academics Archive

Marco Rubio Is A Fool And A Hypocrite

Posted August 4, 2015 By Steve

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” — George Bernard Shaw

Marco Rubio with mouth wide open
I’m not planning to comment much on the U.S. presidential election process that unfortunately has already started to be foisted upon us all. In fact, I really do plan to ignore it as much as humanly possible. But sometimes a politician says something that’s so asinine and hypocritical that it simply cannot pass unchallenged.

Given who has the longest and most inglorious track record of making such statements you may think I’m talking about The Donald, but surprisingly it’s one of the other ones who’s stumbled across the tripwire of absurdity, one about whom I really didn’t know very much before today. This fool is named Marco Rubio.

I refer specifically to Rubio’s recent comments about higher education. As Bloomberg reports:

Rubio, 44, said he’d “bust this cartel” by establishing a new accreditation process more welcoming to low-cost, innovative providers. “This would expose higher education to the market forces of choice and competition, which would prompt a revolution driven by the needs of students — just as the needs of consumers drive the progress of every other industry in our economy,” he said.

This is asinine because it shows that Mr. Rubio is not afraid to get up in front of large groups of people and show that he knows nothing about how innovation in higher education works. It’s true that the regional accreditors are a somewhat exclusive club, but considering that they let in any school that meets their stated criteria, including such controversial institutions as the University of Phoenix, one can hardly rightfully call them a cartel.

Moreover, there are alternative paths where organizations that don’t fit the normal pattern can be part of the higher education system. Alternative accreditors like the Distance Education Accrediting Commission exist for this very purpose, and while better known schools vary in their acceptance of schools accredited by DEAC and the like, that’s an individual decision on the part of each school, it’s not systematic exclusion. Moreover, there are not one but two organizations where even non-academic providers of education and training can have their non-academic credentials be evaluated as the equivalent to college credit and accepted in transfer: the American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service. In other words, what Mr. Rubio is calling for so loudly has already existed for decades.

But his merely being poorly informed is hardly unique. Perhaps as a back bencher he simply cannot afford competent advisors. What is truly inexcusable is the hypocrisy and how it drives home how ill suited for leadership this man truly is. How so? He refers to market forces as part of his call for public interference in an accreditation system that is conducted voluntarily by private agencies! It may be unclear whether he has no idea what market forces are, or whether he’s just using the term as a buzzword to try to sound good to those who advocate for free markets, but either way all he succeeds in doing is demonstrating that he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the reins of true power.

I realize that he’s far from the only Republican who praises free markets with one face while calling for big government with the other. But with this example coming so early and so brazenly, if no one calls him on it then it’s not a very good sign for things to come in the next fifteen interminable months.

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” — John C. Maxwell

Over at Quartz, commentator Matt Phillips has written a piece called Face it: America’s experiment with for-profit colleges has failed. As someone who has worked in American higher education for a number of years, including for-profit and non-profit institutions, I generally agree with Mr. Phillips that many of the marketing-driven for profit schools that participate in the federal system of guaranteed financial aid are overpriced and unremarkable.

However, as with most articles about higher education written by those who don’t come from our industry, it’s an article painted with too broad a brush. Sure, there are schools like Corinthian’s, but there are also schools like Sullivan University and American Military University that are for profit and participate in the federal financial aid system, yet have earned a good reputation for delivering a decent education at a price that compares with non-profit competitors.

Ultimately I believe that universities should be evaluated the same as people — as individuals rather than as members of a group. That said, if we are going to compare universities by category, I’ve come to wonder whether it might be worthwhile for journalists and commentators to take a look at the relative behavior of schools not based on whether they are for profit or not, but to compare those that are publicly traded with those that are privately held. My guess is that we would see the lion’s share of anti-social behavior at the schools that answer to Wall Street rather than those that answer to an owning family or partnership.

Also worthy of more reporting are those for profit universities accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission that do not particulate in the federal financial aid system, and who have much lower tuition rates as a result. In fact, some of these institutions are among the best values in all of American higher education. Their very existence suggests that guaranteed federal financial aid is a contributing factor in the high cost of going to college, that when that system makes tens of thousands of dollars available to anyone with a signature and a pulse, it introduces an ocean of money that tuition rates then rise to soak up.

But will journalists and commentators who write about American higher education ever go after these higher hanging fruit? One can only hope.

Editor’s note: A friend of mine needs a few more respondents for her doctoral research. If you meet the criteria and can spare a few minutes, please contact Aine Irbe at

My name is Aina G. Irbe and I am a doctoral student at Capella University in the School of Education. I am pursuing my degree in Instructional for Online Learning. Currently, I am working on my dissertation study, titled “Application of Universal Design for Learning in Corporate Technical Training Design : A Quantitative Study.” I would like to invite you to participate in my study. You will be able to participate in the study if you meet the following criteria:

  • You are a professional who currently works in a corporate or US Federal employment setting.
  • You are a professional who has worked in the corporate or Federal employment setting in the last 10 years.
  • You have worked in the corporate environment for at least one year.
  • You are between the ages of 18-65.

The purpose of this quantitative, experimental study is to examine the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles as an instructional design strategy to the design of a self-paced, online course focused on technical training in a corporate setting.

The study will use a randomized two-group design to compare and analyze adult posttest (Final Quiz) results for two self-paced online trainings on a technical topic (software training); one will include the checkpoints from the three principles of the UDL principles while the other training will apply traditional instructional design strategies based on the Department of Defense Interactive Media Instruction (IMI) Guidelines. The posttest (Final Quiz) will be the same for either training.

The second part of the study will explore to what extent the application of UDL as an instructional design strategy impacts participant achievement in the cognitive and psychomotor domains. The results of this study may identify specific instructional design strategies that instructional designers working in the field of online learning could use to guide their work, guide the future of instructional design practices and processes in organizations developing online self-paced courses, change the approach for delivering training on technical topics, and inform corporations on long-term strategic planning for training programs including online learning.

Please know that participation in this study is certainly voluntary. All data will be handled securely by the researcher. Privacy will be protected using anonymity throughout the data collection process. All the information about the participants, including name, job title and name of the organization will be kept confidential. Your Final Quiz results will be presented as part of a statistical analysis, and your name or any other demographic will not be identified or related to any score or information about Final Quiz results. In any written reports or publications, no one will be able to identify individual participants.

If you decide to be in this study, your participation will take about one hour by the end of April. The study will consist of completing a 30-45 minute online course and taking a Final Quiz. You are not required to come to any location for the study activities or own any specific software; a URL will be sent to you. All communications will be conducted via email unless you have other preference (for example, post mail).

I will first send you a demographic questionnaire, then a consent form, and finally the link and log in to the course site.

Your consideration for participating in this study will be greatly appreciated. If you have any question concerning the study, please feel free to contact me at

Aina G. Irbe
Doctoral Learner, Capella University

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.

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.

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:

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, 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.

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.

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.

“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

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.