Socrates On A Screen? The Limits of .edu Reform

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By Luke Trouwborst

Everything changes, they say – but does education ever really change? Technology has wrought change across the American landscape, transforming even our interpersonal relationships. The recent rise of massive open on-line courses (MOOCs) seems to fit with the rest of these experiences: the internet makes stuff better. But throughout American history we see reformers trumpeting a “transformation” in education.

The Progressive movement of the early century tried to use emerging psychological theories to reshape the entire American curriculum – to no avail. In response, professor William Bagley argued that education would always resist change. While he’d prefer graduates of Johns Hopkins to Hippocrates when seeking medical help, he wrote that he’d always prefer Socrates to modern graduates of the Teacher’s College. Teaching, he claimed, was “ a fine art, not a technological art.”

 While Bagley’s point still stands, the MOOC seems to mount a structural alternative to the status quo that is different than most attempts at revolution. Online courses offer, apparently, the same thing as the Ivy League courses: top-notch lecturers, identical readings, just a smaller (or non-existent) price tag. MOOCs are democratic. Campuses are elitist. Entrepreneurs like Sebastian Thrun at Udacity allow underprivileged children in Detroit to learn coding with WASPs at Stanford. Even storied campuses such as MIT and Harvard are moving (partially) online with the launch of “edX.” All this can be good, provided no one gets carried away.

The online education movement tempts gleeful iconoclasm. For years, the public has perceived colleges and universities as snotty institutions that over-charge for degrees with little practical value. MOOCs promise to refine the inefficiencies of academia in the pure fire of the free market. Bagley’s perspective is helpful to temper this enthusiasm. By 2050, technology may marginally improve the delivery of higher education, but don’t confuse the frosting for the cake. Here’s what we should expect – and what we shouldn’t.

New technology makes it easy to transmit facts, information, and data. Education in highly technical fields like computer science and math don’t require much more than that. This is why, in a recent interview, Sebastian Thrun announced that Udacity would be moving its focus almost entirely to technical fields. Long before MOOCs, we’ve heard of self-taught computer programmers. If you’re self-motivated, MOOCs are just another way to learn basic skills, but with degrees. Expect American universities to develop a diverse menu of choices for students, ranging from the traditional campus experience to entirely online courses you can take in slippers. Here, MOOCs recognize that some students see college as job training – and you don’t need four years in a dorm to learn many technical jobs or hard sciences.

“Education,” traditionally, is not just transmission of information or job training though. Education forms human beings. Robert Frost wrote that the purpose of college education was to instill students with “taste and judgement.” Simone Weil wrote that education was meant to give us the virtue of “attention.”

These subtle benefits of education don’t fit in formulas or spreadsheets. We acquire them in a three-way conversation between teachers, students, and the best that has been taught and said. Socrates didn’t shun a DVD lecture series for lack of BluRay players – he recognized that the teachers teach by asking students questions – and listening. And asking more questions. And, in Socrates’ words, caring about the “formation of their souls.” Skype with thousands of students will not do.

For instance, the hardest skill that many learn at college is the skill of learning. Not just anyone can learn from a lecture series and online chat rooms. Early data suggests this: most students taking advantage of online courses have already gotten degrees from traditional colleges, according to a UPenn report that argues MOOCs are “reinforcing the advantages of the ‘haves’ rather than educating the ‘have-nots.’”

We should be excited that MOOCs make information and job skills more accessible – just like libraries and Wikipedia. But lets not lose sight of this: eight times five MOOCs does not equal a university education.

Luke Trouwborst studies philosophy at The King’s College in New York City. This essay was originally an assignment for a persuasive writing course. Follow him at @luketrouwborst.

MakerBot Academy: A 3-D Printer In Every Classroom



By Anya Kamenetz, The Hechinger Report

A MakerBot is a tabletop-sized device that takes digital designs and builds them in the real world, layer by thin layer, out of a plastic-like roll of filament derived from corn. You can create or customize any design you can think of– a working prosthetic hand, or a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, or a set of chess pieces–or download someone else’s design from the Thingiverse, MakerBot’s free online library. Comparatively low-cost and easy to use, MakerBots are the popular edge of what technology observers and futurists–even President Obama–call a “new industrial revolution” of mass customization, where design is democratized and manufacturing is one day as decentralized as knowledge production has become. Plus, they’re just wondrously cool.

MakerBot CEO Bre Prettis used to teach public school in Seattle. “It’s always been a dream of mine to get this into more classrooms,” he says. This week he announced the MakerBot Academy  to do just that.

Teachers who want a MakerBot for their classroom are asked to register at the educational donation site DonorsChoose. There, their project can be funded through tax-deductible donations by individual donors. The architectural software company Autodesk has also agreed to sponsor a number of MakerBots, as has the director of MakerBot’s parent company, and Prettis personally is committed to funding them for high schools in his current home neighborhood of Brooklyn. For any teacher, MakerBot is making available a package of the printer itself, three rolls of filament, and a service and support plan at $2000, a $700 savings over the retail cost.

“A MakerBot is a manufacturing education in a box; it unlocks creativity and gets kids thinking about how things work,” Prettis says. He sees the machines functioning in classrooms in a range of ways.

On a practical level, MakerBots could be a relatively affordable way to furnish a steady stream of new materials and supplies for classrooms that might not otherwise be able to afford them, from a detailed model of a human heart to simple machines for use in physics. To start out, DonorsChoose told MakerBot that one of the most commonly requested items are “math manipulatives,” the blocks, wedges, counters and other toys that help kids learn geometry, arithmetic and more. MakerBot put out a design challengeto its Thingiverse community to submit ideas for new and creative manipulatives that can be downloaded, printed and used in classrooms. It’s exciting to think about students and teachers in different communities creating and sharing their own designs for classroom purposes.

MakerBot is going to be sharing curricula created by teachers and companies like Autodesk to help teachers work the 3-D printers into lesson planning from kindergarten through high schools. Within the world of K-12 innovation, we’re oftentimes focused on the use of handheld devices with screens, but learning can be an intensely tactile process, and the MakerBot taps into that. “A MakerBot is actually a great bridge between the virtual and physical world,” Prettis says.

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

College Graduation Rates Continue To Lag Despite Washington Priorities

Six Year Outcomes
By , The Hechinger Report
Four and a half years after producing more degree-holders became a national priority, graduation rates remain stubbornly flat, and only slightly more than half of all students continue to finish four-year programs within even six years, according to a new analysis.The study, by the National Student Clearinghouse, found that the percentage of students who graduated within six years after starting toward either a four-year or a two-year degree is 54.2 percent, up only two-tenths of 1 percent from last year.Of those, 12.4 percent finished at institutions other than the ones where they started. Another 30 percent of students dropped out, and 15.5 percent were still enrolled.

Though the overall average was virtually unchanged overall, public four-year institutions slightly improved their graduation rate, by 1.3 percentage points, and community colleges by 1.1 percentage points. In all, 37.4 percent of community college students completed school within six years—9 percent of them after transferring to four-year institutions.

Community colleges have long complained that their low graduation rates do not reflect that many of their students transfer and finish elsewhere.

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

Apple Tightens Its 94% Choke-hold On The Education Tablet Market


By Anya Kamenetz, The Hechinger Report

“Apple is making substantial contributions to society,” by “reinventing education,” CEO Tim Cook said during Monday’s quarterly earnings call. Celebrating their “highest September quarter revenue ever,” and their “best education quarter ever,” Cook and CFO Peter Oppenheimer highlighted global education more than any other growth market for the iPad specifically. Here are some of the examples they cited:

  • Over $1 billion in the education category specifically for the first time ever, out of $37 billion in total revenue.
  • Education sales were up 8% year over year.
  • In the U.K., the number of iPads sold to K-12 schools has more than doubled year-over-year.
  • In Latin America, over 70,000 iPads in use across 800 schools.
  • The Coachella Valley School District in California is currently distributing over 19,000 iPads to its student body.
  • Horry County School Districts in South Carolina will distribute 10,000 tablets to middle school students this year with a goal of providing all students in grades 3-12 with their own devices within three years.
  •  iBooks textbooks are now available across the U.S., U.K. and Australian national high school curricula.
  • Apple’s share of tablets in education is 94%. 

“It’s sort of unheard of,” crowed CEO Tim Cook. “I’ve never seen a market share that high before. So, we feel like we’re doing really well here and feel great to be making a contribution to education.”

The rise of the iPad in education has been impressive but not uncontroversial. As documented elsewhere on this blog, the devices have both passionate fans and passionate detractors among educators. Notably, Cook and Oppenheimer did not mention the ongoing $1 billion iPad rollout by the second largest school district in this country, LA Unified. Perhaps that’s because the rollout has been delayed due to security concerns and other implementation problems, a “fiasco” that led to resignation rumors for Superintendent John Deasy.

As I see it there are three major problems with one company having a 94% market share in a particular kind of classroom device. The first one is price and competition. In response to a question on the call about competition from the more modestly priced Google Chromebook, Tim Cook said “We do see Chromebooks in some places, but the vast majority of people are buying a PC/Mac or an iPad.”

Even with high-volume discounts, iPads can cost over $600 per student. Apple has consistently resisted making truly budget versions of its devices even when that meant losing market share to competitors, to say nothing of its purported social mission in an area like education. Not only are iPads expensive, they require monthly data plans for most applications, their components are near-impossible to repair or upgrade, and like most Apple products they are designed to be replaced every few years.

The second problem with massive iPad adoption is control of curriculum. The star iPad educators I’ve talked to are masters of the remix. They use dozens of different apps in their classrooms daily, most of which put students in an active role as content creators and communicators. It takes careful scaffolding and professional development to make teachers confident in applying this kind of technological creativity. In large scale iPad adoptions, especially those motivated by the transition to the Common Core, what we’re far more likely to see is Apple subcontracting out to providers like Pearson for an all-in-one, off-the-shelf curriculum solution that is little more than an automated textbook. As we’ve seen in LA, this can simultaneously disempower and confuse teachers, taking them out of the drivers’ seat, as well as lead to subpar experiences for students.

Finally, compared to bona fide computers, iPads are far less hackable. You can’t reprogram them without jailbreaking. Using them to write code is unwieldy. You can’t even open them up to change the battery. This puts an entire technological world off-limits in tablet-based classrooms.

Here’s a blog post by a friend of mine who is building a PC out of parts with his two school-aged daughters, using free videos found online as their coach. The girls will use the computer to play the wildly popular educational game Minecraft. The total cost is well under $300. Imagine if our public schools took this DIY approach to provisioning classrooms with computers.

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

Moody’s Report Shows How Colleges Are Becoming More Cash-Strapped

By valore_sellers via Flickr under CreativeCommons
By valore_sellers via Flickr under CreativeCommons

By , The Hechinger Report 

Facing stagnant enrollment and increasingly price-conscious consumers, already cash-strapped universities will continue to see their revenues fail to keep up with inflation, the bond-rating agency Moody’s Investment Service says.

The proportion of public universities with expected revenue declines has doubled over last year.

Nearly 30 percent of public and one out of five private universities will suffer declines in revenue—more than the proportion that experienced this last year, and a sign that the problem is getting worse and not better, according to Moody’s, which annually reviews the financial condition of higher-education institutions whose bonds it rates.

Nearly half of universities expect to see declines in their enrollments.

Second-tier public universities and small private universities that are having trouble persuading families and students that they’re worth the price of their tuition are in the most danger, Moody’s says—and will have to take dramatic steps to win back business.

“At this pace, tuition-dependent colleges and universities will be challenged to make necessary investments in personnel, programs, and facilities to remain competitive over the longer term,” says Karen Kedem, a Moody’s senior analyst, who authored the report.

Forty-four percent of public and 42 percent of private universities and colleges will see their revenues fall behind the 2 percent inflation rate, Moody’s says.

That’s largely because private universities are being forced to give higher and higher discounts to keep students coming.

Public universities, meanwhile, are being squeezed between cuts in their allocations from state legislatures and resistance to shifting their costs onto students and their families in the form of higher and higher tuition.

The proportion of public universities with expected revenue declines this year is twice what is was last year.

Moody’s warns that cuts in federal financial aid during an era of austerity would push universities onto even shakier ground.

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

Michael Horn: A Look Behind The Curtain At How A MOOC Is Made

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


By Michael Horn

The emerging world of K–12 blended learning remains a young field full of promise for personalizing learning and boosting outcomes for all students. More and more bright spots are emerging every day.

But there are also challenges. With the buzz surrounding 1:1 device programs and new classroom apps, there are risks that people might just take education technologies and layer it over the existing monolithic classroom processes and not fundamentally change the way students learn. The hype around and cramming of technology remains a serious risk to the field.

To help educators make the shift to blended learning that truly moves the needle for students, we’ve been working for the past few months with Silicon Schools Fund and the New Teacher Center to create a MOOC on Coursera about high-quality blended learning. The free course launches Tuesday.

Diving into the online-learning revolution about which I’ve written and spoken so much for the last seven years by actually creating an online learning experience has been a fascinating and humbling experience. Without the hard work of an entire team—from our team at the Clayton Christensen Institute to our partners and friends at the Silicon Schools Fund and New Teacher Center and from our videographer Eric L. Wong to The Learning Accelerator, which provided support—it’s been clear to me that we could not have pulled this off. This has made me appreciate so much more the hard work of those instructional designers who work to create high-quality online learning experiences for their full-time job—as well as how early we are still in the emergence of the newer MOOC platforms. It also makes me further wonder about the quality of much of what has been placed on the MOOC platforms to date. Below are a few behind-the-scenes shots of the making of the MOOC.

From left to right, Brian Greenberg, Michael B. Horn, and Rob Schwartz film the opening video of the blended learning MOOC. Photo by Anna Gu, Research Assistant at the Clayton Christensen Institute

Videographer Eric L. Wong and Michael Horn review some notes during a MOOC film shoot. Photo by Anna Gu.


Caitrin Wright of the Silicon Schools Fund and Eric L. Wong working during a filming session with Rob Schwartz. Photo by Anna Gu.

Our six-week course draws from interviews with a number of practitioners in the K–12 world of blended learning about how they have combined online learning with thoughtfully designed face-to-face interactions to create dramatic gains in student learning. We examine the critical element of mastery-based learning, the motivational benefits of greater student ownership over learning, and the opportunity to boost students’ non-cognitive skills in these environments. We also look at gains from the perspective of blended-learning teachers, whose roles shift into more targeted “guides on the side” who are able to develop deeper relationships with students.

Three schools act as our protagonists throughout the course to give course participants a real view into why to do blended learning and how to do it: KIPP Comienza Community Prep of KIPP LA, Gilroy Prep of Navigator Schools, and Summit Denali of Summit Public Schools. These schools provide a window into how blended learning works on the ground at various levels—for students, teachers, and administrators. We could not have created this course without the amazing cooperation and insights from the students, teachers, and leaders at these schools.

It’s of course impossible to capture all of the valuable insights that these schools have to offer about blended learning in one day of filming at each school, which made the sessions challenging. But these days were undoubtedly the most rewarding and enlightening—not only for us, but we also suspect for those who take the course.


Brian Greenberg and Eric L. Wong discuss a camera angle during a film shoot at KIPP LA. Photo by Michael B. Horn.

They also provided some great light-hearted moments with the students that kept us focused on the ultimate reason for this work.

Brian Greenberg dons an elephant hat while interviewing a student at KIPP LA. Photo by Michael B. Horn.

What we’ve learned–and what emerges in the course–is that there is no definitive way to do blended learning. The schools that we profile have made many different decisions and all produced wonderful results for students.

In the course, we also expect to learn a lot from the participants, who will take ownership of their learning by constructing a blended-learning experience in their own context as their primary assignment. In the process, we believe that they will create a host of new innovations and make a series of novel choices around blended-learning design. With over 10,000 students signed up from literally around the world—one of the most exciting moments occurred within hours of opening up the course page this past Friday, as students began discussing a range of blended-learning topics—we are pretty certain there will be something for everyone in this course. And that means that the making of the course will truly be a collaborative—and ongoing—process. At the end of the experience, I’ll try to report out once again some of the high-level takeaways. We’re excited to get going and keep learning.

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

Student Loan Market And Mortgage Industry Show Striking Similarities

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

By , The Hechinger Report
Complaints from students about the way financing companies are handling student loans are eerily similar to the problems that frustrated mortgage-holders in the wake of the financial crisis, and cost some of them their homes, according to a government report.In its second annual review of student-loan practices, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, says loan servicers make it hard for borrowers to pay off their loans early and, unless recipients provide explicit instructions, divide up early or partial payments in ways that are the most expensive to consumers.“Repaying a student loan should be simple,” says the agency’s director, Richard Cordray. “When servicers process payments to maximize fees and penalties, they undermine the trust of their customers. Student loan borrowers deserve better.”

For example, early payments made by borrowers to reduce their long-term interest costs end up being applied to lower-interest loans first, and not higher-interest loans, while partial payments are parceled out in the opposite way, which maximizes late fees. And when student loans are transferred from one servicer to another, the resulting confusion often costs consumers even more money.

“Too many borrowers have to run through an obstacle course to get their payments processed properly,” says Rohit Chopra, the CFPB’s ombudsman for student loans.

One reason is that loans are often sold back and forth among borrowers, much like mortgages, the CFPB report says. It says consumers complain of lost paperwork, bank errors that result in late fees, and other problems.

It says the complains mirror problems in the mortgage market after the financial crisis, when borrowers couldn’t refinance or modify their mortgages, or were foreclosed on when their paperwork got lost by lenders.

“Too many borrowers have to run through an obstacle course to get their payments processed properly.” — Rohit Chopra, CFPB ombudsman for student loans.

“The similarity between private student loan complaints and problems uncovered in the mortgage servicing industry suggests that many student loan servicers are not taking proactive steps to avoid a similar breakdown,” the report says.

Almost half of student borrower complaints were against Sallie Mae, 11 percent against American Education Services, 6 percent each against Discover and Wells Fargo, and 5 percent against JP Morgan Chase. The CFPB says these are proportionate to their respective shares of the market.

Eighty-one percent of students who borrow more than $40,000 use private loans, which typically have higher interest rates and stricter repayment terms than federally backed loans.

The CFPB reported 3,800 student-loan complaints between October 1, 2012 and September 30, 2013.

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

Rank And File: American Universities Search For New Ranking Systems

A sample “dashboard” from the Voluntary Institutional Metrics Project.

A sample “dashboard” from the Voluntary Institutional Metrics Project.

By , The Hechinger Report

He may be the leader of the free world, but when President Barack Obama proposed that the government grade universities based on their cost and success rates, a lot of other people were ahead of him.

At a time when students and their families are demanding to know what they’re getting for their mounting investments in higher education, several foundations and research centers are already working on new ways to show them.

Even some universities and colleges themselves — reasoning that it’s better to come up with their own ratings than have them imposed by someone else — are quietly working on new ways to gauge what graduates learn and earn, though many remain reluctant so far to make the results public.

“One thing everyone seems to agree on is that we should have a good way for people to choose where to go to college,” said Zakiya Smith, strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, which is offering $10,000 in a crowd-sourced competition to come up with the best way to make more user friendly an existing U.S. Department of Education Website called the College Scorecard.

Obama has proposed that the government publicly rate colleges and universities by 2015 based on such things as average student debt, graduation rates, and graduates’ earnings.

“The answers will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers,” the president said in a speech at the University of Buffalo.

That’s information consumers increasingly want. In a survey released in January by Hart Public Opinion Research, 84 percent supported the idea of making colleges disclose information about graduation, job-placement, and loan-repayment rates.

“People are looking at, ‘Where do we get the biggest bang for our buck,’” said Terrell Halaska, a partner at the higher-education consulting firm HCM Strategists. “They’re desperately looking for high-quality consumer information. They don’t know where to turn. There are 1,000 different ranking systems out there.”


U.S. News & World Report, national universities

  1. Princeton
  2. Harvard
  3. Yale
  4. Columbia
  5. Chicago, Stanford (tie)

Times Higher Education

  1. CalTech
  2. Oxford
  3. Stanford
  4. Harvard
  5. MIT

Shanghai World University Rankings

  1. Harvard
  2. Stanford
  3. Berkeley
  4. MIT
  5. Cambridge

QS World University Rankings

  1. MIT
  2. Harvard
  3. Cambridge
  4. University College London
  5. Imperial College London

Forbes, America’s Top Colleges (based on such results as graduation rates and student satisfaction)

  1. Stanford
  2. Pomona
  3. Princeton
  4. Yale
  5. Columbia

Washington Monthly, (based on social mobility, research, and service)

  1. UC San Diego
  2. UC Riverside
  3. Texas A&M
  4. Case Western Reserve
  5. Berkeley

Washington Monthly, (best value)

  1. Florida
  2. Georgia
  3. UNC Chapel Hill
  4. NC State
  5. Texas A&M

Princeton Review

Best-Run: Claremont McKenna

Best Food: Bowdoin

Best Dorms: Smith

LGBT-Friendly: Emerson

Top Party School: Iowa

Parchment electronic transcript service Student Choice College Rankings (based on admissions acceptances)

  1. Stanford
  2. MIT
  3. Harvard
  4. Princeton
  5. Duke

U.S. Department of Education (most expensive)

  1. Columbia
  2. Sarah Lawrence
  3. Vassar
  4. George Washington
  5. Trinity

For their part, universities have responded with official skepticism to the idea that the government should add yet another one. But some are privately working on their own ratings systems.

With money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 18 higher-education institutions have been at work on something called the Voluntary Institutional Metrics Project, coordinated by HCM, which proposes to provide college-by-college comparisons of cost, dropout and graduation rates, post-graduate employment, student debt and loan defaults, and how much people learn. (Gates and Lumina are among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

It’s that last category that has proven trickiest. After two years, the group still hasn’t figured out how to measure what is, after all, the principal purpose of universities and colleges: whether the people who go to them actually learn anything, and, if so, how much.

The many existing privately produced rankings, including the dominant U.S. News & World Report annual “Best Colleges” guide, have historically rewarded universities based on the quality of the students who select them, and what those students know when they arrive on campus — their SAT scores, class rank, and grade-point averages — rather than what they learn once they get there.

U.S. News has been gradually shifting toward incorporating in its rankings such “outputs” as graduation rates, the publisher says.

Still, the most-popular rankings “have been almost completely silent on teaching and learning,” said Alexander McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE — yet another attempt by universities themselves to measure their effectiveness. And that, he said, is “like rating the success of hospitals by looking only at the health of their patients when they arrive.”

NSSE, which is based at the Indiana University School of Education, seeks to change that calculation. Each spring, it surveys freshmen and seniors at as many as 770 participating universities and colleges about their classroom experiences, how much they interact with faculty and classmates, whether their courses were challenging, and how much they think they’ve learned.

But the project also spotlights a big problem with potentially valuable ratings collected by the institutions themselves: The schools are often unwilling to make them public.

“This tells you something about the sensitivity that exists right now about comparisons of institutions,” McCormick said. “A lot of institutional leaders essentially said, ‘If this is going to be public, we’re not going to do it.’ ”

So while it was conceived in 2000 with great fanfare as a rival to the U.S. News rankings, NSSE remains obscure and largely inaccessible. The results are given back to the participating institutions, and while a few schools make some of them public, others don’t, thwarting side-by-side comparisons.

There are other drawbacks to letting universities rate themselves. One is that the information is self-reported, and not independently verified, potentially inviting manipulation of the figures. In the last two years, seven universities and colleges have admitted falsifying informationsent to the Department of Education, their own accrediting agencies, and U.S. News: Bucknell, Claremont McKenna, Emory, George Washington, Tulane’s business school, and the law schools at the University of Illinois and Villanova.

Also, surveys like the one used by NSSE depend on students to participate, and to answer questions honestly. Last year, fewer than one-third of students responded to the NSSE survey.

“We depend on them to provide candid answers,” McCormick said. “But students aren’t stupid. It wouldn’t take long for them to figure out, ‘The way I fill out this survey will affect where my institution comes out in the pecking order.’ ”

Student surveys are nonetheless a major part of another planned ranking of universities called U-Multirank, a project of the European Union.

Recognizing that it’s not always possible to compare very different institutions — as universities themselves often argue — U-Multirank will measure specific departments, ranking, for example, various engineering and physics programs.

Of the more than 650 universities hat have signed on, 13 are American; the first rankings are due out at the beginning of next year.

“It doesn’t make sense to rank universities only on the level of the university as a whole,” said Frank Ziegele, managing director of Germany’s Centre for Higher Education and one of the coordinators of the project. “The existing rankings focus on a very narrow range of indicators, such as reputation and research, but they’re perceived as being comprehensive.”

Ziegele said his project will use statistical methods to weed out dishonest answers from students on surveys about their educations.

“You could never prevent completely that there are some answers that are biased, but as soon as we have doubts we would choose to leave out that indicator for that university,” he said.

The League of European Research Universities, which includes Oxford and Cambridge, is already refusing to take part, as are some other institutions. Many of those already do well in existing global rankings including the ones produced by the Times Higher Education magazine and the publishing company QS Quacquarelli Symonds, and the Shanghai World University Rankings.

For all of this activity, there’s evidence that students and their families don’t rely as much on rankings as university administrators seem to fear. Rankings are a mediocre 12th on a list of 23 reasons for selecting a college students gave in an annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute.

Still, said Smith, of the Lumina Foundation, “People appreciate information. When you buy a car, a lot of things may come into consideration, but you still want to know what the gas mileage is. And you have the right to know.”

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

Columnist Michael Horn Interviews Scott Ellis On How Education Is Like Kung Fu

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

By Michael Horn, Columnist

Last week, The Learning Accelerator, a non-profit that supports the implementation of high-quality blended learning in American school districts, announced its first district-wide pilot for blended learning with the Reynoldsburg City School District in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

A critical part of The Learning Accelerator’s definition for high-quality blended learning is that the learning be mastery-based (also known as competency-based) — that is, students make progress when they master a concept, not based on time.

The CEO of The Learning Accelerator, Scott Ellis, has done a lot of thinking about how Kung Fu is a useful analogy for thinking through what mastery-based learning would look like in our K–12 schools, so I interviewed Scott to learn more.

Q: How did you get involved in Kung Fu?

A: Three years ago I started learning Kung Fu. I was signing my kids up to take classes and had always wanted to try it. When I told the instructors, they were confused: “You mean Tai Chi, right? It’s nice and slow, better for you. Kung Fu is fast, good for the kids.” In my first class a few days later I was breathing hard and my face was red. It took a while to convince them I was not going to have a heart attack. Today I am a brown belt, which means I have completed 9 of the 13 levels.

Q: What does Kung Fu have to do with public education?

A: Kung Fu offers an interesting example of a system of mastery-based learning: enabling students to learn at their own pace and advance as they master content, rather than moving forward based on time requirements.

Q: Mastery, or competency-based, learning is being explored a lot right now in American education. But it would be a significant change from the current system in which all students move at the same pace in their classes. How does it work in Kung Fu?

A: The structure of progression in Kung Fu is based on belt levels. In class, students wear a cloth belt of the color that shows their level. Students start with white belts and as they master new content and skills they are awarded new belts: yellow, green, etc., until the top level—black. To receive a new belt, a student must demonstrate mastery of several different elements: a series of moves called a “form,” a specific kick, two self-defense maneuvers, strength, flexibility, and endurance. These requirements are what, in K–12 education, would be called “standards”: what students are expected to know and be able to do. In Kung Fu a student advances when she can demonstrate that she has mastered the required content.

Q: What does that look like in a class?

A: When the class starts, students line up in order of their belt level, starting with the most advanced. Students do the 10-minute warm-up phase together: stretching, running, and basic exercises. Students also do the 20-minute technique practice together, with everyone working on the same element (e.g., kicks). Each student, however, works on the kick for her level, and the less advanced watch and learn from the more advanced. Students separate by ability level for the 20-minute forms phase. Each student takes a turn to show what she learned in the previous class and receive corrections, and then learns the next few moves of the sequence. The instructor rotates among the groups of students and returns to each group multiple times during the session. In the 10-minute physical fitness phase, the students do push-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises together.

Q: What is the role of the teacher in all this?

A: The instructor plays a central role in the learning process by serving as a role model and motivator and providing differentiated instruction. Key drivers of instructor effectiveness are their own deep knowledge of the material and their keen awareness of each student’s current stage of learning and the support each needs to move forward.

Q: How does a student demonstrate mastery and progress to the next belt?

A: Once the instructor is satisfied that a student has mastered all elements of her level, he tells the student that she is ready to take the “belt test.” Students cannot take a belt test until the instructor tells them they are ready, and they must also demonstrate that they remember all required elements of every previous level.

The belt test occurs in a separate session from a normal class. Each element is tested separately:  endurance, forms, kicks, and so forth. For each element the instructor grades the student as “excellent”, “satisfactory”, or “unsatisfactory.” If a student is graded unsatisfactory on more than two elements, then he fails the belt test. He may have to come back to another belt test session in the future, or the instructor may allow him to practice the element and then demonstrate it in the next class.

Q: How does this apply to our K–12 education system?

A: There are a number of aspects of Kung Fu that may be relevant for mastery-based learning in schools.

1) There are clear and defined standards. It is clear to students what they must know and be able to do in order to advance. The transparency is empowering and exciting for students as they see the path ahead.

2) There is a specific mechanism to demonstrate mastery. Although nothing in Kung Fu is quantitative, the instructor assesses every student’s ability to complete each element. Success or failure is binary. Instructor judgment and knowledge are essential parts of this process.

3) There is a mastery-based progression, which is driven and controlled by the student. Each student moves at her own pace. The time spent at a particular level is irrelevant. Some students attend one class per week; some attend several. Some practice at home; some don’t. Some take other classes like dance that build complementary skills and enable them to advance faster.

4) There is a combination of shared and individualized learning. Social interaction and community are fostered by the parallel portions of the classes (warm-up, technique practice, and physical fitness), while at the same time students advance at their own pace and receive focused instruction that enables them to move forward when they are ready.

5) Instruction and assessment of mastery are separated. The student learns a certain group of skills until the instructor determines they are ready to demonstrate mastery. The assessment process is separate from the learning process, though the assessment session is an opportunity to reinforce learning.

6) There is a public signaling of the level of mastery. Students wear belts that everyone can see, and students line up based on their belt level. This is a contrast to other mastery-based examples like swim classes, where students may be grouped by ability level and receive an award ribbon when they reach a new level, but the ribbon is something they take home.

7) There is public recognition of a student’s progression. When students pass a belt test, they receive their belt at their next class. When the class ends, everyone sits down, the instructor calls the student to the front and awards them their new belt. Everyone applauds.

8) Students help each other and model skills. Since activities are parallel across belts (all have kicks, forms, etc.), there are many opportunities for students to help each other. Because advanced students do common activities first, the less advanced students see multiple demonstrations of good performance—not just from instructors, but also from their peers.

9) Finally, a broader range of content is taught than is tested. Students learn things in class that are not part of the belt tests. For example, students often do sit-ups, conditioning drills, and flexibility exercises, such as forward and backward splits, that are not included in the testing process.

Q: What’s the big takeaway?

A: Examples of mastery-based progression like Kung Fu offer models that could help transform American K-12 education. As policy proposals are considered in the months ahead, it is important to examine the underlying structure of America’s education system. Most fundamentally, students should advance when they master content, not based on outdated time requirements. Although not every student in America will become a black belt in Kung Fu, every student should receive the benefits of mastery-based learning.

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

Signs Showing The MOOC Train Losing Steam As It Leaves The Station

MOOC Players

By , The Hechinger Report

After barely more than a year in business, opposite-coast rivals edX and Coursera have become two of the biggest higher-education organizations in the world, with a combined six million registered users drawn to the online teaching they provide.

And why not? The so-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offered by the two behemoths based at MIT and Harvard on the East Coast and Stanford on the West combine free education with the convenience of learning at any time or place, alongside with tens of thousands of cyber-classmates at a time in any of 524 courses in all that range from calculus to genome theory, introductory guitar to the science of cooking, Chinese architecture to American national security.

This has seemed the perfect marriage, leading to pronouncements that MOOCs will mean the end of conventional universities and skyrocketing tuition, and even proposals by state legislators to substitute online courses for the in-person kind at public universities.

“A lot of the courses coming online are focused on the most boring parts of education: the talking head and multiple-choice questions.” — Amin Saberi, NovoEd

But the honeymoon may be coming to an end.

What limited research has been done into the effectiveness of online learning has found that it has much higher dropout rates and lower grades than the conventional kind. Proponents of conventional education, which at first seemed unsure of how to respond to the MOOCs craze, now are publicly questioning them at conferences with titles such as, “MOOCs: Revolution or Just Passing Fad?” and “Will MOOCs Pass the Test?” and speakers including prominent education scholars. Employers still prefer hiring applicants with traditional versus online educations, according to a new poll.  And even advocates for MOOCs concede that expectations have gotten out ahead of them.

“This whole thing is just a little over a year old,” says Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, a job that has thrust the MIT computer-science professor into the pop-culture limelight with appearances on the likes of The Colbert Report, and who likens the evolution of MOOCs to the 25-year span it took to get from early web-search engines to Google. “We need to give it time. There’s still a long way to go.”

Even as MOOCs remain wildly publicly popular—enrollment in all online courses is up 29 percent since 2010, during a time when the number of students in conventional university courses has declined according to the Babson Survey Research Group—their purpose remains misunderstood, Agarwal and others say.

While edX and others will continue to offer their immensely popular standalone online courses, the broader idea, they say, is largely to find ways of using new technology to improve the quality of education on campuses in what’s known as blended learning. They say that’s one of the main reasons MIT and Harvard are investing $60 million in edX.

“The public perception of MOOCs is that they are courses taken by millions of learners all over the world,” Agarwal says. “But at edX, we’ve been saying all along that we want to take the learning in the large and apply it in the small, on campus.”

This work is in its early stages, with large-scale research just getting under way and some professors who teach MOOCs importing some of the technology—archived lectures, for examples, that students can watch, restart, and watch again—into their real-world brick-and-mortar classrooms.

This combination of MOOC-style technology with conventional teaching has an acronym of its own, a geeky inside joke that’s likely to become as ubiquitous as “MOOC”: the small private online course, or SPOC.

Work has only just begun into determining whether this will help students learn more. But what real-world experience exists so far is raising doubts.

In a study of MOOC-like online courses at community colleges, researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University found that nearly twice as many students dropped out than their counterparts who took the same courses in conventional classrooms. The online students also got lower grades and were less likely to ultimately graduate. And in an experiment at San Jose State University in California, only half of students who were allowed to take MOOCs for credit passed, compared to three-quarters of those in the same courses in conventional classrooms.

That’s because online learning requires self-discipline and motivation, says Amin Saberi, cofounder of another Stanford spinoff called NovoEd, which is betting that MOOCs can only work if students are called upon to do more than watch lectures on their laptops or tablets and check off boxes on online exams.

“A lot of the courses coming online are focused on the most boring parts of education: the talking head and multiple-choice questions,” says Saberi, who says that even he has started and dropped out of other people’s MOOCs after losing interest. “Because of this, for the student, they create a very lonely experience.”

In a new twist on MOOCs, NovoEd offers massive online courses but also organizes online and in-person study group and requires students to work on projects or find living, breathing mentors. Some in a technology entrepreneurship course started their own companies, for instance.

“Education is not just transfer of content,” Saberi says. “We need to bring the students in, motivate them, and create an environment where they can go farther.”

Yet most MOOCs “are basically another form of ‘chalk and talk’ teaching, only online and at a distance,” says Thierry Karsenti, a professor of education at the University of Montreal, which organized an international conference about them. (In French, MOOCs are called cours en ligne ouverts et massifs, or “CLOMs.”)

“Can these enormous numbers really be taught all at once? When there is no actual communication with the students, is it still teaching?” Thierry asks.

It’s too early to say, Agarwal insists. He says MOOCs are accomplishing their objectives of widening access to education and allowing educators to do research into how students learn—what times they like to watch the lectures, where they move forward or get stuck, and other precise details the technology can track. As for their third goal, of improving the quality of learning, he says, that will come with time.

“The jury is still out in terms of whether and to what extent purely online education is effective.” — Anant Agarwal, edX

“The challenges of education are so large that our entire community has been seeking a solution, and online learning and MOOCs are seen as a potential silver bullet,” Agarwal says. “Everybody really gets excited about it. But the jury is still out in terms of whether and to what extent purely online education is effective.”

And even their critics say MOOCs have accomplished a lot in their short lives.

“MOOCs have done quite a few good things,” Saberi says. “They’ve started a conversation that, look, we have huge problems in higher education, and about how online technology can help students on and off campus. That doesn’t mean the current MOOCs can solve these problems. They’re a stepping stone, not a solution.”

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

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