By Jeffrey R. Young

Delivering courses in cyberclassrooms has gained broad acceptance among top college leaders, but the general public is far less convinced of online education's quality, according to new survey data released this week by the Pew Research Center, in association with The Chronicle.

Just over half of the 1,055 college presidents queried believe that online courses offer a value to students that equals a traditional classroom's. By contrast, only 29 percent of 2,142 adult Americans thought online education measured up to traditional teaching. The presidents' survey included leaders of two-year and four-year private, public, and for-profit colleges and was conducted online. The public survey was conducted by telephone.

The gauge of differing perceptions comes at a critical moment for online education. Just 10 years ago, few colleges took teaching onto the Internet, and skepticism about the practice was the norm among professors and university leaders.

Now many studies have proved the effectiveness of online instruction, and colleges trying to cut costs and serve students who want more convenient options are embracing this form of teaching.

But the relatively dim view of online-course quality by consumers of higher education suggests that colleges need to do more to make the case for Internet-based teaching as they increase their offerings, according to some proponents of online learning.

Presidents "should be more visible in making the assertion" that online education is high quality, said A. Frank Mayadas, who started the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's online-education support program. "There's a huge amount of misunderstanding of what 'online' is. You ask the man in the street, 'What do you think of online learning?' and they'll say, 'You can't just learn by yourself.'"

Fighting Popular CulturePortrayals of online learning in popular culture don't help, said Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the Wiche Cooperative for Educational Technologies. He pointed to a recent episode of the TV show Glee, in which a character was insulted for having a degree from an online institution. "You still have a lot of people who grew up in an era where there was very little or no technology in their classroom, so it's very hard to relate to taking a course either partially or fully online," he said. "It's good to see that the presidents—who also did not grow up with technology—are seeing at least some value in online education." (Most of the presidents in the survey were 50 to 64 years old.)

Not surprisingly, presidents of colleges delivering substantial numbers of online classes expressed higher regard for them than did leaders of colleges offering fewer such courses. Two-year colleges reported the most activity online: 91 percent of two-year presidents said their institutions offered at least some online courses. Two-thirds of those presidents said online learning was comparable to face-to-face instruction. In contrast, 60 percent of presidents at private, four-year colleges said their institutions delivered courses online. Of those presidents, only 36 percent thought the quality of online education was equal to that of in-person courses.

William J. Pepicello, president of the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution with substantial online offerings, said higher education as a whole had been far slower than other sectors to adopt game-changing technology. "Higher education lags behind the rest of society," he said. "While lots of things have changed in the rest of society in the past century, higher education has remained substantially the same."

He said college leaders first had to be convinced before they would approve new delivery methods. "We're seeing that slowly, higher education itself is coming around to accepting online," he said, "and I think that has to come first."

Mr. Pepicello believes that online education will spread even faster than most survey respondents indicated. "I don't see how higher education can't go in that direction," he said. "People thought that shopping online or banking online were fads, and yet I can't tell you the last time I was in my bank. They're very nice people, and I like them, but I don't need to see them very often," thanks to online banking and ATM's.

Kenneth E. Hartman, president of Drexel University Online, a spinoff from the brick-and-mortar institution, said most college presidents have never taken an online course and have little sense of what's involved. "It's like asking someone, 'How do you like driving a Ferrari versus a Hyundai?' when they don't even have their driver's license," he said.

But even presidents who had never entered an online classroom had a better sense of distance learning than the general public does, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "There is an excitement about the potential" of online learning to expand access and reduce costs, she said. She did note that online education fits the missions of some institutions better than others, which may explain the greater skepticism among leaders of private colleges that focus on a residential experience.

Indeed, most presidents who responded to the survey predicted continued growth in online offerings. About half of the presidents said that in 10 years, the majority of college students will take at least one college course online. Today, only 15 percent of the presidents said most of their students had taken an online course.

The presidents also were bullish about online educational tools. For instance, they saw a bright future for e-textbooks. Sixty-two percent said more than half of students' textbooks will be digital in 10 years.

Gadget-Happy LeadersCollege presidents appear to be more tech-savvy than members of the public are. About half of the presidents said they used a tablet computer, for instance, compared with only 8 percent of the American adults surveyed. Presidents are also slightly more likely than the general public to use Facebook (50 percent, compared with 45 percent of the public) and Twitter (18 percent of presidents and 10 percent of the public).

"I would have expected even higher," said Ms. Broad. "When this is your profession, it's an important responsibility to try to stay ahead of the curve, or at least not stay too far behind the curve."

College presidents reported some downsides of technology use at their institutions. Fifty-five percent of the respondents said student plagiarism on assignments has increased in the past 10 years, and of those who saw an increase, 89 percent said computers and the Internet had played a major role.

Mr. Hartman predicted that the future for many colleges will most likely include new mixes of online and in-person teaching. For instance, he said, more residential colleges will offer students the option of taking courses on campus two days a week and picking up the rest of their coursework online, so they can hold jobs while keeping up with their studies, and without completely forgoing time in the traditional college setting.

"Right now the schedule is set up to be convenient to the institution," he said of most colleges. "Blended instruction provides an opportunity for students to structure their schedules so they are much more productive."

Website: By Jeffrey R. Young

Students taking free online courses offered by the startup company Coursera have reported dozens of incidents of plagiarism, even though the courses bear no academic credit. This week a professor leading one of the so-called Massive Open Online Courses posted a plea to his 39,000 students to stop plagiarizing, and Coursera's leaders say they will review the issue and consider adding plagiarism-detection software in the future.

In recent weeks, students in at least three Coursera humanities courses have complained of plagiarized assignments by other students. The courses use peer grading, so each student is asked to grade and offer comments on the work of fellow students.

"I just graded my second batch of peer essays and was saddened to find one of them was lifted from Wikipedia," wrote one student in the discussion forums for the course, "Fantasy and Science Fiction."

Many students in the discussion expressed surprise that their peers would resort to fraudulent behavior in a noncredit course. Students who complete a course can get a certificate attesting to that accomplishment, but so far the courses do not count for credit at any university.

Still, some students argued that even in noncredit situations, stamping out plagiarism is important. "This cheating hurts everyone who is trying to take part in this class and learn with integrity," wrote one student in the discussion forums.

Meanwhile, professors teaching the courses say they are worried that some students are being overly zealous in hunting for plagiarism, and at least one student complained in the forums about being accused in error.

"An accusation of plagiarism is a deeply serious act and should be made only with concrete evidence behind it," wrote the professor teaching the fantasy course, Eric S. Rabkin, in a message to students posted on Monday. His letter, clocking in at more than 1,200 words, attempted to define plagiarism, underline its importance, and convey how complicated he felt the issue could be.

A 'Teachable Moment'In an interview this week with The Chronicle, Mr. Rabkin, who is also an English professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said he sees the plagiarism incidents as a "teachable moment." He said one student wrote him soon after he posted his letter and confessed to submitting a plagiarized essay, but the student said he had not realized that copying and pasting from other sources was wrong. The student asked that his essay be withdrawn and that he be disqualified from receiving a certificate, but Mr. Rabkin said he wrote to Coursera officials saying the student should be given a second chance.

A professor teaching a Coursera course about the history of the Internet, Charles Severance, wrote to his students this month about plagiarism as well, after several students reported in the forums that they had seen it in assignments they graded.

"If you see/suspect plagiarism—be kind and keep any of your comments about plagiarism short and to the point—do not criticize or flame the person—make sure your comments will help someone learn," he told them.

"If we really are trying to teach the world, including people from other cultures, we have to take a responsibility to educate people about plagiarism, not just vaporize people for it," said Mr. Severance, who is also a clinical associate professor of information at Michigan, in an interview on Wednesday.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a professor at Stanford University, said she planned to look into how widespread reports of plagiarism are. "I don't have a sense of whether it's more frequent than in regular classroom environments," she said on Wednesday. She noted that Coursera makes students agree to uphold an honor code when they sign up for courses, but that, in the future, assignments will include reminders that all answers must be the students' original work.

"That would clarify to students what is and isn't appropriate behavior," she said. "That will reduce the incidents considerably, I hope."

She said Coursera officials would also consider adding a software system that could automatically detect suspected plagiarism, but no decision has been made on the issue. "It depends on how common this is," she said.

'Patchwork Plagiarism'One Coursera student who witnessed plagiarism in a course is Laura K. Gibbs, who is herself a lecturer teaching online literature courses at the University of Oklahoma.

She enrolled in the Coursera course on fantasy and science fiction to get a better sense of how MOOC's work, since they've been in the news so much lately as a possible way to disrupt conventional higher education. She was enthusiastic about the reading list and the rigor of the course, which asks students to spend eight to 12 hours per week on reading and homework.

"I always tell students it's six to eight hours per week, every week, and I feel lucky to get six," she said. "I was really excited that this was trying to be an upper-division humanities course."

She said she was frustrated when she read discussion posts about plagiarism, and then saw evidence of it in one of the peer assignments she graded. "It's what at my university we'd call patchwork plagiarism," she said. "I'm naïve enough that I was really surprised by that."

She complained on her blog that Coursera and the course's professor had been slow to respond to the incidents. And she argued that Mr. Rabkin's message to students did not give her enough guidance on how to respond to what seemed like clear-cut instances of plagiarism.

Ms. Gibbs stressed that she is largely enthusiastic about Coursera and the idea of free courses online, but that "it's going to take an enormous amount of work to make it work."

She noted that she sees plagiarism by her University of Oklahoma students as well, but she can intervene in such incidents because she sees all the students' work.

Another faculty member taking a Coursera course, Steven D. Krause, said he doubted that peer grading could ever work without instructors' looking at all assignments. He said he uses the technique in his writing courses at Eastern Michigan University, where he is a professor of English and coordinator of the written-communication program, but he always looks over the peer grading and checks that the students are on track. "Usually there's some sort of norming by the instructors," he said.

"The idea that this could scale as a broad substitute for higher education is, I think, ridiculous," he added. "Content scales really well—you can put all kinds of stuff out on a Web site, and millions of people can look at it. But instruction does not scale, at least to those kinds of numbers."

But Mr. Rabkin, who is teaching the Coursera course on fantasy and science fiction, argues that peer grading can work in free courses, even without direct involvement by the professor. "Sometimes the professor's grade is wrong for whatever reasons," he said.

"I'm not interested in proving this could substitute for the University of Michigan," he added. "What I'm after is seeing if we have a way of capitalizing on a large group of people with smart software and a clever system that can make a community that has guidance and can teach itself."


August 23, 2012, 11:45 am

By Kevin Carey

John Loo

This week Udacity announced that it had cancelled a scheduled math class over concerns about quality. In doing so, it added another item to the growing list of marked contrasts between MOOC’s and traditional universities. Does this kind of thing ever happen at “regular” colleges? Could it? At minimum, such an event would seem to require (a) defined standards of quality, and (b) some process whereby courses are systematically evaluated against those standards before the beginning of class.

My understanding is that the traditional process consists of posing questions such as “Are we an accredited college?” and “Are enough students enrolled to break even?,” and that’s pretty much that. Perhaps the syllabus is reviewed (although not in my experience), but otherwise it’s a matter of trusting the faculty in question. Which works, sometimes, but often doesn’t. It’s hard to tell because, see again, lack of standards.

This is what happens when new organizations proceed afresh from the logic of their creation, rather than decades or centuries of accumulated regulation, public subsidy, and organizational culture.

The way MOOC’s—massive open online courses—handle student attrition is also instructive. A lot of students drop out of traditional colleges, particularly at less selective institutions, and this is rightly seen as a major public-policy problem. In response colleges have hired retention specialists, legislators have proposed tying funds to completion, and hectoring think-tank analysts have published white papers criticizing colleges with low graduation rates. Meanwhile the vast majority of people who sign up for MOOC’s don’t complete their courses, yet MOOC creators are hailed as visionaries rather than being denounced for their 10-percent completion rates. What gives?

The difference comes down to risk and money. Society invests a lot of money in traditional institutions, and going to college is a high-stakes affair. Students who graduate enter a far more hospitable job market, while dropouts represent large amounts of wasted resources, public and private, along with, increasingly, unmanageable debt. MOOC’s, by contrast, aren’t publicly supported and risk nothing but their students’ time. A free, low-stakes, open-access system has far more license to operate as a pure meritocracy.

That meritocracy will serve as a powerful mechanism for signaling quality to an uncertain labor market. Traditional colleges rely mostly on generalized institutional reputations and, in a minority of cases, admissions selectivity to demonstrate what graduates know and can do. The opacity of most collegiate learning processes (see again, lack of standards) and the eroding force of grade inflation have left little other useful information.

MOOC credentials, by contrast, will signal achievement selectivity. Instead of running a tournament to decide who gets to take the class and very likely get an A-minus or A, they’re running tournaments to decide who did best in the class. That’s why people are already resorting to plagiarism in MOOC courses. That’s troublesome, although perhaps not distinctly so, given that the antiplagiarism software that will presumably be deployed in defense was developed in response to widespread cheating in traditional higher ed.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.

Image from Flickr user John Loo.

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October 23, 2012, 8:18 pm

To the Editor:

A question comes quickly to mind while reading “In Colleges’ Rush to Try MOOC’s, Faculty Are Not Always in the Conversation” (The Chronicle, September 26): What’s the rush?

Massive open online courses appear to be a way for colleges to broaden their appeal and stand out among other institutions. But I find it strange that institutions with established histories such as Duke University and the California Institute of Technology would find it necessary to jump on MOOC’s. Even more troubling is the quote from Nicholas C. Burbules, a professor of educational-policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who admits that his institution is “seeing where it ends up.” During this time of constrained resources, why would a college expend such resources and effort to do something that lacks a clear direction?

While colleges have been criticized of being too slow to adapt to changes in technology, jumping too quickly on the MOOC movement is shortsighted. If colleges see MOOC’s as a way to share information and provide a public good, then they are competing against a much larger and uncontrollable beast—the Internet itself.

The Internet already provides an open space for people to collaborate and share information, through social media, blogs, and collaborative spaces like Wikis. While questions remain as to the quality and reliability of such resources, the fact remains that people are increasingly relying on the Internet to get their information. While paying for a MOOC offered by a reputable institution would pass the credibility check, the quality of the learning itself remains questionable.

Colleges play a role in ensuring that information is accurate and grounded in empirical research. The current model of teaching in college, which emphasizes a balance of both practice and research, allows students to think critically while being held to a standard of quality. The MOOC model does not ensure that such quality checks remain in place for student learning.

Rather than investing in MOOC’s and crowd-learning, colleges should devote their efforts in developing technological tools that can support faculty and existing students. Systems like MOOC’s would facilitate a rush to quantity rather than quality, while offering few practical solutions to the broader issues facing colleges.

Viet T. Bui
Los Angeles

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