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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University of the People Gets Accredited

Posted February 19, 2014 By Steve

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..

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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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Pirates Be Here!
Once again Antigua is in the news for threatening to allow open distribution of materials that have been copyrighted by U.S.-based entities. This stems from a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that by forbidding Americans from accessing gambling web sites in other countries, but allowing them to go to Las Vegas and Atlantic City instead, the U.S. government was protecting their own industry by limiting access to foreign competitors. Even though they’ve lost as much as a billion dollars from U.S. protectionism here, the Antiguans haven’t yet taken advantage of the ruling, and it’s widely believed this is the case because of the fear of dire reprisal from the Colossus to the North.

It’s a fascinating case, and one that anyone interested in international trade should follow. In the meantime, though, to help one gain an understanding, one of the more amusing analogies for explaining why the Antiguans have such a strong case comes from Greg Sabino Mullane, who wrote:

They’re doing it flagrantly because it’s explicitly tit-for-tat. It’s their way of pointedly asking “Do we have rules or not?”



Let’s say you and I are sociopathic assholes, so whereas most people might have some kind of implicit social contract, and a sense of how people should act decently to one another, we’re jerks and write up and agree to some formal rules. Among these rules are things like “Neither party will ever hit the other in the head with a hammer and then steal their wallet while the victim is incapacitated.” Call that the WIPO rule.



We have another rule too. It’s “Neither party will ever vandalize the other’s car.” Call that the WTO rule.



Then I go and vandalize your car, totally in violation of the rules. I don’t deny it, either. Instead, I explain I had good reasons to do it. “I really wanted to vandalize your car, and it looked so vulnerable. I just couldn’t help it!” but whether I had a good reason or not, you claim I broke our agreement. You might not feel all that hurt about the car, but breaking the agreement… oh dear. We’re sociopaths, but we’re not uncivilized, are we?



After my amazing explanation for why I did it, you ask me: “Are you going to do it again?” and I answer “Yeah, probably. Your car still does look pretty vandalizable, and I really like vandalizing cars.” You answer “What about our agreement?” and I just shrug. You ask, “Are our agreements important?” and I shrug again!!



You go see our mutual acquaintances, perhaps some people with whom I also have some agreements. They’re a little concerned to hear I value our agreements so little. Will their cars be next? They think it over and say, “Yeah, Sloppy broke his agreement to not vandalize your car. You should get even.”



So you do. You hit me in the head with a hammer and I wake up without a wallet. You do it openly, too. Our acquaintances nod with approval, even though you’re breaking the agreement now. I ask, “How can you do that?!?”



You explain: if I think the rules are so important, and I have such a problem with being hit with hammers, THEN MAYBE I SHOULD STOP FUCKING AROUND WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S CARS.



I don’t know what I’ll do. I still really do like vandalizing cars. I’d like to vandalize your car again, and that other dude with whom I have a no-vandalize agreement. But I’m not sure I like this hammers development. OTOH, I don’t know, maybe it’s worth it. The hammers hurt and I don’t like losing my wallet all the time, but the cars! Oh, the cars! That’s so much fun.

Now, the analogy isn’t quite apt because the Antiguans haven’t actually allowed open redistribution of copyrighted materials, at least not yet. But if they do, then the American mainstream media are sure to slam them as the next incarnation of Somalia, so it’s important in advance for people to understand who really started the trouble — and it’s not Antigua.

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Crazy Baldhead

Posted September 20, 2013 By Steve

This one is for Marcia Bright, Alula Raphael, and Scratchie Lloyd.

One Love Hippie Bus Seattle
Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me nah want your cabin
Me nah want your corn
Me nah want no slave
Me have respect, not scorn

Let’s build hospital, not penitentiary
Let’s use schools to make us free, not fools
Let’s have one love as our religion
Let’s leave God to one’s decision

There is always some conman
Coming with some con plan
But these words are not a bribe:
Let’s help each other stay alive.

Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me, I not running

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Two Wrongs Making… Something

Posted September 2, 2013 By Steve

“There’s a Sucker Born Every 60,000 Milliseconds” — Robert X. Cringely

The scam truck
Do you ever get those strange spam email messages promoting some little company of which you’ve never heard before, saying that its stock price is about to go up and you should buy it?

These are called “pump and dump” scams. Basically, the scammers buy the stock when its low, spam people so that a few dumb people will buy a lot of it, and when that drives up the price then the scammers sell at a profit. So with that in mind, check out this one I got today:

How do you feel about enriching yourself by means of war? It`s right time to get this done! As soon as the US takes military action against Syria, oil prices will rise as well as MONARCHY RESOURCES INC. (M_ONK) share price! Begin earning dollars on September 02nd, purchase M_ONK shares!

Okay, scams are bad. I’m clear on that. Still, I can’t help but appreciate that the people who will lose money on this are the same ones who, by definition, have no ethical quandary about enriching themselves by means of war. Those who live by the sword cry by the sword, and all that.

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“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!

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