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2013 December 23 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: 2013-Year in Review

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C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Closing the book on an eventful year
Compiled by Paul Bradley

Interest in education technology grew unabated in 2013 as educators and policymakers searched for ways to improve access, boost affordability and promote student success. And no technology commanded more attention than MOOCs, or massive open online courses, the distance learning initiative that was hailed as something that would shake higher education to its very core.

But as the year draws to a close, the setbacks in leveraging MOOCs as the next big thing outstrip the progress and promise they have shown. In a year of potholes on the road to MOOCs, perhaps the deepest was when Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity, a leading purveyor of MOOCs, threw in the rhetorical towel, saying the company’s courses were a “lousy product” and weren’t promoting student learning.

Coming in the aftermath of California halting its work with Udacity amid disappointing outcomes in remedial math instruction, MOOCs, suffered a serous backlash. For that reason — and because we are likely to hear plenty more about MOOCs in 2014 and beyond — the MOOC backlash had been selected CCWeek’s top community college story of 2013.

When the MOOC movement began to emerge a couple of years back, the hope was that it would do nothing less than democratize higher education. Students with limited access to college would have access to the same elite instructors who teach at Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

But results so far have been disappointing. The California experiment found that online students did worse on remedial math courses than did students who took the courses on-campus. Most students who enroll in MOOCs already have a college degree, studies have found. On average, only about half of those who registered for a MOOC course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses, according to a study of a million MOOC users by the University of Pennsylvania.

All of this is not to say that MOOCs have no future or will fade away. Several pilot projects are under way to fit them into classrooms in some form or fashion. The results so far are unclear. What is clear is that as 2013 draws to a close, MOOCs will complement, rather than replace, traditional higher education.

  1. The Rise and Fall Of MOOCs:  It was the magazine profile that set the higher education blogosphere ablaze. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford artificial intelligence professor who championed MOOCs and founded UdaCity, said in a Fast Company profile that he was moving away from college classes that could be taken for free in favor of vocational training in partnerships with corporations that would pay a fee. The magazine quoted Thrun as saying the Udacity MOOCs were “a lousy product” and “not a good fit” for poor students, who may not have access to a computer and might struggle in the absence of a mentor or teacher. Thrun subsequently clarified his thoughts, writing on his blog that MOOCs are a work in progress which need to be tested and reshaped. “Few ideas work on the first try,” he wrote. He said he was working with educators in California to rewrite software to allow students more time to work through courses. “Iteration is key to innovation,” he wrote. “We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement.” The challenge moving forward, especially for community colleges, will be figuring out a way to combine high-tech with high-touch: giving students exposure to both rich content and a personalized experience with a professor or mentor.

  2. Kanter Leaves Education Department: When the Obama administration arrived in Washington in 2009, it came with a promise to shake up American higher education. And the person charged with carrying out the president’s ambitious agenda was Martha J. Kanter, who joined the administration from her position as chancellor of California’s Foothill-Anza Community College District. Her appointment thrilled community college advocates; it was the first time that a former community college official had reached such a high rank within the Education Department. But in August, Kanter announced she was resigning and returning to academia. During her time at the department, Kanter championed many of the issues that she had spearheaded in California; she lead the administration’s efforts to bolster two-year colleges, promoted the use of open educational resources and backed competency-based education initiatives. Kanter left the department at a critical time, however. The administration has an ambitious agenda, including a new effort to write “gainful employment” rules, efforts to constrain higher education prices and the creation of a college ranking system. “Serving as your Under Secretary has deepened my understanding and appreciation of what ‘service to improve the public good of our nation’ really means,” Kanter wrote in her resignation letter.

  3. Competency-Based Education Gains Traction:  The associate degree program at the College for America looks nothing like traditional academia. There are no courses, no faculty, no grades, no transcripts, and most importantly, no credit hours. Rather, the first students enrolled in CfA, developed by Southern New Hampshire University, are studying and learning at remote locations, at home or at work. They are guided by individual learning plans embodying key competencies they must master. CfA is at the forefront of the burgeoning competency-based education movement, an approach that allows learners to earn college degrees based on defined, objectively measured outcomes instead of spending specific amounts of seat time in classrooms. Competency-based education has been around for decades. Institutions such as Excelsior College have been leaders in the field, granting academic credit through assessments of informal or prior learning experiences. But mainstream colleges have been slow to accept such credit, in part because it upends their business of providing classroom education for a fee. Increasingly, however, competency-based education is gaining traction. The CfA model commanded attention because it now bears the imprimatur of the U.S. Department of Education. The department announced that the CfA is eligible for Title IV funding, allowing its students access to Pell grants, student loans and other slices of the $1.5 billion federal student aid pie. It was the first competency-based model in the country to be approved for federal financial aid. A bipartisan effort is under way to allow innovative colleges and universities to explore ways to deliver education, measure quality and disburse financial aid based on learning, rather than seat time.

  4. Proposed Rankings Prompt Skepticism:  Last August, President Obama proposed a new college rating system designed to provide more information and transparency about how colleges are performing in getting students to graduation and employment. The pushback against the proposal was immediate. While educators agreed that the more information for students and their parents the better, they also were deeply skeptical that the ratings would accurately capture a diverse college-going population attending two-year, four-year and online institutions. Chief among the skeptics were community college officials, who long have contended that their institutions and their missions are so diverse that they defy any ranking system. “There is anxiety. That is probably the best word to describe the feelings community college presidents have about the proposed ratings system,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges, during a public forum on the proposal. The proposed rating system would factor in cost, graduation rates and income after graduation, among other variables, to score colleges and universities. But some of the metrics are flawed, critics contend. For example, graduation rates only consider first-time, full-time students who graduate from the same university in which they initially enrolled. For community colleges, that’s a shrinking pool of students. Whether the federal government can developed a sufficiently nuanced system of ranking college’s remains a concern going into 2014.

  5. CCSF Fights For Life: All year long, the City College of San Francisco was fighting for its life. Last summer, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges issued its most severe sanction — stripping the college of its accreditation — unless it corrects a series of financial and governance deficiencies by next August. But the accrediting commission had problems of its own during 2013. After coming under fire for how it handled CCSF, the panel was criticized in a report by the U.S. Education Department. The inquiry found that the commission’s policies and decisions had failed to win the support of many educators and other professionals. The report said the department had received more than 100 third-party written comments connected to the commission’s application to renew its authority. Many of them denounced the panel’s decision to revoke CCSF’s accreditation next year, it said. “In addition,” the report said, “four faculty senates at California institutions, three California-wide faculty organizations, and one national faculty organization provided written comments that indicated their disagreement with the policies and actions of the agency and that call into question the wide acceptance of the agency’s … decisions to grant or deny accreditation by educators.” The commission was given a year to address its deficiencies. Meanwhile, CCSF has a new chancellor who is working to retain the college’s accreditation.

  6. Dual Enrollment Takes Off:  Among community college presidents, faculty, high school principals and other academics — not to mention students — you’ll hear nary a discouraging word about dual enrollment programs. True, some observers complain about a brain drain from high schools as academically talented students depart for community college campuses. For students unprepared for college-level work, there is a risk of having a failed dual enrollment course stain their permanent academic record. But those concerns have done little to slow the rapid growth of dual enrollment programs as higher education searches for ways to direct more students to college and help them earn a degree once they get there. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics documents huge increases in the number of high schools offering concurrent enrollment programs with colleges and universities. High schools around the country report more than 2 million enrollments in courses where students can simultaneously earn high school and college credit. The reasons for the rapid growth are easy to understand. Dual enrollment gives students an idea of the demands of college work before leaving the comfort of high school. High school students can begin accumulating college credit, helping them graduate on time or even early. Research by the National Center for Postsecondary Research has shown that participation in dual enrollment has strong positive effects on college enrollment and completion. A related study by the Community College Research Center found that more challenging college work can benefit not only high-achieving students, but also students enrolled in career-focused and vocational courses, which are heavily populated by groups historically under-represented in higher education, and attending community colleges.

  7. Common Core Acceptance Wanes:  With voices growing louder that high school graduates are unprepared for college, educators are eyeing the Common Core, a nationwide effort to toughen academic standards and improve the pipeline of high school students making their way to college. But the federally-funded effort to improve academic standards standardized tests ran into a small but vocal surge of opposition in 2013, including parent protests and petitions. The result has been seven states putting the brakes on their involvement in field testing the new exams and an increase in parents pulling their children out of standardized tests as protest. Diane Ravitch, a former high-ranking Education Department official who is now a vocal opponent of the initiative, has called on teachers to join the protests by refusing to teach using Common Core materials or to administer any of the new tests this spring. Critics question whether the Common Core will really close achievement gaps. But most governors, state education chiefs, and Obama education secretary Arne Duncan remain strongly supportive of the new initiative, by and large. However, Duncan spent two weeks recently apologizing for having denounced scared “white suburban moms” for opposing the effort. Meanwhile, most states continue implementing the Common Core in classrooms. Whether the new standards will improve achievement and reduce the need for college remediation remain an open question heading into the New Year.

  8. Debt Continues To Rise:  For the fifth year in a row, the average student debt load continued to climb in 2013. New data showed that the Class of 2012 graduated college with an average debt of close to $30,000. The $29,400 last year’s graduates owe in student loans is up from an average debt load of $26,600 held by 2011 graduates, according to an annual report from the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access and Success. The numbers continue to put a squeeze on students and parents. While colleges are raising tuition, family incomes remain flat, and both factors are increasing students’ need to borrow to attend school, the report found. Earlier this year, a report by Sallie Mae found that parents’ income and savings are covering 27 percent of college costs, compared with 37 percent in 2010. In addition, graduates are having trouble funding jobs that pay enough to repay their student loans. The institute’s report found that students from Delaware graduated with the most debt — an average of $33,649 — while students in South Dakota were the most likely to graduate with debt, at 78 percent of graduates, the data show. South Dakota’s average debt is $25,121. The study also found that while most students take out federal loans, a fifth hold private loans, the data show. Private loans have been known to be more difficult for borrowers to manage and have less flexible repayment plans.

  9. College Enrollment Declines:  After years of rapid enrollment growth, U.S. higher education settled into a new normal in 2013. Two decades of sustained enrollment gains at American high schools have ended, and the overall high school population is now in decline, according to a report produced by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. The demographic trends mean that colleges will no longer be able to rely on the growth in the supply of traditional-aged students to boost enrollment and keep those tuition dollars rolling in. Rather, they will be competing for a dwindling number of students. Only elite colleges and universities can expect escalating demand. At the same time, the pool of future college students is rapidly growing more racially and ethnically diverse, putting pressure on policymakers and practitioners to improve educational attainment gaps among groups that have been underrepresented and underserved. That will challenge colleges to find cost-effective, innovative ways to reach students who have not been served well by American higher education. Community colleges around the country are experiencing the downward trend. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment at two-year public colleges — pumped up since 2007 by the effects of the Great Recession — is now headed in the opposite direction. In the spring of 2013, enrollment dropped by 3.6 percent compared to the year before. Only enrollment at four-year for-profit colleges has declined more.

  10. Gainful Employment Fight Continues:  When a federal judge early this year halted the Education Department’s first attempt at implementing gainful employment regulations for vocational programs, it was widely believed the Obama administration’s attempted rewrite of the rules would be less stringent than the original. On the contrary. The new iteration of the rules was both stricter and more sweeping than the original, angering for-profit schools and community colleges, which argued that the new standards would not appropriately capture the quality of their programs. The new standards would measure colleges on things such as debt-to-income ratio and a program-level cohort default rate. The Education Department estimated that about 13 percent of colleges would not meet the standards. But the future of the rules are uncertain. Months of negotiations on them ended in a stalemate amid dissent from for-profit colleges and consumer groups. That leaves the Education Department to draft a final version of the regulations for public comment. Education Department officials stress that the metrics are not aimed at measuring quality, but rather are minimum standards an institution has to meet in order to receive federal funding. The first round of gainful employment rules prompted a court challenge. It would be a surprise if the second round doesn’t lead to the same thing.

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