international education Archive

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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“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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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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I’m on BBC Caribbean!

Posted June 27, 2007 By Steve
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.

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Go Tukkies!

Posted March 4, 2007 By Steve
I finally had the chance to speak live (albeit only by phone) with Dr. Johannes Cronje, the fine gentleman I’ve been referring to as a prospective doctoral supervisor at the University of Pretoria. After that great, positive conversation, I’m willing to commit: I’ll be doing my PhD through the University of Pretoria.

My reasons include:

  1. I like my supervisor, and think we’ll get on well. He’s interested in my topic, open educational resources, and we seem to share a dismissive attitude toward bureaucracy. Critically, he also has a great deal of experience supervising doctoral students, including externally. (I have the feeling he’s fun at parties, too.)

  2. It’s not on the North American model, so I don’t need to do any coursework, other than to gain specific knowlege. I may take a course in Statistics to bone up on quantitative research methods, but I can do that for free at Marymount and that’s fine with Johannes.
  3. I can write a series of articles rather than a monograph. This interests me because I’m interested in several different aspects relating to OERs, so once I have a lit review done I’ll want to go in a few directions, but doing so at article length rather than a monolithic monograph is better suited for my temperament. This is also good in that by the time I’m done I’ll have at least five publishable scholarly articles.
  4. Pretoria’s on the list of the top 500 universities in the world as ranked by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It was in the 401-500 list, which it shares with such institutions as Boston College, Drexel University, and the College of William and Mary.
  5. It’s a South African institution, which means it has the developing world perspective I want, but without the lack of resources that usually accompanies it. And since South Africa’s a Commonwealth country, a degree from Pretoria ought to be locally well received when Adella and I eventually return to the West Indies.
  6. The cost is one tenth what an American school would be. That’s not to say that’s how one should choose one’s alma mater, but saying that saving a truckload of money didn’t interest me wouldn’t pass anyone’s straight face test.
  7. I won’t have to go to South Africa to do this. However, I’ll want to visit, should circumstances permit, say for defenses, even if they could be done by videoconferencing. And there’s graduation. I haven’t gone to one yet, but for the PhD, that seems worth it.

So that’s where I am. I’ll apply for provisional acceptance now, and start doing my literature review while finishing my courses at GW, then hopefully in January I’ll be registered there. Go Tukkies!

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The Waiting Game

Posted January 24, 2007 By Steve
One of the problems with doing a research-based program mostly by email correspondence is that one is limited by the other person’s rate of response. For example, I sent my prospective doctoral advisor an email regarding the possibility of meeting him when he comes to Atlanta next month, but have not heard back after almost a week.

I suppose emails get lost, and people are busy and respond when they can. And I realize I’m only a prospective student. But I’m reminded of a friend’s experience trying to do a PhD through South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, in which after almost a year of correspondence, suddenly there was nothing but silence from his advisor. I suppose this is a somewhat scary way of doing it.

At least in the meantime I’ve found even more to like about the University of Pretoria. It turns out that one of the two well known global rankings of universities, the one from the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, lists it among those that are 401-500 on the list. It being considered among the top 500 universities in the world is not too shabby. There are only three others in South Africa that made the top 500: Witwatersrand, Cape Town, and KwaZulu-Natal.

Anyway, back to waiting. I remind myself that it’s not like Johannes owes me a quick reply or that when I sent was particularly time sensitive. I suppose it’s just that I’m just excited to move forward.

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Yes, Jamaica, and no, it wasn’t a vacation

Posted November 15, 2006 By Steve

Charles Evans and I presented our paper on the use of open content in curriculum with implications for the developing world at Pan-Commonwealth Forum 4 in Ocho Rios, Jamaica from October 30 to November 2. It was really neat to meet so many people who knew what we were talking about, and who had similar interests. No one believed that a trip to Jamaica could possibly not be a vacation, but since the only time I was on the beach I was wearing a tie I think I can safely declare that it wasn’t. Of course, the resort where the conference was held was all inclusive, meaning five days of open bar goodness, but what was I supposed to do? Not take advantage of it?

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