Going Through The Journalistic Motions

“Journalism: an ability to meet the challenge of filling the space.” — Rebecca West

Recently on a LinkedIn group about international education, a contributor posted an article called Keeping up with the Digital Natives. There were so many things wrong with this article that my response wouldn’t fit as a LinkedIn comment. But not to worry, here I have all the space I need to do a complete autopsy of shoddy education journalism, and this article definitely requires it.

It might be hard to believe, but just a few years ago, analysts and insiders alike were predicting the downfall of the university system at the hands of massive open online courses.

Yes, there were some attention seekers saying that sort of thing a few years ago, but this makes it sound like everyone active in higher education believed this, when a lot of us knew immediately that this was patently ridiculous and have said so all along.

Elsewhere, studies have shown that online learners underperform against their face-to-face peers.

The author says studies, yet links to an article reporting on only one study, and a flawed one at that. For example, that this is referred to as “the first rigorous test of the effects of live versus online instruction on student performance” is absurd. Research has been conducted on the efficacy of distance learning since at least 1928 (there being no Internet then, that was studying correspondence courses), and the majority of those studies show no significant different in efficacy between a properly constructed online course and a properly constructed classroom-based course. In particular, a meta-analysis done by the U.S. Department of Education a few years back confirmed that across many studies there is no significant difference between the two — although it did conclude that hybrid learning, where both modes of instruction are used, are slightly better than either one on its own.

Moreover, this article has a whole undercurrent here that is all too common in education journalism, that of confusing MOOCs with online education as a whole. MOOCs are a small, recent segment of online education. Not distinguishing between them is an amateur’s mistake.

Hitchcock offered four points to back up his argument:

Note that the article has moved on to interview an executive of a company that provides online learning services to universities. That’s fair enough, it’s a profile piece after all, but everything he says should be considered in that light.

one, there is no economic value in a MOOC – “at some stage even a university that gets government funding needs to have some sort of revenue coming in,” he says.

MOOCs can serve many purposes for a university. Those with strong financials can offer MOOCs simply as a public service, and since they’re not credit bearing they don’t cannibalise the institution’s basic revenue model. But MOOCs don’t necessarily have to be written off as charity, because they can also be considered a marketing expense when they are promoted skillfully and attract positive attention to the institution offering them.

Two, MOOCs have huge drop out rates – up to 93 percent of starters.

That assumes that one measures completion of a MOOC as necessarily being the goal of the student. But there’s no reason to assume that. Many students are simply curious, or are interested in a few topics covered but not others. Since (real) MOOCs have no barrier to entry, there’s no reason for them to pick and choose from what’s available in a course, even if it’s just a quick overview. That’s not failure, that’s success.

Three, universities are instrumental in the transition from being a child to being a self-determining adult, he says, something you can’t get from a MOOC.

MOOCs aren’t supposed to replace the university campus experience for young adults. They’re much better at being continuing education for working professionals, or an avenue for personal development. That they have a more limited role than their most enthusiastic supports claim doesn’t mean that MOOCs don’t make sense at all for universities to offer.

And finally, the issue of accreditation – “how do you prove that person who has taken that assessment or who has been doing that work is in fact the person who signed up?”

Firstly, that’s not what the word accreditation means. Secondly, as I’ve previously written, there’s evidence that students learning online are less likely to cheat than their classroom-based peers, not more. Besides, considering the recent Harvard cheating scandal or the long time systemic academic dishonestly at UNC-Chapel Hill, even the best regarded classroom-based providers should maintain better vigilance.

The rest of this is simply a venue for the executive to praise how brilliant his own company is. Fine so far as it goes, since that’s the purpose of the article. But if Navitas’s understanding of their own industry is as flawed as their CIO’s comments make it sound, I wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole.