academics Archive

Racism in American Higher Education

Posted July 11, 2014 By Steve


Consider the following quote:

With white birth rates falling, a major demographic shift is coming. Are colleges ready for a more diverse pool of prospective college students? This special issue looks at efforts under way at several colleges to serve underrepresented and underprepared students, who are more likely to need additional support to graduate. Meeting their needs may help some colleges preserve enrollment levels even if it means the occasional “hand-holding” is necessary to achieve success.

Who do you think described an expected increase of students of color in this way? Was it some Secretary of Education from a state with a Republican administration? Was it some ultraconservative commentator on one of those rightwing web sites that pretends to be news? Was it an argument used by segregationists in decades past?

No, it was the Chronicle of Higher Education, selling a special publication called Diversity in Academe Spring 2014. It might sound like it belongs more in 1964, or 1864 for that matter, but unfortunately this is supposed to be the state of the art of thinking in higher education administration.

I’ve worked in higher education for over ten years. In that time I’ve worked closely with many students who were the first in their families to attend university, many of whom needed somewhere to go for extra advice. But this lack of sophistication didn’t come from their skin color. I met many students of color who were perfectly comfortable in a higher education environment, and white students who didn’t really understand what was going on and needed a bit more support. In my observation, this was a function of the level of affluence from which these students came, not how much melanin was in their skin.

Now, I’m not unmindful that if grouped together that students of color are more likely than white students to have come from a working class background. But if you really want to help someone, you look at the whole person as an individual, you don’t just start with what color they are as a lazy and inaccurate substitute for finding out who they really are and what their strengths and weaknesses might be. Ethnicity might be part of the individual experience, and some people take it very seriously, but this is dwarfed by the variation that comes from being an individual and it shouldn’t define people. For the Chronicle of Higher Education to offer advice that uses race as a starting point isn’t just doing students a disservice, it’s nothing less than the soft bigotry of lower expectations writ large.

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Do Distance Learners Cheat More?

Posted May 31, 2014 By Steve

“I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.” — Sophocles


Recently I got into a conversation on a LinkedIn group with someone who believes that cheating must be more widespread by distance learners than those learning in a classroom since only in the latter case can “trusted authorities confirm your performance and mastery because they personally witnessed it.”

Now, this argument is just about as old as distance learning itself, but there are some assumptions behind it that I think are pretty shaky, such as that assessments in both modes of instruction are only based on closed book, closed note exams; that it is not possible for classroom-based students to cheat on such exams; and that there are no processes or technologies available to verify the identity of distance learning students.

In a large lecture hall where there are hundreds of students, those administering tests don’t necessarily know the one sitting the exam is the one whose name it one it. Sure, there are best practices that minimize this risk, but not all schools use them. Harvard’s recent cheating scandal resulted from take home exams, for instance. So much for trusted authorities personally witnessing the performance of their students!

Similarly, when a student hands in a paper, regardless of whether it’s directly onto an instructor’s desk or through an online dropbox, there’s no way to know whether that student really wrote it. In fact, when papers are turned in digitally, it makes plagiarism detection easy, something that’s very challenging for assignments turned in on paper.

Either way, this is probably an area where research would be better than supposition, and interestingly, the study I’ve seen most often suggests that online students cheat less than than their classroom-based peers, not more:

The prevalence of academic misconduct among students enrolled in online classes was explored. Students (N = 225) were given the Student Academic Dishonesty Survey to determine the frequency and type of academic dishonest behaviors. Results indicated that students enrolled in online classes were less likely to cheat than those enrolled in traditional, on ground courses. Aiding and abetting was self-reported as the most frequently used method among students in both online and traditional classroom settings. Results suggest that the amount of academic misconduct among online students may not be as prevalent as believed.

To return to supposition, though, I can’t help but wonder whether a reason distance learners would cheat less often than those in a classroom would be that they are not actually necessarily peers. The classroom attracts more traditional age university students, who might not have various motivations for being there, whereas distance learning often attracts workign adults, who have gone back to school with the specific objective of learning more to advance in their careers, or to pursue various other interests. It would only make sense that such distance learners would realize that academic dishonesty would only be cheating themselves.

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New World University

Posted May 4, 2014 By Steve

“The mission of New World University is to provide quality, affordable higher education to individuals in economically developing countries by building a vibrant international academic community through which researchers, educators, and students can interact.” — New World University Mission Statement

New World University
A few posts ago, I promised to explain more about New World University. Here’s an overview about it.

Some partners and associates and I have started a new institution called New World University. It’s based in the Commonwealth of Dominica in the Eastern Caribbean, and our goal is to reach students in low and middle income countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

It’s an institution that’s been a long time in development. It first started with a few conversations with friends at a conference in 1998, took life a bit when a core group of us became involved in the open educational resources movement in the early 2000′s, became an active project in 2010, and first accepted students late last year.

We’ve begun with one year certificates, two year diplomas, and three year BSc degrees in International Business Leadership, and plan to offer similar sets of programs in computing technology and development studies going forward. We keep costs low by using open educational resources for textbooks, and by offering instructional and student services à la carte so that students only pay for what they really need from us. Because of this, the most motivated and self-starting students can complete a Bachelor’s degree through us through independent study for less than one thousand U.S. dollars.

Of course, just setting up an institution like this isn’t very valuable unless its credentials are recognized. To that end, our accreditation application is in progress with the National Accreditation Board of Dominica, which has reciprocity agreements with similar agencies in other countries.

At this point, we’d like to establish relationships with education entreprenurs and NGOs around the world to discuss ways we can cooperate to serve students. Anyone who is interested in having that conversation, or who is just curious about what we’re doing, is welcome to email me: steve.foerster@newworld.ac

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Liberty Through Entrepreneurship

Posted April 29, 2014 By Steve


Recently, the Institute for Humane Studies held a “Liberty Through Technology” contest for full and part time students to win a tablet. The selection process revolved around explaining why their giving the recipient a tablet would advance the cause of liberty by enabling academic research. Here were the questions they asked, and my responses. To be honest, if I had won a tablet I’d probably mainly use it for reading books on the john, but I didn’t think they would find that a particularly compelling reason, so instead I submitted the following, which conveniently, is also true. (While I didn’t win the tablet, they did call me a finalist and gave me a $25 credit for Amazon.com, which was very nice of them.)


What is your current research interest and what questions would you like to answer through your future research?

I am interested in the use of distance learning to deliver entrepreneurship education to students in low and middle income countries.

I would like to determine what mobile learning strategies are the best for attracting prospective students and for educating them once they’re enrolled. Relevant topics would include keeping students engaged in their learning despite not having a classroom environment, fostering cooperative relationships among students who may be spread across many countries, and on determining which mobile learning approaches are compatible with the uncertain Internet connectivity found in many lower income countries.

How does your research topic advance liberty?

I realize that it’s something of a rarity that someone keen on liberty is in a graduate school of education. Such schools have the reputation for being the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” of higher education: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. That’s doubly so in that schools of education are known for being safe harbors for leftist ideologies that would ignite and turn to dust were they ever exposed to the harsh daylight of the real world.

I’ve long thought, however, that higher education can be a strong force for liberty. Many people who will never stop at an information table or visit a libertarian web site, and who if asked would express no interest in such things, will listen with rapt attention to a liberty-friendly curriculum if it’s delivered in a university classroom where they are earning credit towards a degree.

I’ve chosen entrepreneurship education as a specific focus for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that starting a business is an excellent way to run headlong into a myriad of ways that the state hinders one’s prosperity. I recognize that not all entrepreneurs become libertarian, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Secondly, I believe that starting a business has been underrated as a way to advance the cause of liberty. Think tanks and political action are all very well, but there’s something to be said for changing the system by selling people an alternative. If, as the saying goes, libertarians see the state as damage and route around it, then someone has to bring those alternative routes into existence.

Finally, every once in a while, an entrepreneur will succeed in a way that makes considerable amounts of money. For those who may become friendly to liberty to become wealthy can only be helpful in the long run in a world where money talks. I expect that’s even more the case in economically developing countries where money goes much further than it does in North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.

How can a tablet help you achieve your research goals?

With such a device handy, I would be in a better position to evaluate various approaches to mobile learning that would answer the questions I’ve outlined above. I indicated an Android device because such devices are more affordable and thus more common in economically developing countries.

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Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends….

Posted January 29, 2014 By Steve

I’ve been a little nervous about sharing this, because I know I’ve enrolled in quite a few doctoral programs in the past only to decide they weren’t right for me, or, more recently, that I just wasn’t at the right time of life to get through such a program.

However, I’ve always kept my eyes open for an ideal doctoral program in educational leadership or educational technology, one that had very low tuition rates, very liberal transfer credit allowances, and that seemed to have its act together organizationally.

I decided that school is the University of the Cumberlands, and I’ve enrolled in their doctoral program in Educational Leadership. I applied somewhat on a lark — actually, they sucked me in by responding to my filling out a web form that I meant only as an inquiry by thanking me for having filled out an application and saying all I needed to do was submit the materials to accompany it, e.g., recommendation, transcripts, test score, and essay. Since they did such a great job making it sound like I was already in progress, I found myself going ahead and submitting everything else. Very smooth, UC.

Now, that alone wouldn’t have been enough to get me to enroll, but they did a number of other things right. Their admissions person was helpful and informative but never pushy. She offered to let me submit additional references in lieu of a test score, but since they accepted the Miller Analogies Test, which takes like an hour, I just went and took the test. They went out of their way to accept all my previous doctoral work rather than look for ways to reject it like some schools, and as a result I got the maximum of 18 semester-hours of transfer. Since the whole program is 60 semester-hours, that means I walked in being 30% done.

Then there’s the money. At $375 each, my 42 remaining semester-hours will cost a total of $15,750. And those courses can be taken one at a time, six terms per year, which is the sort of scheduling I prefer.

I’m a few weeks into the first course now, and the instructor has presented the material in an engaging manner, and she’s flexible about when assignments are submitted. There’s a weekly synchronous component, but so far it’s been about an hour each week, and it’s actually been useful and fun to participate. It’s decent material, but the workload is entirely manageable and the expectations are reasonable. I also appreciate they talk about the dissertation from the from course, and that their completion rate is very high — unlike some schools, they actually want people to finish.

It’s also nice to do this sort of thing on the buddy system, and my friend and my fellow Virginian Matt Brent has also signed up for the same program, although we’re in different classes this term.

Anyway, that’s what’s up.

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Relax, Redux

Posted September 9, 2012 By Steve


University World News liked my post about MOOCs, which was nice of them since I criticized their previous writer so much. They wanted me to expand on a few things for their commentary section. We went through a few iterations, and the resulting op-ed is an almost entirely different piece, found on their site.

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“My argument is that to the extent that a MOOC focuses on content, like a traditional course, it begins to fail. A MOOC should focus on the connections, not the content.” — Stephen Downes

MOOC!
I read University World News frequently, and find it a great place to keep abreast of what’s happening in higher education in other countries, especially in the low and middle income countries covered by their Africa edition. But that doesn’t mean everything they print is necessarily entirely on point, and a recent case in point is their commentary Yes, MOOC is the global higher education game changer, by Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.

Given Prof. Marginson’s impressive resume, I was surprised that this piece had factual inaccuracies, even from the very first sentence. Firstly, “MOOC” doesn’t stand for “Free Massive Open Online Courseware”, it stands for “Massive Open Online Course”. Courseware is something a bit different, and while MOOCs might make use of open courseware, and while the same institution might offer both (most famously MIT), they’re not the same thing.

Secondly, the MOOC offered by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig late last year was a great success which rightfully got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t the first MOOC. It’s tough to draw a bright line here, but the real first one was probably one offered in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes through Athabasca University.

Thirdly — and I’ll admit that this point is more in the realm of opinion and prediction — the idea that MOOCs will spell the death of higher education as we know it may be exciting to say, but there are some fundamental barriers involved that will be pretty challenging to overcome. As someone who’s worked in online education for a long time, I can assure you that not everyone wants to learn online, even if from a well-regarded school. Another is that MOOCs from prestigious universities do not lead to academic credit, and this is an important drawback to them that their cheerleaders need to consider a little more closely. Moreover, if I may be allowed a prediction, they never will lead to credit, especially from top universities. Education is not a university’s true product, prestigious credentials are. When employers start accepting MOOC certificates of completion as the equivalent to a university degree, then one will be able to consider them a substitute. Until then, one simply cannot.

Don’t get me wrong, MOOCs are a great new tool in the toolbox of adult education. I’m glad schools are offering them, in fact I’m doing one myself later this year. But as exciting as they are, they cannot be all things to all people, and local universities are in no danger whatsoever of being supplanted by them any time soon.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Posted May 15, 2012 By Steve

“I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.” — Aneurin Bevan

Lies
I admit it: I’m a news junkie. Every day I catch up on what’s happening around the world and in the field of eLearning thanks to various news outlets that scour the globe to find out the latest goings on. Sure, sometimes the mainstream media doesn’t cover something important, and independent media have to pick up the slack, but that’s just how it is. No industry is perfect, after all, and for the most part the news media does a lot more good than harm.

Right, for the most part. But these are tough times for news media. The Internet has not been kind to newspapers in particular, or even television news. At the same time, it’s not like Internet-only news sources tend to have a large number of actual journalists writing stories. As a result, many news outlets have cut back on their reporting staff levels, filling pages with stories that were obtained as cheaply as possible from third parties rather than going out to find out firsthand what’s really happening.

Unfortunately, this can be dangerous. Recently I saw a supposed news story on Yahoo! News that is so irresponsible that it makes me pretty angry. It’s a press release from a notorious diploma mill called MUST University that has scammed many people. No journalist sat down and wrote this article, or even checked it out before it went up on Yahoo! News. It was simply written by the scammers themselves, submitted to a company that they paid to promote it as a real press release, and then picked up and published online without any review for accuracy.

When you’re a prospective student looking for the right school through which you can earn a degree by eLearning, it’s hard enough even choosing a college or university from all the real choices out there. But when this sort of deliberate misinformation is added into the mix, things are downright dangerous! But there are a few things one can do to minimize the risk of being taken in by this sort of scam. First, remember that just because it looks like news doesn’t mean you can trust it. Second, if a school wants you to make a one time payment in exchange for a degree, with nothing more required, that’s not a “life experience degree”, that’s just a fake.

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Spring Cleaning

Posted March 23, 2011 By Steve

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” — Samuel Ullman

Spring
Now that it’s spring, at least astronomically, many people’s thought turn to spring cleaning. Traditionally that’s meant tidying up the house, getting rid of all the things that accumulated during the winter when it was too cold to spend much time outside, and taking advantage of the newly returned warmth to finally clean out the car. (Those of you with kids know exactly what I mean.)

I think this spring I need to go a step further. I think this year I need a thorough spring cleaning of my brain. Lately I’ve felt bogged down by a life filled with many things to do but without a lot to show for it in terms of reaching my goals. In fact it’s a bit worse than that, sometimes I’m not even sure what my goals are anymore. Just getting to the next paycheck without having a negative bank balance isn’t enough, but that seems to be where too much of my thought every month is going. I’m too young to let things like that make me feel old.

So I’m going to think about what it is that I’m doing, and what I really might want to do instead and start finding better ways of making that happen. Everything is on the table — my approach to school, the contracts I go after, everything. It’s not that everything in my life is bad, far from it. And I do enjoy most of what I do. But increasingly, I have a rudderless feeling, like these things don’t actually add to much of a destination, and with only so many years on this earth, it’s not okay to feel like they’re being… well, not wasted, exactly, but not maximized either.

Going back and rereading this, I see that it seems a bit jumbled. But I think I’ll leave it that way and post it anyway. I expect that in future posts what I’m trying to say will be a bit clearer. Besides, jumbled is a bit how my brain feels. See? A spring cleaning is definitely in order.

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Snapshot of Academic Legitimacy Positions

Posted September 27, 2007 By Steve
I enjoy posting to various forums that cover distance learning and academic legitimacy. Different forums on this subject attract people with different perspectives, some where the dominant view is that only regional accreditation is good enough (“RA or no way”), and others where most people believe that so long as a program is operating legally, it’s okay.

I participate mostly on forums that tend toward the former position, but as I’ve thought about these issues, and that thinking has evolved over time, I thought I’d offer a snapshot of what I think now. I’ve changed my mind about some things, so this may differ from some things I’ve written in the past. I may change my mind again, so this may differ from some things I’ll write in the future. Still, here goes:

  1. Regional accreditation is not the only legitimate sort. There’s nothing wrong with the CHEA approved national (including faith-based) accreditors. There are also institutions that are only state approved (i.e., unaccredited) that are legitimate as well. All other things being equal, it’s better to have credentials from a regionally accredited institution than a nationally accredited or unaccredited one because of perceptions in the marketplace. It’s rarely that simple, however, in that all other things are rarely equal. I’ve had the opportunity to practice what I’m preaching here, in that last year I convinced the administration at Southeastern University to switch from a policy of only accepting regionally accredited transfer credit to also accepting nationally accredited transfer credit.
  2. At the same time, I don’t think it should be a federal requirement that all institutions accredited by a CHEA approved agency should have to accept all credit from all others. This isn’t because I think that nationally accredited institutions are bad, but because I don’t think that’s any of Uncle Sam’s business.
  3. Proprietary institutions are not inherently worse than non-profit or public ones. However, since many people perceive that they are, it makes their credentials less valuable, and all other things being equal, credentials from a non-profit or public institution are better to have on one’s resume. (In this case, all other things often are reasonably equal, outside of specializations like test piloting, I can’t think of a program offered by a proprietary school that’s not offered by a public school at the same price or less.)
  4. Just because another country’s Ministry of Education approves of an institution in their country doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. This is the GAAP theory of international education, and while it’s a reasonable rule of thumb, it’s the start of the process, not the end of it. At the same time I’ve seen some people respond to universities from small and/or poor countries with kneejerk skepticism, and I find that’s unwarranted.
  5. About a year ago, I wrote the following throwaway comment on a forum:

    “If I were one of those lucky/smart guys who had a lot of money and not enough to do with it, I think I’d start a Center for Academic Credential Integrity and hire a few people to do nothing but scout out those who have bogus credentials and inform local media and board of trustees of the scandals in their midst.”

    In retrospect, this is one of the more obnoxious things I’ve ever said, and I withdraw it. In reality, I wouldn’t do any such thing.

So that’s where I stand at this point.

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