have to believe that will happen for us to believe in personalized, competency-based, blended, or student-centered learning. Of course, perhaps we do need a better vocabulary to express what we mean.

Michael Horn is Executive Director of Education at The Clayton Christensen Institute, the co-author of “Disrupting Class.” He’s a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School. This post first appeared on 

Opinion: Is Online Education A Shadow Of The Real Thing?

[ another head hangs lowly ] Riccardo Romano via Compfight

By Raychel Eliopolo

One of the disadvantages of a small private liberal arts college is the lack of course options. By my senior year I had 15 credits to finish if I wanted to graduate with my class. My chances of graduating in the spring seemed bleak. Until I learned that I could take online courses at a different college while simultaneously taking a full course load at my own college.

Since my experience taking online classes relates to my timely graduation, one would think I would be in favor of an online education. For one, online, or digital, educations are highly accessible. Online courses work around your schedule. They don’t require you to even be in the same country. And in my case, online courses are a convenient option when needing or wanting to take classes that your college doesn’t provide. However, aside from these benefits, in most cases an online education is a pseudo-education not to be substituted for the real thing. By the year 2050, technology will continue to assist education rather than be the source for education.

With the rising popularity in MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, one would assume that the future of education is found in this online model. Prestigious institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford have made popular lecture courses available through the use of MOOCs. The astonishing rate of enrollments, including tens of thousands of participants, in online courses appear to validate the demand for accessible yet quality digital education. However an online education, even if it is fully accredited, cannot compare to a traditional classroom education.

Last May (2013) the New Yorker reported that “when MOOCs are a purely online experience, drop out rates soar to more than 90 percent.” That means that millions enrolled in these courses never end up completing the coursework. Another harsh reality reported by The Wall Street Journal adds that it is “difficult to verify that students learned anything in MOOCs.”

An online, digital education lacks the ability to exercise fundamental learning functions. This means that it hardly benefits the experiential functions of an education – the verbal, physical and social practices of learning. Online education is a very passive experience, even if there is frequent testing.

In my experience, it was far more difficult to engage with the material in my online classes than in my campus classes. I had no sense of the professor’s tone that dictates what material to focus on and what was of importance in my understanding of the material. The online forums and discussion boards were full of responses filled with platitudes from other classmates, who were just trying to fill their participation requirements. I didn’t have the physical reality of class discussion where I could engage with the material. My online classmates and even my professor held the same sentiments. My in-class education was far more edifying and educational. I couldn’t fathom taking any more classes online, let alone receiving an online education in-full.

MOOCs and online educations are beneficial means of education in some cases that exclude full-time college educations. Stanford’s president John L. Hennessy prophesies that online courses will be effective learning environments aside from the gold standard of a traditional education. He states that “while the gold standard of small in-person classes led by great instructors will remain, online courses will be shown to be an effective learning environment, especially in comparison with large lecture-style courses.” The effectiveness of an online education will suit those who have a keen will to learn in order to benefit their vocation or peak their interests. Companies such as Coursera cater to these people, who are mainly adults with bachelors degrees or working for companies that want to train and educate their employees.

An online education is a promising addition to the sphere of education in few instances. Yet, a digital education will not be able to phase out or match a traditional in-class education. If we try to replace the traditional means of learning in totality, technology may disrupt education and leave us with a pseudo-learning experience.

 Eliopolo is a recent Media, Culture and the Arts graduate of The King’s College in New York City. 

Michael Horn: NCAA March Madness Followed By April Blunder In Online Learning

IMG_8929 John Martinez Pavliga via Compfight

By Michael Horn

No, this isn’t another piece about whether the NCAA should permit payment to college athletes, provide enough money for food, or allow college athletes to hold a job. This is about the NCAA’s regulation of students’ eligibility for Division I and II athletics based on their coursework in high school. Specifically their online coursework.

A growing number of students are taking online courses for credit in high school. The NCAA watches these courses to make sure they aren’t some scheme just to give students credit with no learning happening so that the students can continue their athletic career at the expense of their academics in college, the antithesis of what the student athlete is supposed to be about.

In its latest action regulating this space, the NCAA declared that, after this school year, the coursework from 24 schools that use K12, Inc. online curriculum—and often K12, Inc.-employed teachers—will no longer be accepted toward the initial-eligibility requirements.


It’s not entirely clear because the NCAA didn’t say explicitly. One person there told me that based on student-specific information collected during a review of schools placed previously on extended evaluation status, the NCAA staff determined that “several K-12 schools/programs do not meet the requirements of NCAA non-traditional core course legislation.” Not terribly illuminating.

But according to K12, Inc., it occurred because the NCAA didn’t believe that the teacher-student interaction was enough in those courses—a pillar of learning and a giveaway that the courses lack sufficient rigor, in the NCAA’s view.

Let me ignore for a moment the evidence that more interaction in online learning may not always be a good thing (see here), particularly for novice learners and, of course, depending on the desired learning outcome. And let me leave aside that the NCAA regulations of online learning have historically been incredibly input based as opposed to focusing on what it should care about: actual student learning outcomes (see the perils of the former approach here, even as I have some understanding of why the NCAA does this given the lack of good transparency on real student outcomes in high schools across America and the truth that the NCAA has caught some bad offenders thankfully). And I’ll even ignore the 22 full-time virtual schools that lost eligibility that often educate top tennis players and the like given their flexibility and very different forms of interaction between students and teachers given the asynchronous learning environment and parental involvement.

Instead I’ll just focus on two of the schools I know somewhat well. Silicon Valley Flex Academy and San Francisco Flex Academy. Two blended-learning schools in California where yes, students work on self-paced online curriculum, but also where just walking in to the brick-and-mortar school with in-person teachers present, you can’t help but see students and teachers interacting around learning. Regularly. At Silicon Valley Flex the teachers have worked to incorporate more group, project-based learning, too, for example. There are breakout rooms all around the school where students engage in small group instruction with teachers and labs.

So what is the NCAA objecting to that California, land of input-based regulation for schools, isn’t?

If we move beyond looking at inputs, the two blended-learning schools seem to have reasonable student academic outcomes, too. Silicon Valley Flex received a 789 on the California Academic Performance Index, a measure that rates the academic growth of schools on a scale up to 1,000 where 800 is the targeted score. San Francisco Flex received a 733, not stellar but a score that represents a big and steady improvement from previous years. One would think that this is what the NCAA would want to see.

I don’t know of course what went on behind the scenes between the NCAA and K12, Inc. I have no idea how well K12, Inc. cooperated with the NCAA review. But what I’ve described lends considerable doubt—and, were it not so serious for some of the students who I am sure are affected, arguably some absurdity—to the NCAA’s case across the board. Not a good goof.

Michael Horn is Executive Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, the co-author of “Disrupting Class.” He’s a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School. This post first appeared on


Failure To Apply: A New Book Charts Why Poor Kids Forgo Top Colleges


By , The Hechinger Report
What you know determines where you go, according to a new book that sets out to determine why the smartest low-income students forgo the most selective colleges.It’s not that poor kids aren’t as smart as rich ones, researcher Alexandria Walton Radford finds. Nor do top schools turn them down. In fact, she reports, low-income prospects have a big advantage in the admissions process at the most selective colleges.The problem is that few of them apply, thanks to high school counselors and peers who know little about the admissions process, and parents who often know even less.“Colleges must go beyond trying to ease the path of less-affluent students,” writes Radford, who, with Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade, previously wrote a high-profile analysis that found that whites and Asians needed higher grades and scores to get into top colleges than blacks and Hispanics. “They have to tackle their low application rates directly.” Poor students are not applying to elite colleges, “and institutions need to do a better job of finding them and encouraging them to submit an application.”

Only 3 percent of students at the nation’s 146 most selective colleges and universities are from the bottom 25 percent of the income scale. And Radford says it’s not necessarily because they’re less academically well prepared than students at the top.

She surveyed 900 valedictorians at all socioeconomic levels, and found that those from low-income families had parents who were not as involved in helping them apply to college as their high-income counterparts. Low-income parents also emphasized cost more, and were more likely to encourage their children to stay close to home.

“’You’re just going to go where we can afford to send you,’” one low-income valedictorian said her parents told her. “I … had to get a scholarship if I wanted to go somewhere else.”

The public high schools most of these students attended were described as equally unhelpful, with guidance counselors characterized as uninformed—and, by the students themselves, as “pretty lousy” and “incompetent.”

At best, the counselors are overworked. The ratio of counselors to students at public high schools is 1 to 285, and of college counselors to students, 1 to 338. Only one in four public high schools even has at least one full-time college counselor, compared to three out of four private ones.

Nor did less-affluent valedictorians find easy access to information about financial aid. Only 28 percent of parents of students in the lowest income brackets had a good understanding of financial aid, compared to nearly 60 percent of high-income parents, and low-income students also were unlikely to receive accurate or comprehensive information about it from their high schools.

“All I knew is that I asked my dad about it and he’s like, ‘No, we don’t want to take any financial aid,’” one student said. “I guess it’s like a pride thing for him. So I didn’t really look into it.”

The student-loan provider Sallie Mae reported in 2011 that 13 percent of families with annual incomes under $35,000 did not apply for financial aid.

So while more than half of top SAT and ACT scorers from the upper-income category enroll in top institutions, only a third of low-income standouts do. Three-fourths of high-income valedictorians end up enrolling at the nation’s most-selective colleges, compared to 43 percent of low-income ones.

This lopsided ratio comes despite the fact that, when they do apply, low-income students (also described as those with low socioeconomic status, or SES) are more likely to be admitted than high-income applicants. Sixty-three percent are accepted to the most selective institutions, compared to 50 percent of their middle-class peers and 54 percent of wealthy students.

“Given the greater socioeconomic hurdles less-affluent students face, admissions officers may be more impressed when low-SES students reach the top of their class than when middle- or high-SES students manage to do so,” Radford writes.

The book, Top Student, Top School: How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College, is published by the University of Chicago Press.

In it, Radford urges more publicity about need-based aid, better explanations of net price versus sticker price, and better high school counseling.

“Many of our best and brightest students, who deserve to attend our nation’s best colleges and would thrive at them, are prevented from doing so because of their social class origins,” she says.

The information universities and colleges are now providing, Radford writes, is not particularly helpful.

Glossy promotional mailings, for example, don’t sway top students. Many said they never even read them.

“I mean, I haven’t heard of anybody really saying, ‘Oh, I got a letter in the mail from College X and that made me go there,’” one student said.

This post was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit journalism organization housed at Columbia University in New York City. 

Online Courses Are Expanding, Along With Questions About Who Owns The Material

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It took a year for Christopher Nelson to create a course for a new online degree program in philosophy at South Texas College, where he had to squeeze in the job while teaching classes in logic, ethics, and social and political philosophy to students just getting started in the field.

A Kierkegaard scholar and published author with two advanced degrees, Nelson handed over the course to the university when he was finished. Then he did something instructors of conventional courses historically have almost never done: Under rules established by his college, he abandoned all control of it, surrendering any say in how or when the class will be revised, or who will teach it.

“My understanding is, tragically, they can do whatever they want with it,” Nelson said. “This is something of the wave of the future,” he said: Professors create and package the course but then their university employers simply say: “Thank you very much.”

Now, as online courses soar in popularity, a battle is beginning over who should own them. Though little noticed, it’s a fight that could change longstanding traditions about faculty control of classes they create, and influence the future and success of online higher education.

Universities hope to make money off these courses, which can enroll thousands of paying students instead of the few hundred who can fit inside the largest brick-and-mortar lecture halls. But many faculty fear that their work may be altered for the worse, or that universities will employ other, less-qualified people to teach them.

“There’s no clarity in the field right now about ownership,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “This is something that will probably need to be resolved, but it’s hard to tackle.”

And getting harder.

About 70 percent of  110 higher education institutions surveyed by Jeff Hoyt, an assistant vice dean at Middle Tennessee State University, have already locked in policies about who owns online courses. And only 10 percent let faculty keep sole ownership.

More than a third of universities claim complete control over courses and materials for themselves, the survey found, and another 41 percent allow for joint ownership—meaning, for example, that professors might own the course materials they write but their colleges or universities keep the multimedia components.

Fast-growing third-party providers such as the Harvard-MIT collaboration edX, which collects and distributes courses from at least 30 universities around the world, leave the question to be resolved by member institutions.

“We don’t own it. The university does,” said Tena Herlihy, general counsel for edX. “The universities create the course and the content.”

No, say angry faculty; universities don’t create anything. They do.

The faculty union at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the only UC campus to have a union that collectively bargains, has been fighting with that school’s administration over intellectual property rights since it was told last winter that anyone who created an online course for the Stanford online-education spinoff Coursera would have to sign a waiver giving up ownership.

Under California law, the union pointed out, individual professors and not their universities own the rights to the course materials they create.

Association leaders say the university has told them that Coursera is retooling its course development agreement in response to “legal concerns.” Coursera, which has different arrangements with different universities, won’t say what those changes will entail, and neither Coursera nor the union responded to repeated requests for comment.

“The bottom line is that there is no need for a university to own your course in order to use it,” said Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and lead author of a new AAUP report that raises alarms about who owns online courses.

“If you’ve designed the thing, you want to be the only one responsible for updating and revising it,” Nelson added. “You don’t want to be designing a course and then discover that the university has asked someone else to update it.”

The AAUP contends that universities are “escalating” their demands to keep full ownership of online courses and other instructional materials. Among other cases, they cite new guidelines at the University of Pennsylvania to restrict faculty from doing work for online education companies other than Penn itself, which wants the right of first refusal for its professors’ work.

Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said faculty need to show a united front.

“If the rest of your colleagues are going belly up, you aren’t going to claim your rights,” he said.

But many faculty are happy to give up ownership for the sake of being able to reach more students, as they can do online. And universities argue that they are investing considerable resources in the development of online courses and have a right to own them.

Hoyt, in his survey, also found that 82 percent of universities pay faculty extra to develop online courses.

Even as the Santa Cruz union protests, some faculty there and at other California universities are enthusiastically developing and teaching online courses.

Kalju Kahn, a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Santa Barbara, compared online courses to academic textbooks: Professors can decide whether or not to produce them, and there can be varying degrees of ownership for the author, the university, and the publisher.

“Where exactly the line goes, it’s a case-by-case basis,” Kahn said.

This post was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit journalism organization based at Columbia University in New York City. The story also previously ran in Time.

Veterans’ Path To College Past Low-Quality, GI Bill Hungry, Predatory Options

CSM Roger Parker, Jr., (US Army-Ret), helps his grandson Tyrell Parker, 9, whom Parker is raising, work on his homework at their apartment on September 12, 2011 in Pasadena, Md. Parker, 51, has returned to college to study Health, Fitness and Nutrition at Anne Arundel Community College. Colleges such as Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland have opened up the Military and Veterans Resource Center to assist military personnel and veterans returning to school while and after serving in the armed forces. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

CSM Roger Parker, Jr., (US Army-Ret),  has returned to college to study Health, Fitness and Nutrition at Anne Arundel Community College. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

By , The Hechinger Report

When veterans come home from war and try to put their lives back together, there’s often a giant missing link in their transition: Clear advice on getting back to school and managing the next phase of their education.“Where you are going next is a huge hole in the system, and there is no entity in the community to help them figure out where to start,’’ Pamela Tate, president and CEO of CAEL (Council for Adult and Experiential Learning), said at a hearing on educating veterans in Washington D.C. last week. “They don’t know where they should go to school, what they should study and what careers are there for them.’’A bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan could allow for a lasting presence of troops there through 2024, sending even more veterans into limbo.

That means the road to higher education will remain fraught with challenges for U.S. veterans, some two million men and women who have or will return from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the next few years.

It’s a sad state of affairs for a country that educated about 10 million returning veterans after World War II – including three U.S. presidents, three Supreme Court justices, 14 Nobel Prize winners and 24 Pulitzer Prize winners.

The GI bill of 1944 transformed U.S. higher education with benefits allowing veterans to attend any institution that admitted them. The bill helped support spouses and children and offered preparation for vocational careers in construction, auto mechanics and electrical wiring, among others.

In recent years, the revamped Post-9/11 GI bill has provided financial aid to veterans and their families, including reservists and National Guard members – but critics say it does not go far enough to ease the transition home.

“When you leave the military, you are on an island by yourself,’’ said James Selbe, the key advisor for advocacy and support of military, veterans and their family members at University of Maryland University College.

Today’s veterans are having increasing difficulty accessing their benefits, and may end up wandering around campuses looking for someone who can help them transfer credits, register for classes or provide career advice.

Today’s veterans often have difficulty accessing their benefits, and may end up wandering around campuses looking for someone who can help them transfer credits, register for classes or provide career advice. They are not represented at many elite colleges.

Some are finding themselves deep in debt due to predatory lenders; others scammed by for-profit colleges that lure them in – and don’t deliver what they’ve promised. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission warned veterans to be cautious before choosing a for-profit school; at one point some 22 percent of veterans chose the for-profit route.

“They may want to use your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to boost their bottom line and may not help you achieve your educations goals,” the commission cautioned.

In California, colleges are finding that benefits don’t go far enough. Campuses are stretched as they try to give veterans the help they need and deserve, said Patrick O’Rourke, director of veteran affairs services for the office of the chancellor at California State University, where the VetNet program provides veteran services and support.

“What we do in California for our veterans comes out of our pockets,’’ O’Rourke said. In a recent visit to centers on two California college campuses, O’Rourke discovered crushing workloads and staff members overwhelmed just trying to connect veterans with simple answers about using their benefits.

Tate, O’Rourke and Selbe of UMUC were among panelists at “Success After Service: Improving Postsecondary Education for Veterans,’’ a discussion that took place in Washington D.C. earlier this month in honor of Veterans Day.

The discussion came some three months after President Barack Obama signed new legislation that asks colleges to boost efforts to help veterans get to and through college. The Lumina Foundation, which is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report, sponsored the panel.

Tate of CAEL said too many veterans don’t know where to go to school, how to get credit for prior learning or work experience and what careers are available to them.

They also often struggle to find answers for their unique range of issues – everything from transferring credits to studying full-time while supporting a family to post-traumatic stress and physical injuries.

What most need is career training that looks at what skills they have – and which ones they need, said Selbe, of UMUC.

“Historically at UMUC they come not to get a job, but to get the next job,’’ Selbe said. “So from a career services perspective that’s where our efforts have been, but with the economy taking a dive and vets coming back in increasing numbers, it has not been the case. We didn’t have the capacity or skill set to let vets navigate their way through.’’

UMUC now trains those who work in career services in the unique needs of veterans, Selbe said – a bright spot in the growing recognition of the continuing obstacles veterans face.

It’s important for hopeful signs to start outnumbering the obstacles – especially as the number of veterans and their families seeking higher education continues to grow.

Here are a few other hopeful signs for veterans and their education:

  • More than 250 community colleges and universities in 24 different states and D.C. signed on to Obama’s “8 Keys to Success,’’ program, aimed at helping veterans and military families afford and complete their college degrees, certificates, industry-recognized credentials and licenses and prepare them for jobs.
  • Since 2009, more than one million veterans, service members and their families have received tuition assistance and other benefits from the post-9/11 GI bill.
  • Foundations in some cases are stepping in to fill the void. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, for example, has a new initiative to help Chicago area veterans, as does CAEL.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit journalism organization housed at Columbia University in New York City. 

Foundations Are Increasingly Directing Policy Inside U.S. Higher Ed?

When the people with some of the greatest clout over the future of America’s universities and colleges convene in Austin, Texas, they’re not likely to attract very much attention.

They’re not athletics coaches, high-profile presidents, or marquee faculty who publish influential books. They’re not congressmen or legislators. They’re not rich donors or alumni.

They’re the representatives of philanthropic foundations, whose money — combined with the relative inertia of government and the higher-education establishment itself — has made them huge players in setting policy for the institutions that graduate the nation’s future workers and leaders.

“The idea that you’re going to pull this lever and all these institutions are going to suddenly ramp up their success rates isn’t reading the problem correctly.” — Debra Hughes, Association of American Colleges and Universities

“A number of major foundations have decided that social mobility, which they view as an important value, is closely connected with educational opportunity,” said Ben Wildavsky, director of higher-education studies at the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University of Albany. “So they’ve been funding a lot of people who they think are good thinkers to figure out new ways to make the system work more effectively that are departures from the conventional wisdom.”

At a time of escalating costs and questionable results, that’s something universities and government might be expected to do. But foundation leaders say it’s not happening quickly enough.

The foundations are “filling a vacuum in terms of leadership,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the $1 billion Lumina Foundation, which is pushing to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees. “The fact is, foundations can be part of a leadership culture, and not simply support the ideas of others. We’re an investor in good ideas, but we can also help create those good ideas.”

When Lumina set a goal in 2008 for increasing the number of degree-holders, for example, the call was soon picked up by governors and, ultimately, President Barack Obama. That cause was boosted when the foundation gave money to advocacy groups that are calling for the same thing.

Lumina increased the amount it earmarks annually for programs that drive what is known as student success from $3 million in 2002 to almost $26 million in 2010, and on “productivity” from zero to almost $11 million, according to research conducted at the Claremont Graduate School.

The $36 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, meanwhile, is spending about $73 million a year on grants related to higher education, up from zero in 2004, the researchers found.

About $1 billion a year in all is being poured into education at all levels by these organizations and others, including the Joyce Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Lumina, Gates, Joyce, and Kellogg are among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

“The emergence of ‘advocacy philanthropy’ has resulted in the unabashed use of foundation strategies to influence government action, policy, and legislation,” the Claremont researchers concluded. That’s a departure, they wrote, “from the established norms in higher education philanthropy, norms that generally created a distance between foundation activity and politics.”

The newest entrant in the field is the ACT Foundation, created by the company that administers the ACT college-admissions test. At $25 million, its assets pale in comparison with those of the biggest foundations in the field, but its launch in Austin brings together representatives of most of the other major foundations, whose advocacy in higher education continues to converge.

The ACT Foundation will join another major push of its fellow foundations: aligning education and training programs with workforce needs. Along with Gates, Lumina, and Joyce, it plans to support a national network of industry associations that can help so-called working learners understand what skills they need to get jobs and move ahead — whether that means a college or university degree, a union apprenticeship, a certificate program, or an online course.

“College-going doesn’t work for everyone, and many people are left out of the picture of the formal education system,” said Parminder Jassal, executive director of the ACT Foundation, who previously worked at Gates. “They don’t know which one is the right path. We all want to help students get on the right path but we ourselves don’t even know what that right path is.”

Some inside higher education bristle at the foundations’ growing influence over policymaking. They say they themselves are in the best position to come up with solutions to universities’ shortcomings, and complain that the foundations are impatient for results, withdrawing funding from promising projects before they’ve had the time to work, and speeding ahead to new ones.

“They have a sense that there’s going to be the ‘killer app’ solution to the problem of student success,” said Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “And the idea that there is one solution to the problem of student success is ridiculous. The idea that you’re going to pull this lever and all these institutions are going to suddenly ramp up their success rates isn’t reading the problem correctly.”

Merisotis agreed, he said, that, “Impatience is not a virtue. But urgency is, and the difference between the two is that the need to increase higher-education attainment is an urgent national need.”

Foundations are also trying to motivate the other stakeholder in this area — government — said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation.

“You expect and hope that Congress will do its job, and one of its jobs is to make higher-education policy,” Laitinen said. “But we see very little desire on the part of Congress to challenge the status quo. There are hearings and rhetoric around affordability, around quality, around value, but we don’t see any legislation that would make college more affordable and more transparent.”

Universities and colleges, she said, at their core, are vested in the current system.

“One of the things that’s so interesting to me when folks are questioning the role of foundations is that there’s such power and money and lobbying behind the status quo that people don’t see,” Laitinen said. “To me that’s the real powerful force here. In terms of actual policy, the higher-education lobby is more powerful than anything. You just don’t really see it.” What the foundations have enabled, she said, “is some alternative voices to help challenge that.”

This post was produced by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit journalism organization housed at Columbia University in New York City. 

Columnist Ryan Craig: Will It Blend?

By Ryan Craig

One of the unlikeliest stars of the Internet is Tom Dickson, the nerdy founder of Blendtec who conceived, produced and stars in the series of online videos called “Will It Blend?”  The conceit is that the Blendtec Total Blender is so powerful it blends anything.  So Dickson starts each video with an item that isn’t typically blended, provides a reason why he needs to pulverize the item, and asks:  “Will It Blend?  That is the question.”  With only a few exceptions, the Blendtec total blender is successful at reducing the item to liquid, powder and/or smoke.

Although “Will It Blend?” has been around for a while, it was recently discovered by my 8-year-old son after he figured out how to disable the YouTube filter on our home computer.  Now, as it appeals to the proclivities of all three boys (8, 5 and 3), “Will It Blend?” is the preferred form of entertainment in our house.

I’ve surveyed the kids, and their favorite episodes are:

  • Glow Sticks (pictured above)
  • Can of coke
  • Can of Campbell’s tomato soup
  • iPod
  • Various iPhone episodes
  • iPhone 5 vs. Samsung Galaxy
  • iPad
  • Baseball
  • Hockey pucks
  • Six Bic lighters
  • Can of Spam (with three eggs)

At this point, a promise of a few episodes of “Will It Blend?” is one of the few effective tools in my parental arsenal to get the boys to stop behaving like wild animals for a few minutes so we can get something useful done, like bath or bed.

Last week, during an episode in which Dickson tried to blend a rake handle, I began thinking of the Blendtec Total Blender as a useful paradigm for higher education.  Clearly, Dickson has built a better blender.  I’m no expert, but any device that can blend a bag of marbles must be better than the competition; my kitchen blender has trouble with pancake batter.  But the key isn’t that he’s made a better product.  Instead, the product is so much better that it enables a viral, low-cost marketing and distribution strategy that allows the product to achieve scale relatively quickly:  With over 300M online views, the “Will It Blend?” series increased Blendtec sales over 700%.

So as we think about major market needs that higher education institutions aren’t currently meeting and evaluate potential solutions, it’s useful to ask a question so simple it appeals to an oft-confused 3-year-old:  “Will It Blend?”


1) College affordability
The #1 challenge facing American higher education remains affordability.  Its impact is felt everywhere:  amongst recent college alumni who strain under an average debt load of nearly $30k; and on college campuses falling far short of enrollment goals because prospective students are steering clear of higher education like never before.  So let’s ask Tom Dickson’s question of two solutions currently receiving headlines.

Free Community College
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has proposed making community colleges free for all students.  Not surprisingly, in an era of state defunding of higher education, the idea has received rave reviews from higher education lobbyists at One Dupont Circle.

But as most Tennessee community college students are eligible for Pell Grants, the net cost is already zero.  Indeed, Governor Haslam acknowledges the proposal is largely a marketing tactic:  “It is more affordable than most people think, but if they don’t know that, that doesn’t help us.  If we can go to people and say, ‘This is totally free,’ that gets their attention.”

There’s no question that “free” could be as appealing from a marketing standpoint as blending a Justin Bieber action figure, along with his CDs, movie and his extensive and compelling autobiography.  But given that 71% of matriculating students at Tennessee community colleges require remediation and the completion rate of students is less than 20% (and less than 10% for minority students), turbo charging the marketing for this product is equivalent to attempting a viral marketing campaign for my pancake batter-challenged blender; the product needs to work better first.  Trying to increase the throughput for a system with these outcomes is not a productive use of state resources.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
I stopped picking on MOOCs six months ago when it became clear that saying anything further would be gloating.  This was before it was revealed that course completion rates were less than 5%, 80% of enrolled “students” already had degrees, and that overall traffic to MOOCs was falling despite rapidly increasing course offerings.  But in terms of college affordability, the nail in the MOOC coffin seems to be the fact that for the universities that have announced they will award credits toward a degree for completed MOOCs (e.g., Colorado State, University of Maryland University College), media reports indicate that not one student has taken advantage of this new “affordable path” to a degree.

As with “free community college,” MOOCs are a classic example of putting the viral marketing campaign before the blender.  While MOOCs received plenty of attention in 2012 and 2013, they’re more smoke and mirrors than blender.

2) Shrinking the Skills Gap
In his State of the Union address, President Obama urged community colleges to work with employers to offer “more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.”

At a high level, the idea is undoubtedly appealing:  there are 3.4M unfilled jobs in the U.S.  Clearly community colleges could do a better of job of aligning their programs to labor market needs and train workers that employers will hire.  In fact, it’s so appealing it’s a theme this Administration has returned to again and again.  In the spring of 2012, President Obama proposed an $8B community college-to-career fund to train 2 million people for “high-growth jobs.”  And according to media reports, the President’s 2015 budget request expected next week will include billions for new job training programs and apprenticeships.

So although few details have been offered for this plan, you can bet dollars to donuts that if and when the rubber hits the road, the program will be “handcrafted” i.e., one or two community colleges paired with a handful of employers, funded by a combination of federal and foundation sources.

What does success look like for these bespoke partnerships between community colleges and employers?  Maybe a few hundred jobs filled?  And then what?  Perhaps the blender works, but it’s not a scalable solution.  The program was handcrafted to begin with and there’s no built-in viral marketing that will cause any other community college to follow the same path.


The good news is that we are already seeing Blendtec Total Blender solutions for both these challenges.

On affordability, new competency-based degree programs from public universities (Universityof Wisconsin, the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program from South Texas College and Texas A&M at Commerce), not-for-profit universities (Southern New Hampshire, Brandman) and private sector institutions (UniversityNow) are providing degrees for $10k or less and are built to scale.  The most successful ones – the institutions that will “go viral” – are likely to be those that price lowest and utilize that price point to tap innovative forms of distribution to get the word out to prospective students that the higher education cost curve has been broken.

On the skills gap, the best way to narrow the skills gap is to make a direct connection between an available job and a training opportunity.  For example, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010 resulting in a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System launched a new HAZMAT training program that directly led to thousands of available short-term clean-up jobs.  8,000 students in the Louisiana System interrupted their programs of study to take this training and get the job.

As I’ve previously discussed, these connections are being made by emerging intermediaries or brokers.  In these new models, a third-party (a foundation or a private company) acts as an intermediary between employers and higher education institutions and provides a job guarantee to prospective students at the front-end of the enrollment process.  Unlike bespoke training arrangements, this model is scalable and perhaps even viral.

So while free community college, MOOCs and handcrafted apprenticeship programs continue to get the headlines, by asking “Will It Blend?” we see that they don’t.

On the other hand, for competency-based universities and emerging skills broker models, the answer to this seminal question is:

Ryan Craig is a Partner at University Ventures, a venture fund focused on innovation from within higher education. In the past, he founded an education startup, worked in consulting and government roles. He attended Yale University for undergraduate degrees and law school.  Peter Enestrom, who thinks about IKEA even when he’s not assembling furniture, provided the concept for and co-wrote this letter.

Online Education As A Postmodern Societal Response

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By Joy Merlino

“Good-morning, Fool…/Three times a week/You Hold us helpless while you speak, /Teasing out our thirsty souls with the/Sleek ‘yeas’ of your philosophy…Tune up, play on, pour forth…we sleep.” These lines, from a poem in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise, characterize the modern view of education. It is something to be endured. The poem continues to speak of the “Eager Ass,” a classmate who is quick to sing the professor’s praises, and the elite professor who coyly responds.

In Fitzgerald’s view, higher education is often treated as a game, and those who play it correctly do so to secure a heightened position in society, not to secure a heightened education. However, postmodern society rejects the view that education is solely a means to an end, and instead, the current educational trend, as characterized by online education, is a correction to the exclusivism and pretention of modern educational institutions. The trend in online education is a postmodern solution to problems in a largely modern institution (of course universities started centuries ago), and is a starting point for a more pervasive ideological shift in higher education.

The postmodern movement involves a redefining of merit, with the end goal of ridding society of hierarchy and exclusion. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism, which values clearly defined systems of merit. In the essay, “Postmodernism and Higher Education,” author Harland G. Boland states, “Higher education assumes that community is good, that some fundamental set of values, some basic accepted rules of conduct, and some sense of limits are good.” Further, Marilynne Robinson, in the essay “Imagination and Community,” claims that higher education is based around models of community. She states, “We choose our colleges, if we have a choice, in order to be formed by them and supported by them in identities we have or aspire to.” Further, she states that “if the graft takes, we consider ourselves ever after to be members of that community.” In this model, higher education is a method of branding, and a placement into a position in society.

However, the cost of higher education is rising, and institutions of higher education can no longer offer the credentials to ensure a middle-class job after graduation. Online education is a practical solution for both students and universities: universities are able to hire fewer professors, and students are granted access to educational tools at a lower cost. Massive Open Online Classes, or MOOCS, allow students to take classes from prestigious universities, possibly enabling low-income students to earn an elite education, regardless of their economic situation. Students of online universities are able to live at home and find employment, further lowering the financial burden of higher education. This will widen the demographic of those seeking higher education, embodying the desire of a postmodern society to eradicate exclusion.

This causes a fundamental shift in the definition of community at these institutions. Community can no longer be defined by shared location, or even shared experience. Rather, it’s defined by shared ideas. This may cause a redefinition of community outside institutions of higher education, since graduates are no longer graduating into a social strata defined by their educational institution.

This shift of focus to the community outside of the institutions themselves has caused a heightened attention to the quality and methods of educations. In the article, “Tech Mania Goes to College,” David L. Kirp states, “No one anticipated what may be the most consequential–and positive–impact of the new technology: professors are discussing how they teach, something that seldom happens at research universities like Berkeley.” Therefore, the consequence of this trend is not only a change in form, but also a change in substance. In the next several decades, this shift could cause a decrease in available teaching jobs, since fewer professors will be needed. However, this will cause a heightened caliber in the lectures and educational resources that are available, since only the most qualified candidates will be hired.

The shift in methods of education is a reflection of the shift in society. Like Fitzgerald’s character in This Side of Paradise, postmodern society has become cynical of the elite universities. There is a growing desire for education, solely for education’s sake. Online education offers this opportunity. Decades from now, a traditional 4-year college education may no longer be a requirement for job placement. Niche certificates and less traditional methods of job training may replace institutions of higher education, as the foremost method of placement into a career, and ultimately into placement in society. Online education opens the door for discussion on the best methods of higher education, and ultimately will spark an ideological shift in education policy.

Joy Merlino is a student at The King’s College in New York City. She wrote this essay as an assignment for a persuasive writing and speaking course. Find her on Twitter @JoyMerlino

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