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: Udacity’s New Direction, a MOOCjam and Competency Learning to Get Big Boost

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. 

direction signs
direction signs (Photo credit: emreterok)

1) Udacity’s New Direction
Making headlines in education circles this week is Udacity’s about-face, its change in direction, and new reason for being. Thrun interviewed for a lengthy article in Fast Company magazine published last week, shared his new [and apparently improved] direction for Udacity—no longer is it higher education, the employment sector according to Thrun is the best market for Udacity’s MOOCs.  I shared my initial thoughts in a post earlier this week—my aim here is to share with readers the specifics of Udacity’s re-branding.

Udacity as readers will remember was heavily involved in higher education as recently as a few months ago. Udacity’s pilot program with San Jose State University was a significant investment for SJSU, however was a failure overall. Sadly, the majority of the students, including those requiring remedial support, failed the MOOC classes. In the Fast Company interview Thrun was dismissive of the pilot, and the students’ failures. Udacity apparently has found a more compliant market, (and more profitable) and is partnering with companies or what Thrun calls “industry partners”. Udacity’s partners according to Udacity’s blog:

Cloudera, the industry leader for enterprise data management software

As Mike Olson, Cloudera’s Chief Strategy Officer and Chairman of the Board, shared, “We believe in Udacity’s vision to democratize education by making professional training affordable and accessible to everyone, and believe this model will enable us to more effectively reach aspiring Big Data technologists around the world who want to expand their skills into Hadoop. Together, Cloudera and Udacity are leveling the playing field, empowering anyone with the desire to learn to get the necessary skills to succeed in the modern data economy, regardless of where they live or what their socio-economic background is.Udacity blog, November

Salesforce.com for app Development

That’s the whole premise of our Open Education Alliance and we’re really fortunate to be able to collaborate with salesforce.com and other industry leaders on this mission. Whether you’re looking to become a Salesforce developer, hoping to use Salesforce more effectively to get your work done, or just looking to build something, this course is a great first step.Udacity blog, November 18, 2013

Insights: Quite concerning is the power and influence the for-profit MOOC providers (Udacity and Coursera) hold—not only with coporations, but with some higher education institutions, state leaders, and even the Department of Education. Worrisome.

2) MOOCjam with George Siemens
This past Wednesday, George Siemens hosted a MOOCjam, an online day-long discussion about a conceptual framework consisting of “nine distinct components rooted in an underlying foundation of technology and systems support and evaluation”—developed for examining Massive Open Online Course experiences. Among the nine elements are design, learner profile and pedagogy.

The jam was part of the MOOC Research Initiative, led by Athabasca University and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal for the session was “to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community”. Siemens shared that the revised framework will be introduced at the MOOC Research conference happening in early December of this year.

The main discussions focused on three areas related to the MOOC format, ‘the course’, ‘the learner’ and ‘the medium’. In the closing discussion that I participated in along with ten or so contributing participants, I discussed the Framework from the perspective that primarily it would be used as a guide for designing courses, (from my narrow instructional designer lens). Yet there are other perspectives to consider for its application which Siemens summarized into three themes, what form?, for whom? and for what purpose? [summary paragraph below]

“What purpose? There was much discussion about the Framework being used or misused to design courses, turned into a powerpoint as the “way” to MOOC, or being misconstrued. Brenda Kaulback viewed it as a conceptual framework, George Siemens as a way to reflect the experiences, Debbie Morrison as a way to help people know where to start when designing courses.”

Insights: The Framework and research coming from MOOC Research Initiative will likely evolve not just from these type of discussions, but will be influenced and shaped by external factors—debate and discussions about  MOOCs, and the institutions and organizations supporting them. The Framework has great potential, though I’m not sure what kind of  impact it will have in the MOOC community, given the mighty weight and influence of the for-profit MOOC providers. For the most part they seem to disregard much of the research about online learning that has evolved over the last few years.

3) Department of US Education’s Push For Competency Learning
The United States government is apparently gearing up to announce another push for competency based learning according to Hal Plotkin Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education (OUS), United States Department of Education. Mr. Plotkin led a keynote address, The Role of Online  and Technology-enabled Learning in Meeting Obama’s 2020 Graduation Goal at the Sloan Consortium’s annual conference on online learning going on this week in Florida.

Plotkin said the department “can waive substantial sections of existing regulations that govern access to Title IV financial aid” for programs — both residential and online — that base student progress on “demonstrated levels of mastery rather than the tick of a semester or quarter clock.” The department will formally announce the initiative in the coming days, he said.

“Competency-based stuff would fit under that umbrella, but we don’t want to dictate how people might approach it — and maybe people will have ideas for us that are innovative but in a different area,” Plotkin said.  Inside Higher Ed

Next week will likely be another interesting and eventful week. Stay tuned.

Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs Not Effective for Undergraduate Education After All…

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial,” Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. “But the data was at odds with this idea.” November 14, @FastCompany

The cat-is-out-of-the bag—Sebastian Thurn, founder of Udacity the MOOC provider that started MOOC mania two years ago states that MOOCs are not an effective modality for teaching undergraduate students after all.  Seriously. To most of us, this is not new news. I find Thrun’s admission most disturbing, not because the statement isn’t true—but it’s all that’s happened over the recent months that Thrun’s company has been responsible for including, the vast amount of funds spent on a pilot project at San Jose University, the students that failed their courses in this Udacity project, the sweeping statements about the power of the MOOC model to transform higher education, etc., etc.

The announcement, (or perhaps it’s more fitting to call it a confession) came last week in an article published in Fast Co, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course. The story features an interview with Thrun  [most of which was conducted during an intense bike ride] and is getting much press in the blogosphere. Many deride the fact that the article’s author Max Chafkin, doesn’t appear to have challenged Thrun’s sudden change in his core beliefs about MOOCs, nor his shift in views of higher education, which now appears to be as a vehicle for career preparation.

“We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you,” he [Sebastian Thrun] says. He adds that the university system will most likely evolve to shorter-form courses that focus more on professional development. “The medium will change,” he says.” November 2013,@FastCompany

Admitting mistakes, changing direction and re-focusing  efforts in times of rapid change is not a negative, but a necessity. One could argue that Thrun is doing just that — demonstrating adaptability and responsiveness.  However Thrun’s statements go beyond changing direction, they are disturbing, primarily because it appears it’s the pressure of being a CEO of a for-profit company that is behind his flip-flopping. Udacity is a for-profit venture, with venture capitalist behind it expecting a return on their investment, and sooner rather than later.

As recently as three months ago, Thrun said this…

“The thing I’m insanely proud of right now is I think we’ve found the magic formula,” he said in an interview last week. “Had you asked me three months ago, I wouldn’t have said that. I’m not at the point where everything is great. There are a lot of things to be improved, a lot of mistakes we’re making, but I see it coming together.”   August, 2013, Udacity CEO says Magic Formula Emerging

And this statement made four months ago in response to a question asked during an interview with MIT Technology Review IT Editor Rachel Metz at Udacity’s office in California:

Where do you hope Udacity is five years from now?

I think we’ll be just like a university, but we’ll be a university for the 21st century.   July, 2013, Sebastian Thrun on the Future of Learning

Closing
I stop here, as many other fellow bloggers and educators have shared their insightful thoughts and perspectives on this most startling announcement (links below). Though I’ll close with one of Thrun’s most revealing statements that demonstrates his shift from an academic perspective on the value of education, to a CEO-perspective of a for-profit company.

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Sebastian ThrunNovember 2013, @FastCompany

References:

Other:

Why MOOCs Are Hindering and Not Helping Higher Ed

mooc_web_final_wheel03The Chronicles’ web-diagram Major players in the MOOC Universe published this week, though beautiful to look at, adds to the confusion about what MOOCs are and are not. This confusion is no doubt a significant hindrance to constructive dialogue that educators are having about online learning; including how to leverage technology to improve access, quality and lower costs. The Chronicle is not alone in [unknowingly] promoting myths about MOOCs, which is not helping to move the discussions forward.

Several institutions and platforms associated with MOOCs quite often have little to do with MOOCs.  Khan Academy for instance, and even San Jose University’s pilot project San Jose State Plus are two programs that don’t follow the MOOC model. These misconceptions among others, divert attention away from the instructional and pedagogical models that can provide solutions. Online learning in small classes for example. Small online classes do not resemble MOOCs at all. The closed, online class, with a sound instructional plan, allows faculty to provide feedback and support to students, as well as provide opportunities for small group collaboration guided by the instructor. Another format, the blended model, combines face-to-face class time with web-based instruction. The blended model has proven to be effective in reducing costs and maintaining, and in some cases improving learning outcomes over traditional instructional methods. For further reading on blended learning click here.

San Jose Pilot Program: Not a MOOC
One significant error in recent articles, the Chronicles’ diagram included, is identifying San Jose State University as a MOOC player. There is a partnership between San Jose and Udacity as the link in the image shows, though the connection involves a pilot project with three math courses co-created between the two. Yet the courses are not MOOCs; they  don’t adhere to the MOOC model whatsoever. The classes in San Jose’s pilot were not massive—each had less than 100 students. Classes were closed—open only to high school students, community college students and members of the armed forces. Enrolled students participated within the schools’ learning platform where they could engage in discussion forums with the professor and peers. Yet the key differential was the academic support available to students. Students had access to a help line, instructor-facilitated peer meetings and even outreach counselors for those struggling with the content. Far from a MOOC, this model does provide the instructional support and feedback necessary for a successful college-level learning experience. Furthermore, San Jose’s pilot is an excellent example of a model for online learning that can be effective, though many outsiders are unaware of its instructional strategy.

Khan Academy: Also not a MOOC
Though Khan Academy is often described as a MOOC, it’s not even close. It’s not the first time that Khan Academy has been classified as a MOOC. Khan Academy is a robust library of open education resources that can be accessed by students, institutions, or anyone—for free. That’s it. It’s not a course with a start date and end date. Though it does include resources for teachers to build an instructional strategy of their own, the platform primarily is a repository for a collection of short videos that focus on a specific topic. No MOOCs here. Even Sal Khan emphasizes that his platform is not MOOC, but is what he calls a “transplantation” of a traditional course.

MOOC Players that Aren’t
Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke and founder of Hastac appears to be associated with the MOOC players as per The Chronicles’ diagram. Yet Dr. Davidson has little if anything to do with the MOOC movement. She was part of a small group that crafted a controversial Bill of Rights for online students, yet her involvement ends there. Davidson was quite surprised to find herself featured in the lineup of individuals associated with MOOCs in the web-diagram, describing it as “comical” in a blog post on Hastacs’ site—and even admits to feeling ambivalent towards MOOCs, with “more than a healthy degree of skepticism”.

Technology is a Tool
My point here is not to highlight all that is wrong with the web-diagram in question, or the reporting of the issues elsewhere, but to emphasize that misconceptions about online learning, MOOCS included, that are likely impeding constructive conversations within education circles. The Chronicle and other news organizations are not intentionally writing to deceive, but are caught up in MOOC mania as we all are. MOOCs will not solve the challenges of access, cost control and quality that institutions are struggling with, yet we need to be well informed about the technology, and what it can deliver.  It’s also helpful to remember that technological applications are tools to solve problems. The first step is identifying and analyzing what the problem is, determining the needs, then analyzing potential solutions thoroughly before jumping to a solution. Starting with the solution, and working backwards rarely works.

Pearls of the Week: News Educators Need-to-Know

Image representing Pearltrees as depicted in C...I’ve selected the weightiest of pearls [bookmarks] to share this week –  critical need-to-know information for educators about MOOCs and a new ed tech tool launched this week Google’s Course Builder. New developments in MOOCs are gaining momentum which are raising questions about credentialing in higher ed institutions, forcing discussions about their implications, and in some instances impacting policy decisions within universities. Course Builder on the other hand, may impact online education at a different level, and though this open-source software has garnered much attention and touted as a big opportunity for online education, I’m not convinced that this will be the case.

For those new to Pearltrees, pearls are bookmarks; noteworthy articles, blog posts and resources which I’ve collected and organized into a digital content collection tool Pearltrees. Pearling is the primary method I use to build my knowledge network. Click here to learn more.

MOOC Developments

1)  Moody’s: Massive open online courses carry mixed credit implications for Higher Ed.  Moody’s Investor Service, a respected research company that advises firms on credit ratings and financial risk, released a report this week, “Shifting Ground: Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities”. The fact that an investment advising service is weighing in on the MOOC discussion is significant – education is big business and MOOCs are the newest disruptor. Key points:

  • “Most universities will likely gravitate to a ‘mixed’ model that combines residential learning with the new technology, some will increasingly feature online course delivery, and some colleges may choose to create a niche by remaining focused solely on the traditional residential-classroom experience.”
  • “MOOCs and related technology have the potential to transform a university’s operations, academic and social programming, and pedagogical approach.”
  • The report is behind a pay wall – the price to download the full report is $550.00. Someone is making money from the MOOC movement. Click here to read the summary and/or to buy the report or here for the full article.

2)  A First for Udacity: A U.S. University Will Accept Transfer Credit for One of Its Courses. The decision by a university within the United States to accept transfer credit from a MOOC provider [Udacity] is big news. Colorado State University Global Campus announced last week that it will give full transfer credits (three credits) to students who successfully complete Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine offered by Udacity. Key points:

  • “Several European universities, including the University of Salzburg, the University of Freiburg, the Free University of Berlin, and the Technical University of Munich, have already given credit for an earlier Udacity course.” Click here for full story.
  • Related story: Colorado State to Offer Credits for Online Class, NYT

 3) edX Announces Option Of Proctored Exam Testing Through Collaboration With Pearson VUEWow. This is big news. edX, the joint online venture between Harvard, MIT and most recently UC Berkley, is planning on providing students with the option of taking a proctored exam at the end of a course (MOOC). The exam will need to be completed at a Pearson VUE testing center. When we consider the previous story about Udacity and colleges accepting credits from MOOCs, one can see the implications for higher education. Click here to read the Pearson VUE press release.

Google’s Course Builder

1) Google Releases Open-Source Online-Education Software. Google released an open-source platform this week, Course Builder which has the ability to create and host an online course on the Google platform. Here is Google’s statement, which accompanies the YouTube video introducing Course Builder.

Course Builder is our experimental first step in the world of online education. We hope you will use it to create your own online courses, whether they’re for 10 students or 100,000 students. Course Builder contains software and instructions for presenting your course material, including student activities and assessments ….To use it effectively, you should … [have] familiarity with HTML and JavaScript.”

I am a bit puzzled by this tool –  who really is the target market for Course Builder?  It seems to me that with so many other options available, and many already in place, why would one use Course Builder? Another consideration is users must have skills equivalent of a Web Master, know HTML and JavaScript to work with it.  I read an informative blog post by Phil Hill at e-literate about Course Builder, and he suggests that Google’s strategy is to break into the market of hosting MOOCs for big universities and MOOC providers with this application. This makes sense, given that most of the business of hosting MOOCs is currently with Amazon’s Web Services infrastructure. As I’ve said before, education is big business. Click here to read Phil Hill’s post.

If there is one thing that is constant, it is change. To view my entire collection of Pearls, visit my Pearltree page, which is open to anyone.

Cheating in a MOOC – an Oxymoron

This weekend I read an article in Forbes that suggested students cheating while taking a MOOC is a serious roadblock to providers of the new MOOCs, specifically  Udacity, Cousera and soon to be launched edX. This is misinformation at its finest. Cheating in a MOOC is an oxymoron, a contraction of terms, similar to an ‘open secret’ or the ‘original as a copy’, they don’t fit.

You can’t cheat in a MOOC
You can’t cheat in a MOOC. Well let me clarify, you can cheat while completing an auto-scored quiz or exam, or on an essay that might be peer reviewed, but It’s pointless. In this instance cheating does not serve any purpose. The courses are free, you can’t earn college credit, and are not part of a credential [at this point]. Furthermore MOOCs depend upon the learner being self-motivated, to learn for the sake of learning. Stephen Downes co-creator of the MOOC concept describes the MOOC better than anyone – in his personal blog half an hour,

“One big difference between a MOOC and a traditional course is that a MOOC is completely voluntary. You decide that you want to participate, you decide how to participate, then you participate. If you’re not motivated, then you’re not in the MOOC.” (Downes, 2012)

Misconceptions
Yet as MOOCs become high profile, in part due to Udacity, which launched the course Artificial Intelligence course and attracted over 100,000 eager learners worldwide, and Coursera another high profile MOOC provider, misconceptions abound. A recent article in Forbes Magazine, The University of Disruption (Anders, 2012) featuring Sebastian Thrun founder of Udacity, is no exception. The author discussed cheating, and students [obsessive] pursuit of the ‘A’…

“Another roadblock: making sure that grade-obsessed students don’t cheat by swapping answers among friends or setting up lots of dummy accounts….” (Anders, 2012)

A ‘different’ Learning Theory
However even though Mr. Anders doesn’t have it quite right [by not recognizing that grades shouldn’t matter in a MOOC], his point is worth considering. I suggest that it can be a starting point for future dialogue about how the model of Higher Ed has to change, and how MOOCs will fit into it.

We cannot compare the MOOC way of learning to ‘traditional’ face-to-face instruction. MOOCs are grounded in the theory of connectivism where learners connect through a network, a self creating network of relationships using tools on the Web. Knowledge creation in a MOOC is dynamic, created or constructed and is unique to each learner. Even Mr. Thrun, is vocal about the change needed in Higher Education – he views it as his mission to fix the ‘broken’ system (Anders, 2012).

Continuing the Dialogue…
The good news – there is constructive dialogue, discussion and analysis of MOOCs going on in Higher Ed circles, and it needs to continue. This past week, I participated in a very good Webinar A Practical Response to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which explored many issues that faculty are facing whether teaching MOOCs or not. I hope that we as educators can contribute to the dialogue, shape the future of MOOCs and the role they play in our institutions. Below are a few suggestions that I think we should consider so that we can be part of the conversation.

  • Discuss with fellow faculty, teachers and staff how MOOCs fit into your institution.
  • Enroll in a MOOC – I strongly suggest doing so – I’m currently participating in a MOOC through Cousera [Introduction to Sociology]. I’m learning quite a bit – not just about Sociology but about how MOOCs work [I’ll write a post at the conclusion of the course].
  • Participate in Webinars about MOOCs, listen to podcasts, watch panel discussions. I’ve also listed some links below that may be of interest for further reading.

If you have any ideas of how we can continue the dialogue in our own institutions, I would love to hear from you. It’s exciting times – change is inevitable. Cheating and MOOCs are just one small part of the big picture, but it’s a good place to start.

 Resources: