Pew Research Reveals Three Barriers to Lifelong Learning

overcoming-barriers-to-technology-assisted-reviewPew Research Center’s recent report, “Lifelong Learning and Technology” gives insight into how Americans perceive and engage in lifelong learning (Horrigan, 2016). It’s a worthy read. It contains valuable data and insights for stakeholders involved in education planning and decision-making. Yet I’ve identified three themes I consider most instructive and compelling; three significant barriers that the education sector as a whole needs to acknowledge and address in order to improve and move online education programs forward.

Three Barriers
1) Limited Access: online education has not, up to this point, democratized education—adult learners with limited education do not engage, for various reasons, in learning aided by technology, 2) Lack of familiarity with online learning options persists among all adult learning groups; for instance only 14% are “very familiar” with even the concept of distance learning, and MOOCs—only 5% are “very familiar”, and 3)  Learning gap: there’s a significant gap between how some adults view learning in general and their actual lifelong learning behaviours—the majority of Americans (87%) believe learning new things is “very important” yet only 73% of adults consider themselves lifelong learners.

1. Online Education Fails to Democratize
We’ve long heard how digital education platforms such as Coursera and edX will democratize education by overcoming barriers associated with higher education by lowering costs and reaching populations with limited education. Yet Pew’s findings suggest otherwise. It reveals that these same groups, those with low levels of education and household income, are less likely to engage in any form of online learning. One finding is particularly telling—less than half of respondents with a high school education or less have used the internet for personal (43%) or job-related learning (49%) (Horrigan, pg. 7). This suggests that education providers need to determine how to leverage and implement technology as a learning tool to serve the groups that need education most.

2. Limited Awareness of Digital Platforms for Learning
Quite surprising is the fact that the majority of adult learners are not familiar with digital learning options. While most readers of this blog are likely (very) familiar with MOOCs and for-credit online courses, it’s startling to consider that most adults, even those with higher education levels are not (see screenshot below for details). This phenomenon has implications for educators and institutions; the most pressing is the need to inform the general population about digital learning options. Going further, there’s also a need to educate adults how to learn effectively in a digital world. Accomplishing this will require a strategic and concerted effort by education institutions involving a multi-pronged approach, utilizing multiple communication channels to promote learning options. Other alternatives may require forming partnerships with unrelated institutions as Khan Academy did with Bank of America for their Better Money Habits® program. There is much work to be done.

Lifelong Learning and Technology, John Horrigan. Pew Research Center (section 5).

3. The Learning Gap
According to the report Americans value learning greatly. It indicates that 87% of adults state that it’s “very important that people make an effort to learn new things about their jobs”. Yet the same survey finds that 73% of adults agree that “I think of myself as a lifelong learner” applies “very well”. The numbers suggest there’s a segment of the population who view learning as very important, yet they don’t engage in lifelong learning activities for their own personal or professional growth. Why? It’s worth further examination. There is an opportunity to reach a group of adults who value learning greatly but don’t engage for whatever reason. The report does identify factors that play a role in lifelong learning activities, e.g. household income, education attainment, etc (section 2). One avenue to consider is the role educators could play in closing the gap.  Possibly by instilling skills and modeling behaviors associated with lifelong learning in elementary and/or high school, granted the logistics of ‘how’ is a barrier in itself.

There is no easy solution to closing the gap, and it is closely linked barriers one and two.  Yet this gap deserves special consideration—further discussion among educators involved in all levels of education. How can we as educators encourage and develop skills and behaviors in students, young and old where learning is self-directed and lifelong—where students forge their own learning path based upon their, interests needs, and passions?

The Pew Report yields important and helpful insights that can drive meaningful dialogue about education: professional, elementary and higher education. Also the role of technology in education, it’s reach, and shortcomings. The report hopefully will serve as a catalyst for action, action by education institutions and individuals to advance and improve institutions and platforms reach and impact, to build and grow engaged communities of lifelong learners.


Need-to-Know News: Udacity’s New Nanodegree Plus with Money-Back Guarantee, Non-traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny & Khan Academy Seeks Patent for Teaching Methods

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

News1. Udacity’s Nanodegree Plus Program
Udacity launched “NanoDegree Plus” this week—an enhancement available with four of their Nanodegree programs. The ‘plus’ is a guarantee that students “get hired within 6 months of graduating or receive a 100% tuition refund”.  Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity states that Udacity’s guarantee is a “crisper” way for his institution to persuade students to attend. He also hopes his idea of guaranteeing results (a job) is something all college presidents will consider (Ruff, 2016).

The plus program includes robust features with services that include access to career coaches, interview resources including mock interview opportunities and dedicated placement team support—at a cost of $299/ month. The programs are self-paced and typically take between 6 and 8 months to complete. Udacity’s other Nanodegree programs are $200 per month and do not offer the same services as the plus program, but do offer an incentive “graduate within 12 months and receive a 50% refund on tuition“.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 3.25.06 PM
Screen shot of Udacity’s web page promoting Nanodegree Plus

Insight: Udacity’s guarantee is bold; and not surprisingly is drawing criticism. One college president called it “gimmicky”, yet a fellow at Brookings Institute is positive, stating that guarantees like Udacity’s “are a market solution to temper the risk that students face when they choose to invest in higher education”. Though in defense of higher education programs, what Udacity offers is far different from undergraduate education. Udacity program’s are narrow in focus and vocational in nature. What is a positive of the plus programs are the support services offered. It’s these services that can make a difference—help students gain confidence, skills in how to market themselves, and be career-ready.

2. Non-Traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny
Non-traditional forms of higher education, including competency-based programs are under close scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Institutions offering non-traditional degree programs may not be eligible for financial disbursements if they don’t meet the criteria of Title IV aid. The DOE’s Inspector General has conducted several audits, one  currently underway with Western Governor’s University (WGU), a non-profit who provides non-traditional education to over 64,000 enrolled students (Fain, 2016). Courses at WGU are not tied to the traditional credit-hour, but instead students take self-paced online courses, engage with mentors when help is needed, and complete assessments when confident they have mastered course material.

The investigation into these non-traditional programs’ eligibility is at odds with the current administration’s push to promote non-traditional degree pathways, apparent by the DOE’s website as well as recent grants to encourage higher education institutions to develop alternative pathways for degree-seeking students. Education leaders will be watching closely as many are developing alternative degree-programs as Purdue University is with its competency-based bachelor’s degree, or others that involve MOOCs such as ASU’s Global Freshman Academy.

Insight:  The discrepancy within the DOE demonstrates the gap between existing legislation for traditional education programs and new programs that reflect our open and digital culture. Education organizations need to implement systems that allow them to adapt more fluidly.

index3. Khan Academy Seeks Patent on its Instructional Methods
Khan academy is filing a patent application for its method of showing one of two explanatory videos based upon a student’s response to a question posed after the student watches an initial topic-specific, instructional video. Many experts are confused by Khan’s move, given Khan’s open strategy and their mission to “provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere”. Yet Khan claims it’s a defensive move, a strategy to avoid being sued in the future from potential  competitors—other online education providers who might try to sue Khan Academy claiming it is infringing on their propriety methods.

Wording from Khan’s patent application:

Systems and methods are provided for comparing different videos pertaining to a topic. Two different versions of an educational video may be compared using split comparison testing. A set of questions may be provided along with each video about the topic taught in the video. Users may view one of the videos and answer the questions. Data about the user responses may be aggregated and used to determine which video more effectively conveys information to the viewer based on the question responses. — United States Patent Application #20150310753

Insight: A prudent, strategic move.

Need-to-Know-News: An EdX MOOC as Propaganda? and Grant to ‘Accelerate’ Adoption of Personalized Learning in Higher Ed

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

questionmark1. Is This EdX MOOC Propaganda?
An interesting development going on in the MOOC sector—whether a MOOC serves as propaganda. The MOOC in question is ‘Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought’ which some view as propaganda for the Chinese government.  Some MOOC students claim the course, delivered by professor Feng from Tsinghua University’s School of Marxism, is one-sided and glosses over events during Mao’s tenure. Significant events such as the Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong initiated. Even scholars are claiming it’s propaganda sponsored by the Chinese Government, as a professor of history from the United States Naval Academy does. He says this:

“It’s propaganda” This course is “part of a larger campaign to export a way of Chinese governance ….China wants to be part of the world, but it doesn’t want to be part of a world where Western democracy and capitalism dominate” (Logue).

An alternative perspective comes from a medical student in Tianjin who is quoted as saying, “Sure, it may be a bit like propaganda, but it’s something that’s being taught in every school in China…More Chinese universities should offer these kinds of courses because it gives the world a window into China.” (Hernandez). EdX when questioned about the course claims not to interfere with content, as long as course content is not unlawful or offensive it will allow the content on its platform.

Insight:  When reading the course description of ‘Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought’, it’s described as giving “learners around the world a rare peek into a course that millions of university students in China are required to take each year”.  This statement is telling in itself; it states how history is presented to students in China, quite a different perspective from what is presented in the West. The MOOC provides an opportunity to view Mao Zedong rule through the lens of a Chinese student, and with the knowledge of other perspectives students will gain a deeper understanding into the political process and power structure within the country.  Though the MOOC doesn’t provide other perspectives (based on student feedback), I’ve taken MOOCs that have also presented a one-sided perspective of an issue. One comes to mind—an edX course I took last year, Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education, which presented a single perspective on public education and the reform needed. Content was drawn primarily from one source, an  organization Education Next.  Content primarily consisted of opinion essays from the Education Next publication, an expert featured in the lecture videos who also happened to be the Editor-In-Chief of Education Next, as well as a text-book chapters from a book authored by this same Editor-In-Chief of Education Next.

Stephen Downes quoted in Inside Higher Ed says it the best “There’s no such thing as a neutral course,” he said. And now, “courses that might have been offered behind closed doors are offered for everyone to see.”  He’s right.

Personalizing learning is the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum and learning environments by learners or for learners in order to meet their different learning needs. Typically technology is used to facilitate personalized learning environments.

2. Next Trend coming to Higher Ed Institutions ‘Personalizing Learning’
There’s been much written about personalized learning in education sector—it’s the latest trend in education and it’s making its way into higher education. The idea behind personalized education is customizing learning experiences by using academic data analytics, and moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to education to adapting learning experiences, curriculum or instructional approaches to individual students. Personalized learning appears most prevalent in K-12 and online education, but now universities have funding opportunities to expand initiatives into personalizing learning using adaptive courseware. This week the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) announced a grant available for six universities designed to help institutions ‘scale their adaptive courseware effectively’ —to improve education and help students learn (Wexler). In a nutshell adaptive courseware, is software that uses algorithms based on data generated by students to scaffold instruction.

Adaptive courseware can be used in distance education, but the university association is focused on blended learning. Faculty members will learn to use new online tools but will continue working with students in a traditional classroom setting. The group wants universities to focus their efforts in lower-level, high-enrollment courses, or in courses with high failure and withdrawal rates.

Insight: It appears ALPU’s focus is getting universities to implement adaptive courseware, and not on personalizing learning. There also seems a great emphasis on haste evidenced by the language used by ALPU—for instance in the two-page Grant Overview paper titled “Accelerating Adopting of Adaptive Courseware at Public Universties“, and in the second paragraph, “to speed post-secondary educators toward effective use of high-quality adaptive courseware.  The last statement does not lend itself to the process of a conducting a thorough needs-analysis or approaching personalized learning thoughtfully and strategically. Also of note, one of ALPU’s partners in the Personalized Learning Consortium is Acrobatiq, a provider of courseware solutions.

Need-to-Know News: Universities On Board with Micro Credentials, MOOC Report Highlights Pressing Issues & App Rewards Tech Non-Use


This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

job-education1) Group of Seven Universities Collaborating on ‘Alternative Credentialing’
“The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees” — David Schejbal, Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and e-Learning at Wisconsin Extension.

A group of seven universities are in early stages of collaboration on a joint platform that will offer skills assessments, services including tutoring and advising to students online—though the platform’s primary purpose will be to provide ‘alternative credentialing options’. This is significant. It’s the first time a group of brand-name universities (that include Northwestern and Georgia Tech) have formed their own consortium in the micro credentialing market at this scale. Up until now it’s for-profit platforms such as Udacity with their Nano Degrees partnering with corporations such as AT&T, Coursera with their Specializations offered as a ‘pathway to expertise’, and edX (non-profit) with their xSeries programs.

These programs are vocational in nature, with a focused sequence of courses that provide students with a set of skills in a specialty area. This type of credentialing differs significantly from undergraduate education—the undergraduate degree focusing on breadth rather than depth, emphasizing critical thinking with applicability to a range of career pathways. Yet recently there’s been discussion in far-reaching media outlets including the New York Times, that micro credentials are a viable alternative to traditional higher education—“it [nano degree] may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream”.  Even Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity was quoted as saying, “It [nano degree] is like a university…built by industry” (2014).

Insight: The fact that micro credentials are viewed as an alternative to or even replacement for an undergraduate or an associate’s degree is concerning. Even more so now with universities coming on board and (potentially) promoting this option as ‘shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees’. Micro credentialing serves a different purpose than undergraduate education, targets a different and expanding student population—working adults looking for professional development and a route to enhance job-related skills. Though there is need for higher education institutions to transform and adapt to the complex challenges the higher education sector is facing, offering a ‘mini-degree’ as a replacement to the rich and diverse education that an undergraduate degree can provide is misguided and deeply troubling.  Alternative learning pathways such as micro-credentials is a positive outcome of digital innovations, yet using it as an alternative to ‘fix’ undergraduate education is not reasonable or responsible.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.40.46 PM2)  New MOOC Report Highlights Current Issues
This week UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for higher education released a concise, informative report “MOOCs and Quality: A Review of the Recent Literature” that highlights topical issues with useful, current references.  It’s instructive, informative and provides a summary of key areas of concern specific to MOOCs that are also applicable to higher education including non-completion rates, quality, instructional design, and data use for analysis of student engagement. What’s most instructive are the issues highlighted—it draws out for the reader the most pressing issues worthy of consideration going forward.

As with each new learning innovation, MOOCs present the possibility of new approaches to education, but the promises now need to be evaluated to see what can be delivered in the longer term, on a sustainable basis and with what implications for HEIs and for the assurance of quality  (Creelman et al, 2014).

Insight: Discussions should be moving from MOOCs as disruptors to deeper issues such as how can MOOCs help us improve teaching and learning, reach more students with quality education, and support change within the higher education sector. This report can be a catalyst for such discussions, providing a starting point with its reference list of recent research that provide a foundation for informed discussion.

3) New App Gives Points to Students for Not Using Personal Tech Device
A mobile app targeted to high school and college students called ‘Pocket Points’ gives students rewards for not using their phones during class. Students gain points by opening up the application and locking their phone. It works when the school signs on with Pocket Points and sets up the software and the rewards program.  Students can use points to get discounts at local and online businesses—primarily for food. Currently Chico State and Penn State University use the program.

Insight: A unique idea, though I see more potential for this application with younger children, for parents to use with their children ages 9 through 13—helping kids learn how to manage their screen time.

Make Teaching ‘Stick’ with Ideas from “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”

make it stick book cover
make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, & Mark A. McDaniel

In this post I review key takeaways from the book “make it stick” and delve into its practical applications for educators—how instructors who teach face-to-face or online can help their students learn better, and for course and curriculum designers—how they can support learning through unique course design strategies.

The book begins “…people generally go about learning in the wrong ways…” and authors describe how the methods we typically use to learn—reviewing material again and again to get that ‘A’ for instance, or practicing the same skill for hours on end until mastery, are essentially ineffective (pg. xi). They don’t work, and ‘make it stick’ explains why. Despite the title, “… Science of Successful Learning”, the book is more about the practical than the science though the authors do a fine job of referencing research to support their claims. For these and other reasons, the book is enlightening—refreshingly so. I approached the book with few expectations; with the numerous titles out there on learning—How we Learn, The Science Behind Learning, Accelerated Learning, etc., I’m a bit skeptical. Though most concepts presented in the book aren’t new, like the debunking of learning styles*, the methods described on how we learn provide a new perspective on teaching and developing coursework. For instance forgetting is good; good when we space out learning then forget enough that we have to retrieve it later and relearn it. Another, changing up topics frequently is also effective—just when we think we are beginning to ‘get it’, it’s a good time to move on to another topic.

Make it Stick Applied to Teaching  & Course Design
“Make it stick” is a how-to book geared to students and life-long learners that describes how to not just remember, but how to apply, analyze, and synthesize concepts.  This post presents a different perspective, how the principles in “make it stick” can be applied to teaching and to the development of curriculum and courses—online and face-to-face. We could just as easily substitute ‘teaching’ for ‘learning’ in the opening quote, ‘people generally go about teaching in the wrong ways’.  In this context ‘people’ refers to teachers, professors, trainers, tutors, coaches and parents, as well as curriculum and instructional designers. I’m in the latter category and used principles from the book when developing  an online, four-unit professional development course for faculty.

The book is a fairly easy read with enough challenge and complexity to make it a page-turner.  It’s also cleverly written; authors embed some of the learning methods described in the book in the writing. For example they use ‘interleaving—which is a method of introducing a new idea or concept, then layering in an additional concept (or concepts)—for instance concept ‘a’ is introduced in a chapter, and just when you start grasping it, authors switch to concept ‘b’, then come back to concept ‘a’ in the next chapter, while introducing concept ‘c’.  Concept a, b and c (and d, e and f) are interleaved throughout the book in this way, turning up in subsequent chapters with different examples to illustrate each. Just when you might have forgotten concept ‘a’, it appears again, along with yet another topic. This technique, switching topics frequently and interleaving, represent two methods authors described in the book, one is to mix it up (vary) and space-out, content frequently, before you’ve mastered the material (pg. 46 – 49). Then review the material later, retrieve concepts when you’re on the brink of forgetting them altogether. Apparently this repeated retrieval, going back to concepts again and again, embeds the knowledge and skills (pg. 29), and is far more effective than concentrated study sessions of re-reading, reviewing and highlighting text passages. The second concept interleaving, which is the idea that learning two or more subjects, or practicing two or more skills, is a more potent that massed practice focused on one topic.

Book Highlights

  • Learning is deeper and more durable when it requires effort. This idea explained in chapter four, ‘embrace difficulties’ which authors describe difficult learning as desirable due to the idea that the brain encodes and consolidates learning when learning it’s ‘effortful’; is strengthened through mental representations associated with retrieval and making connections (pg. 73).
  • * Learning styles debunked; there is no empirical research that supports the idea that learning is more effective when instruction caters to the learners preferred style of learning, e.g. auditory, visual, etc.
  • Learners are susceptible to the ‘illusion of knowing’.  It’s not uncommon for learners to ‘not know what they don’t know’.  Being aware of what one still needs to learn, or what skill needs developing is known as metacognition, and it’s part of overcoming the illusion of knowing. Chapter five lists tools learners can use to gain a sense of knowing.  Educators play a critical role in helping students overcome the illusion of knowing by providing constructive feedback (pg. 126).
  • Learning requires a foundation of knowledge, which supports the idea that we do need to learn foundational concepts even in a world where we can “Google it’.  It seems that when knowledge is deeply entrenched in long-term memory it supports the learner’s ability to make connections with other knowledge held in one’s memory (pg. 76).  ‘Googling’ a fact or concept will likely be stored in the learner’s short-term memory, and while useful in certain contexts, it does not replace a learner having a knowledge base to call upon when working on complex projects or initiatives.

1197947341_89d0ff8676Tips for Instructors/Faculty/Teachers to Help Learning ‘Stick’
The following tips section is a summary of concepts presented in the book. The final chapter of the book, Make it Stick, also outlines some general tips for teachers, though authors caution that teachers must find what’s right for his or her classroom (pg. 225). Agreed. But still the tips are worthy of careful consideration.

  • Focus on active learning methods—retrieval, elaboration, reflection, generative learning. This idea of active learning is not new, but the book provides excellent suggestions for active learning that can be applied to the classroom and online. One example I particularly like is the use of ‘summary sheets’, where students are required to submit a single sheet at the end of a week that illustrates the prior week’s material with drawings annotated with key ideas, arrows and graphs (pg. 231). This could be done in an online course where learners share their summary diagrams with each other via a forum, or group’s are assigned to create a collective summary diagram for a given week and post it for sharing.
  • Create ‘desirable difficulties’ where learners struggle with material, make mistakes and even fail, yet do ultimately receive corrective and constructive feedback from the instructor.
  • Provide constructive feedback — once learners have wrestled with the concepts and material (as above). This method not only strengthens learning but creates an open and challenging learning climate
  • Incorporate frequent, low stakes testing.
  • Provide opportunities for elaboration, reflection.
  • Explain to students how learning works—sharing with students what empirical studies have revealed on how people learn will help students manage their own education. The other benefit—teaching becomes transparent; students see the purpose behind the methods, e.g. reflection exercises, frequent quizzes, etc. Students may also see that learning is supposed to be challenging and difficult and that making mistakes and not always succeeding is part of the learning process. The book does a good job outlining how to explain learning to students (pg 225 – 230).

Practical Applications for Course/Curriculum Designers

  • Create frequent and varied active learning exercises — focus less on content that students consume through reading and watching, and more on doing.  Active learning in online courses, though more challenging to create, supports effective and dynamic learning experiences (Austin & Mescia, n.d.).
  • Use quizzes as exploratory, reflective learning exercises with the primary purpose to help students learn. This means creating quizzes that provide immediate feedback, even during the quiz, where students can check their answers. In order for this to be effective the feedback needs to be specific, describing why an answer is correct or incorrect. The feedback is an opportunity to reinforce concepts and can prompt students to dig deeper into a subject area. If using the quiz feature in a LMS, it’s possible to provide customized feedback, even include Web links to further resources.
  • Incorporate concepts frequently throughout the course in a variety of contexts by creating learning exercises and assignments that require students to draw upon concepts from previous modules/units of learning.  Do not approach learning modules or units as independent ‘chunks’ of learning, but fluid and porous ‘blocks’ that draw upon previous concepts that interlock and build a structure. It’s a common term in online course development to ‘chunk’ learning into segments, yet it’s critical to thread concepts consistently throughout the modules/units.
  • Don’t make it too easy — make students work at learning, e.g. by posing more questions and opportunities for discovery through discussion and interaction with other students. Though structure and outline of purpose for activities is the framework, students need to find solutions and solve problems wrestling with concepts and ideas. This last component is perhaps the most challenging to structure within an online course.

Examples of Methods Applied from ‘make it stick’

1) Interleaving in an online course: As mentioned earlier in the post, I applied the idea of interleaving in an online course I recently created. Rather than topics introduced as separate units of instruction within independent modules, I threaded concepts from previous modules into the new ones. Concepts from prior modules were referenced frequently in different contexts, and in the learning activities participants are required to incorporate concepts from previous units along with newly introduced concepts, as well as to draw upon their knowledge and experience.  I also incorporated frequent, cumulative quizzes for review in each module that covered concepts from all modules. Quiz settings were adjusted so that learners can check their responses before moving on to the next question and the feedback provides a review of the concept.

2) Generative learning is a method discussed in the book. It’s a process where students are given a problem to solve before being taught the concepts or method. The idea is that learning is stronger when students invest more energy and effort looking for a solution. Critics of this teaching method say it’s more time-consuming and not as effective as direct instruction. In Ontario, Canada this method of generative learning is introduced in select public schools to teach Mathematics.

“He (the math teacher) presents a problem at the start of class, and lets the students try to figure it out. Hopefully, he says, the students will struggle. “That initial moment of struggle prepares them for what they’ll learn later,”  — Old School or new? Math teachers debate best method as Canadian scores fall, Liam Casey

I give ‘make it stick’ five-stars, not only for the concise, crisp writing but the thought-provoking and actionable content. Teachers, instructors and course designers will no doubt find the book useful, at the very least it will provide a refreshing take on learning. The book’s website, provides a good overview of the content by chapter.

Need-to-Know-News: Micro-Credentialing Movement in Higher Ed & Active Learning Trumps Lectures


This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

credit1) The Micro-credential Movement in Higher Ed
The latest trend in higher education is micro-credentialing, the non-traditional education path where students gain skill sets in a specific area and receive a credential. Case in point, Udacity announced this week a new nanodegree (Udacity defines nanodegrees as ‘curriculums designed to help you become job-ready)’— the Android nanodegree in partnership with Google. Another example—Penn State’s College of Business also launched this week an online bootcamp course, ‘Supply Chain Leadership Academy’, to educate “supply chain leaders of tomorrow in leadership and best practices in holistic supply chain management”.

The micro-credentialing trend is driven by business entities that have a real (or perceived) workforce skill gap, where jobs can’t be filled due to lack of qualified applicants. Google reports it has thousands of jobs to fill given a dearth of qualified applicants. The Linux Foundation, also offering a certificate course in partnership with edX, reports it has over 50,000 open jobs.

MOOC providers and select higher education institutions are leveraging the apparent skills gap, using their platforms to build their online program offerings with credentialing options for a fee. A good idea. The target market is not traditional higher education students, but non-traditional students that are already in the workforce and are looking to further their careers and/or switch career paths. is a platform offered credentialing in specific skill sets long before MOOC providers began doing so. Though Alison’s business model is different from MOOC providers such as Coursera or edX. Students aren’t the revenue source but advertisers, featured on the platform, are.

Sampling of micro-credential programs and associated fees:

  • edX’s Linux System Administration Essentials course, “This Linux course is for those just starting their career in IT as well as professionals with experience on other operating systems who want to add Linux to their portfolio”. Fee: $399
  • Stanford Online, Professional Certificates, “Our professional certificates offer short, focused courses that give you tools and techniques you can apply right away“. Fee: $1295 per online course; required number of courses vary by certificate.
  • Udacity’s Nanodegree – “All the course content is free online, but the $200 per month pays for the non-scaleable parts of the degree: project grading, feedback, instructor mentorship, assistance and a final certification”. Option to receive reimbursement of 50% of tuition upon completion.
  • Digital Literacy & IT Skills Diploma Courses, Free with option to pay nominal fee for paper certificate delivered via mail.
  • Coursera’s Specializations – “Master a skill with a targeted sequence of courses”. Fee: $95 per course, with a fee for the ‘capstone project’, e.g. Business Foundations Specialization = $595 for four courses and capstone project.
Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 9.40.20 AM
Screenshot of recent email from Coursera announcing upcoming Specialization certificates. ‘Specializations’ consist of a two or more courses on focused area.

Insight: This non-traditional student population, which micro-credentials target, is an emerging market and such options are a boon to working or unemployed adults seeking skill development. It’s a positive development in higher education. Employers appear receptive to micro-credentials. However, micro-credentialing is favorable provided the programs provide quality learning resulting in tangible, applicable skill sets. The majority of the credentials require not only a financial investment, but a significant investment of students’ time and energy. It’s buyer-beware; credentials do not guarantee a job, though the courses backed by business entities likely have higher placement rates than those without a business affiliation.

2) The Case for Active Learning over Lectures*
This is not new news, but worthy of review—evidence that performance of students engaging in classes that primarily offer active learning is improved over classes involving primarily lectures. A significant study on active learning was released last year; it provides compelling evidence on active learning benefits specific to STEM subjects in higher education (Freeman, et al., 2014). Researchers conducted a meta-analyses of 225 studies in published and unpublished literature that documented student performance in courses with at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing.  Though intuitively we might know that active learning is more effective for learning, there’s now solid evidence to back it up:

The data reported here indicate that active learning increases examination performance by just under half a SD and that lecturing increases failure rates by 55%. The heterogeneity analyses indicate that (i) these increases in achievement hold across all of the STEM disciplines and occur in all class sizes, course types, and course levels; and (ii) active learning is particularly beneficial in small classes and at increasing performance on concept inventories.

Implications: Is the lecture dead? Absolutely not, but to increase student learning, retention and success, involving students in active application of concepts should be the norm not the exception. However, implementing active learning is challenging for many educations, and especially for online courses, yet it can be done with deliberate, thoughtful development of a course learning strategy. Below are links with suggestions and examples of active learning applications. One of my favorite examples of active learning, is an online literature instructor Laura Gibbs, who creates assignments using online platforms—blogging platforms, Pinterest, etc. where students engage with content, each other and the Internet community.


Feature Image: by GotCredit on Flickr