Is A Degree Necessary?

My friend Michael Strong recently posted this video of T.K. Coleman on the topic of whether one can be taken seriously without holding a degree.

I found this interesting because degree-skepticism is pretty common among the more cutting edge educators I follow on social media. So, Coleman says that one shouldn’t make a hasty generalization from regulated professions like medicine and law to assume a degree is required in life, which is fair, but then makes a hasty generalization from programming and start up culture to assume that a degree isn’t required in life.
 
Coleman is right that the argument “no one will take you seriously without a degree” is false. But that hardly means that many people won’t—wrongly and foolishly, in my opinion, but that’s life. And I get it that he works for Praxis, an educational startup based on the idea that higher education isn’t necessary, encouraging young people instead to take apprenticeships with startups.
 
I understand that there are companies, a few of which are prominent, who are saying that they’re willing to consider undegreed applicants. But what are the real numbers of people in this category who have gone on to careers as successful as those of their degreed peers? That’s the needed comparison, not just whether one can become employed at an entry level.
 
Ultimately, it should be considered an individual decision. People often don’t think of it this way, but a degree isn’t a goal, it’s merely a tool that helps you reach a goal. Depending on what one’s goals are, a degree program might be vitally important, or it might simply be an expensive distraction. To insist that it’s always either one or the other is indefensible. Coleman makes a worthwhile argument, I just think he’s overplaying it.
 
It’s also worth noting higher education’s ability to absorb initiatives meant to circumvent it, a recent example of which is this partnership between a coding camp and a university. The first two sentences on the Praxis web site declare “The Degree is Dead. You Need Experience.” I’m guessing that identification of false dichotomies isn’t part of their curriculum.

Not Even Attribution

Introduction

I was very interested in a recent conversation about Creative Commons licenses hosted by Robin DeRosa on her Twitter feed, and a follow up to that conversation by Maha Bali published on her blog. In this exchange they and others wrestled with one of the issues that I’ve seen educators consider since the dawn of the open education movement, that of which license to use to release their works openly.

Typically that means licenses from Creative Commons. I believe it’s not hyperbole to say that this organization is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for building a free society. Their primary activity has been the development of a suite of open licenses that allow individual and organizational creators of content to conveniently release that content in a way that disclaims some or all of the entitlements that typically come with copyright. Or, as they put it, rather than “all rights reserved”, they provide the option to creators of instead choosing “some rights reserved” or even “no rights reserved”.

Why did I refer to them as entitlements when Creative Commons itself refers to them as rights? I’ll freely admit that my position is ideological. It was a great PR gimmick to package patents and copyright under the rubric of “intellectual property”, but since copying is not theft, I don’t see copyright as a legitimate form of property at all, it’s merely a government-granted entitlement of monopoly on a piece of information. And as a free market kind of guy, I reject it as I would any other government entitlements.

So that’s where I’m coming from, it’s not difficult to understand my personal objections to all of the various options when it comes to Creative Commons licenses. It’s worth noting that I’m not trying to tell other educators or content creators what to do, but simply outlining why I think the way I do, as part of the ongoing conversation. It also should go without saying that this is my personal site only, and that nothing here should be considered a policy of New World University.

NoDerivatives (ND)

Most educators don’t really consider this open at all. The “NoDerivatives” option simply means that you’re allowing other people to copy your content, but not to modify it in any way. If there’s a complete work that you want to distribute that can be convenient, but such works aren’t part of the “commons” of materials that can be adapted and remixed to make new materials, so they don’t really contribute to the development of an alternative to what’s called permission culture. I’m not interested in that, and have never even considered releasing material under this license.

NonCommercial (NC)

I think it’s safe to say that educators tend to be ideologically left-leaning, and since I’m not when it comes to fiscal issues, this tends to be an area of fundamental disagreement. I’ve seen colleagues react quite strongly against the idea that some individual or company might make money by selling access to content that they authored. Now, I’m not unmindful that corporate publishers of textbooks and journals in wealthy countries often act in ways that many, including me, find exploitative and anti-social. Personally I believe that between the OER and OA movements, we in higher education no longer need them as intermediaries, and that the time will come when they wither and die, their passing unlamented by any but their shareholders.

But that doesn’t mean that a special option to stop all commercial use of one’s content is necessary or desirable. Any commercial publisher attempting to sell works with any Creative Commons license by definition is competing with repositories that release those same works for free. There’s a reason that they don’t attempt this: there are plenty such works out there they could use for this purpose, yet their strategy remains to develop their own materials and attempt to compete on their supposed advantages.

Moreover, in economically developing societies, small scale proprietary educational institutions often serve the poor more successfully than public institutions do. If the goal is truly to release materials in a way that ultimately benefits as many students as possible, then any clause that gets in the way of such institutions is an impediment to reaching that goal.

ShareAlike (SA)

ShareAlike, also known as “copyleft”, is an option in a Creative Commons license that allows derivative works but only if it is released under the same license under which the original is released. At first glance this seems like a good idea, after all, if someone is adapting a work that they received from the commons, shouldn’t they return that adaptation in kind? The problem is that there are several different licenses that include the ShareAlike clause, and by definition, materials released under those different licenses cannot be remixed together. The end result has been the development of silos of content, where materials released under BY-NC-SA cannot be combined with those under BY-SA. To some extent this can be overcome through the playlist model of course development, but not always, and it seems to me better to avoid the problem in the first place.

Attribution (BY)

Now, I actually don’t have a problem with attribution. If I use work someone else wrote I’ll happily acknowledge them. But copyright and plagiarism are not the same thing. One, as I said, is a government entitlement. The other is a form of fraud. But since I’ve already rejected ND, NC, and SA, BY is the only clause left, and I would prefer not to claim copyright at all rather than claim it only to turn around and disclaim every part of it other than the bit that shouldn’t require it in the first place. What I prefer to attribution as part of a license is a cultural norm of attribution, and within higher education I believe that cultural norm already exists, making a license that only consists of BY unnecessary.

Zero Is My Hero (CC0)

So why am I so enthusiastic about Creative Commons if I don’t use licenses that contain any of their legal clauses? For starters, because I cheerfully acknowledge that while I’m over on the radical end of the free culture movement, that doesn’t mean the bulk of that movement isn’t also doing great work moving society away from the notion that “all rights reserved” is the only approach to consider.

But also, when they were designing licenses, they didn’t leave people like me out. In addition to their suite of various licenses, they also designed the CC0 waiver, a way of disclaiming copyright to the maximum extent possible in as many jurisdictions as possible, thereby effectively placing it into the public domain, where I want my content to go. I am very grateful for their work to make that an option for me, and for those who are on the fence, I can report from here that I have never suffered any deleterious outcome from having chosen this path over any of the “some rights reserved” alternatives.

Going Through The Journalistic Motions

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

Wrong!
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.

New World University

“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

Liberty Through Entrepreneurship


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.

University of the People Gets Accredited

Preemptive Note: As a disclaimer, I should add that I’m not an unbiased observer here. I believe I know a better model to reach students in low and middle income countries in a scalable, financially sustainable way, and that way is New World University, which cooperates with partner organizations to reach students in person rather than solely online. I’m the president of this new institution, and we’re in the midst of a slow rollout. I’ll be making a major announcement about it soon.


accredited seal
My friend Michael Strong asked me what I thought about the University of the People becoming accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, and my response grew a little too long to be a Facebook comment, and I thought it might be of general interest, so I thought I may as well post it here.

To start, and most importantly, I think it’s always good when students have more choices, and I’m hopeful that University of the People will become a good choice for many. It’s clearly a legitimate institution that is dedicated to bringing higher education to those who really need it, and that’s praiseworthy.

However, in the midst of all the accolades I do have a few observations that are a little less bullish. First, UotP’s model of using online learning coupled with volunteer instructors will limit their ability to grow rapidly to meet the needs of the billions-with-a-b students around the world who need better access to quality higher education. Many people have asked questions about their financial viability: they can keep going so long as founder Shai Reshef continues to bankroll them. But is there a plan for the institution to become self-sustaining?

Second, they cleverly market themselves to students and even more so to the media as a “tuition free university”. Technically this is true, although this is a case where the large print giveth, and the fine print taketh away. They don’t charge tuition, but they do charge an admission fee of up to fifty dollars, and each of the 40 courses required to complete one of their degrees is assessed by a proctored examination that costs one hundred dollars to take. That means the “total cost of ownership” of a degree from University of the People is not zero, it’s $4,050.

Now, in a sense that’s a very weak objection. After all, no university will ever really be able to do this for free, and four grand is obviously still an order of magnitude less than most degrees from U.S. based universities. But it’s not necessarily less than attending university costs in countries where UotP seems to be attracting a lot of interest, countries where most people don’t have four large lying around. They say that they’re keen to raise funds to provide scholarships to defray those expenses for as many students as they can, and that’s great, I hope they raise millions, but that alone is not a novelty, and even the wealthiest education philanthropist in the world has said that non-profits cannot meet all the world’s educational needs.

Finally, accreditation by DETC is real, but the U.S. system of accreditation is very complex and warrants explanation. There are two categories of institutional accreditation in the U.S. The first is regional accreditation, which is universally recognized in the U.S. and around the world. The second is national accreditation, which is legitimate and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, but for historical reasons is less well recognized by better regarded universities in the U.S. and is often not accepted by university systems in other countries. Personally, I respect DETC and think that a school they accredit is fine and that objections to them are mostly academic snobbery, but I hope this choice doesn’t limit the options of UotP’s graduates..

MOOC Madness Strikes the Harvard Business Review

“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” — Oscar Wilde

Shitty Advice
I’ve been pretty busy with a cool project I’ll be announcing soon, and that means no time for blogging. But something I read really jostled me into taking a few minutes to respond. It’s no secret that while I like MOOCs, I think they’re way overblown. Now, a blogger for Harvard Business Review named Leonard Fuld has succumbed to the hype, and gotten a few other things about higher education wrong as well.

The premise of the article is that one should Embrace the Business Model That Threatens You. Not bad advice on the face of it, although unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be working very well for Barnes & Noble. Is such an approach necessary for traditional providers of higher education? Let’s see a few selections from the article.

It soon became clear to the teams and to the observers in the room that neither the online nor the traditional college “education delivery” model alone could prevail.

False. There are plenty of successful schools that only offer one mode of instruction, both liberal arts schools that don’t do online, and distance learning schools that don’t have a campus at all, but just an office.

Traditional brick-and-mortar schools suffer from a high cost base that has resulted in tuitions reaching stratospheric heights.

False. Tuition is where it is because federal financial aid programs have made tens of thousands of dollars available to the least sophisticated and creditworthy students. Rates have outpaced inflation because there’s an artificial ocean of money to soak up.

Meanwhile, the alluring proposition of the online offerings — courses you can take anywhere, anytime, at a lower price point — is tainted by high drop-out rates and the somewhat lower credibility of their certificates and degrees.

False. The credibility gap isn’t with online study, it’s with for profit schools, two categories that drive-by commentators often confuse since in the early days of online higher education for-profit providers were the only ones nimble enough to give working adults the convenience they demanded.

At the same time, this solution called for the MOOC to serve as a student lead generator and revenue producer for brick-and-mortar university partners.

I don’t have data &emdash; no one does, MOOCs are too new &emdash; but I expect they’d be a terrible lead generator for brick and mortar schools. Maybe that’s okay, if they’re inexpensive enough and your tuition is high enough then even an extremely low conversion rate would be considered success. But I can’t imagine it’s the best possible investment.

So, anyway, just another reminder that just because advice is offered earnestly doesn’t mean it’s actually any good. Caveat lector!

Relax, Higher Education Won’t Be Killed By MOOCs

“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.

I’m on BBC Caribbean!

BBC Caribbean's Debbie RansomeI often read BBC Caribbean, and a few days ago I saw that they had a Have Your Say about the role the diaspora can play in helping countries back home. I made a brief comment, saying, “It would be exciting to see distance learning initiatives that match those in the diaspora who have become well educated with students back home.” I make brief comments online in various places all the time and don’t really think much about them after that. No big deal.

So the next day, my phone rungs, and Caller ID helpfully informs me that it’s from an “Unknown ID“. Must be some bill collector, I think, and proceed to ignore it. But then I think, hmm, I don’t actually owe anyone for a change, so it can’t be a bill collector. Maybe an international call? I think I’ll answer!

I picked up at the last second, and suddenly I’m speaking with Debbie Ransome (pictured) from BBC Caribbean. She wants to speak about my thoughts on the role of the Caribbean diaspora for a piece she’s doing for their Caribbean Magazine radio program. Now, this was a fascinating thing to be as I’m not exactly part of the Caribbean diaspora, being American and all that, but it’s not like I was going to say no, right?

So it aired yesterday. Here’s an mp3 of an edited recording of my segment. It’s a good thing that she used the bit about education and not the follow up questions she asked me about financial and electoral matters, as I think on education I sound reasonably coherent.