Advantages of Online Learning

I took a MOOC (free online course) and was impressed with the whole experience. The lecture was intriguing and lively, and delivered by a world-renowned MIT professor.  The platform was effective. (I wrote a blog about my experience Free Online Courses.)  The move to online courses is driven by not only cutting per student instruction costs and reaching a larger audience, but also creating a whole new learning environment.  (In this blog, I will draw insights from Mr. Bowen’s book Higher Education in the Digital Age[1].)

Online Learning
Online Learning

It is difficult to forecast where education will be in a few years because new technologies are evolving so fast. Online education platforms are being constructed to maximize learning potential; each of the MOOC consortiums has built an online course platform and expressed  a willingness to share it (page 59). Here are some advantages of an online learning experience:

  • Immediate feedback loops (page 73). Course instructors and designers have a significant amount of data collected from a system that they can use to make conclusions on the effectiveness of the course. For example, professors get immediate cues regarding how students understand key concepts from a fifteen minute lecture segment (where students are prompted with questions). Immediate feedback and the collection of data related to students’ interactions might revolutionize the higher education learning experience.
    • Students get feedback from the system. They have to answer questions correctly before moving on in lectures.
    • Teachers get feedback from the system. They learn the proportion of students answering question correctly the first time, and how much time it took them to get the right answer,
    • Course designers from the system.  They can understand what is working and not working with an online course, so improvements can be made.
  • Supporting content. As a student watches a course, they can mine information – articles, blogs, and definitions – related to what is being talked about in the lecture.
  • Global community. Most online courses are available to anyone with an internet connection and computer, so foreign students are welcome. Diversity enriches the learning experience for everyone.
  • Finely tuned, consistent lecture. Professors concentrate on delivering the best possible lecture for active learning. (They are not encumbered by giving the same lecture over and over again.)
  • Team of experts. Most online courses have a team of experts – a professor, guest speakers, and professionals – who work together to give the best instruction.
  • Continual learning opportunity. Professionals take online courses to continue building skills and knowledge, and are not necessarily earning a degree – “an education equivalent to booster shots” (page 44).
  • Personalized learning experience (only when there is a limited class size).  Based on feedback from the system, a professor tailors specific lesson plans to individual students. Personalized learning plans are making headway in early education.

One thing I like about online courses with a Skills-Based Approach is students take courses that relate to particular skills and knowledge related to their career. Students also have flexibility to take courses on their own schedule. And as mentioned above, professionals can take online courses throughout their career to continue building expertise with skills. Online learning promotes thinking skills rather than degrees.

[1] William G. Bowen (2013). Higher Education in the Digital Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Should Higher Education Institutions Find Students?

Should higher education institutions actively seek potential students while they are in high school? (I asked a similar question regarding employers seeking out employees and my answer was yes – it is a more efficient and effective way to place employees.) There are a few reasons why colleges should reach out to potential students.

  • Data on middle and high school students is accessible.  There are now web services that consolidate student data – contact information, test scores, grades, and curriculum planning – into a single platform.
    • One web service is offered by InBloom, which has $100 million in seed money and is backed by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. (The data is collected without parental consent.)[1] Currently, the focus is on personalized learning, however, InBloom permits third-parties to access its data stores so it is conceivable colleges could develop recruitment applications.
    • Another web service is offered by ConnectEdu, a company that is trying to bridge information sharing between public schools and colleges. They offer a recruitment platform colleges utilize to target students.
  • Colleges can participate in developing personalized learning plans for middle and high school students. Teenagers tailor the classes they take in high school based on input from colleges. For example, a teenager who demonstrates ability in English favors a more liberal arts track and one who demonstrates ability in STEM favors a more technical track. Moreover, teenagers can do things outside of the classroom – join a club, volunteer, or intern – to prepare for college and improve their chances of being accepted at one of their reach schools. Start the process of building skills and knowledge in high school.
  • Colleges communicate an interest and leave a lasting impression on high school students. Most students are unaware of the colleges that should be on their radar (especially smart, lower income students). Currently, the best indication comes from the results of SATs or ACTs tests. But these tests are unreliable and not the best predictor of a student’s performance in college. Personally, I wish I heard from a reach college while I was a freshman or sophomore in high school; it would have motivated me, started my maturation process earlier, and ultimately made me more self-aware.
  • Colleges have a better understanding of the preparedness of incoming students. Colleges mine for prospects at an earlier stage in their educational development and have a better grasp of their needs, which colleges can use to improve curriculums.
  • Colleges can more accurately predict which students will enroll after being accepted. This is important because students who are accepted into many colleges take away offers to other students.

In Higher Education in America, Derek Bok summarizes how high school students could share relevant information:

high school students reveal their interests, abilities, academic records, extracurricular activities, and other background data… colleges could mine the information. (page 135)[2]

LinkedIn is also entering into the fray by offering their professional networking services to teenagers and designing university pages. Their concept was recently released , so it is too early to predict its impact.

As these web services materialize, it will be interesting to see whether colleges start actively seeking out potential students. If they do, early high school students might employ a “pull approach” – where they pull colleges to a personal website to learn more about their skills, knowledge, interests, and values.

[1] Natasha Singer. “Deciding Who Sees Students’ Data.” New York Times, October 5, 2013.

[2] Derek Bok (2O13). Higher Education in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Things to Consider When Choosing Higher Education

After graduating from high school, most professionals make one of the most impactful decisions of their life: choosing higher education. Two-thirds of American high school graduates will enroll into some higher education program, where they expect to build the skills and knowledge necessary for their career. After they earn a bachelor’s degree, for an increasing number of professionals, the next step is attending a graduate program (masters or doctoral degrees) and, for the rest, the next step is entering the workforce (where many have to pay back debt for their education and must get employed as soon as possible). In this blog, I discuss some things to consider when choosing higher education.

A standard four-year bachelor’s degree includes two to three years of courses that relate to a particular major – business, history, computer science, pre-med, etc. – and one to two years of core and elective courses to satisfy a “general education requirement”, which is meant to: build transferable skills, understand civic responsibility, and explore interesting subjects. In Higher Education in America, Derek Bok sums up what employers are saying about job preparedness of college graduates regarding transferable skills:

Too many graduates cannot write clearly, think analytically, work collaboratively, deal with other people effectively, or observe proper ethical standards (page 2).

General   Education Requirement

College Type Requirements
SUNY Geneseo Public Liberal Arts General education requirements (20-22   credits), Breadth Requirements (21-23 credits).
RIT Private Technical Foundation courses (2   courses), perspectives (8 courses), and immersion (3 courses).
University of   Rochester Private   Comprehensive ‘Build your own’ curriculum; satisfy a   cluster (6 courses) divided as humanities, social sciences, and natural   sciences; Writing requirement (1 course).
University of   Buffalo Public Comprehensive Courses in writing,   math, natural and social sciences, humanities, and world civilizations.
University of   Phoenix For-Profit Courses in Science & Technology,   Humanities, Social Sciences, and Interdisciplinary.

General education requirements are under scrutiny, so college and universities are constantly tweaking their curriculum. University of Rochester has instituted a new approach, what they call the Rochester curriculum, where students can choose their own courses within a cluster. This is a good move because it promotes earning a minor or second major and gives students more leeway in choosing courses that build necessary skills.

  • The decision to attend a technical versus liberal arts institution is largely based on the degree a student is pursuing and whether he or she is planning to attend a graduate program. Technical institutions offer a wider variety of degrees in STEM fields. Although, if a student is planning to attend a graduate program, he or she might choose a more liberal arts focused degree. SUNY Geneseo, a small public liberal arts college has a large number of graduates who later earn a PHD in stem related fields.
  • The curriculum of technical, comprehensive, and technical institutions is largely the same where they offer the same degree. However, there are differences when filling electives related to the degree. Some colleges have concentrations within a degree, where a student can specialize in a particular technology, application, or field; some colleges build their reputation on these concentrations.
  • Considering the expense and increasing prevalence of technology and globalization in most disciplines, four year students should think about taking on a double major or a minor. Make every course market and differentiate a professional from his or her peers. For example, consider double majoring in business and information systems or education and a foreign language.
  • Be wise when deciding on electives. Make every course build desired skills and/or domain knowledge. Whether a professional presents their skills in LinkedIn or personal website, he or she can present skills based on courses they took; they can also provide samples of an important project they completed in the course. Besides the utility in presenting skills based on a course level (rather than a degree), it also makes financial sense to always build skills; courses often cost more than a thousand dollars.


I think ‘general education requirements’ can be commoditized through online learning channels, and might be the best way to lower higher education expense to college students (decreasing the number of tuition payments by up to two years).  Similarly, high school advance placement or community college courses can also be transferred in as credit towards a degree.

Perhaps make students responsible to learn ‘general education requirements’ on their own. For example, a student takes a series of MOOCs, earns an associate’s degree in their field, and then takes the CLA+ – a standardized test for college graduates. Employers can use the test results to compare candidates who have different types of degrees (associates versus bachelors) or do not have a degree.

As young adults decide on higher education, they should construct a list of target college and universities and review their required curriculum.  (Fortunately, this information is easily accessible on the internet.) Use a skills-based approach to come up with their desired skill set and then match courses with skills.

Truths Behind the Cost of Higher Education

Understanding the increase of cost in higher education over the past twenty years is a complex issue for many reasons. To learn about the higher education system, I am reading Higher Education in America by Derek Bok. This book answers many questions swirling around about our higher education system. Why are costs escalating so quickly? Are there fundamental problems with the system? Do graduates have the necessary skills and knowledge to enter the workforce? In this blog, I discuss issues related to the cost of higher education based on Mr. Bok’s expert analysis.[1]

Higher Education
Higher Education

First and foremost, there are many factors in the cost of higher education. The cost equation is not only paying professor salaries and giving them tenures (a target of many critics), but also managing administration costs that have risen more sharply than any of the other factors, providing a good quality of living for students who live on or near campus, and funding athletic programs (that in most cases lose money).

Second, the higher education system has thousands of players that compete on various levels. It does not make sense to compare costs across the board as if all colleges and universities market themselves the same way. Mr. Bok compares the higher education market to the auto market (page 112). Some consumers shop on lowest cost, some on the best value, some on quality, and some on the whole package (including all the bells and whistles). For example, a cost conscious consumer considers a community college, in-state public colleges, or a college with the best financial aid package while a whole package consumer considers colleges that offer the best experience – a decision that might come down to the quality of food in the dining halls or how modern their workout facilities are. Obviously, how colleges and universities perceive the need to cut costs varies considerably.

Third, online learning channels are gaining in popularity and may be a way to lower costs; however, it is too early to assess their efficiency. Some higher education institutions do not want to take away from the on campus experience, so have introduced online classes where the instruction is online but you complete the homework and assignments in a classroom. As far as higher education institutions reaching a larger off campus audience, online courses might fray per student instruction cost (though as mentioned above, there are other bigger cost factors).

Fourth, for profit institutions are able to charge a lower tuition and more of their students qualify for financial aid. However, the quality of education is being scrutinized regarding job placement and high dropout rates – only 22% of students graduate within 6 years (page 104).

Fifth, public colleges and universities receive subsidies from the state to support the community. This lowers the cost for in-state students, and often gives states influence in decisions made by the college. Alternatively, private institutions have little meddling of their affairs by state governments.

Sixth, some institutions receive funding for research and development from state and/or federal government. This can be a huge stimulus for developing cutting edge technologies, getting students employed after graduation, and stimulating the surrounding community. For example, SUNY Albany is receiving significant aid to build an infrastructure for nanotechnology – something expected to transform all of upstate New York. Whether it is reflected in the cost of education, investment in research and development has future payoffs.

 Finally, the US higher education system is the best in the world. So as you try to fix cost problems, you do not want to disrupt something that already works in many ways.

For most, choosing the right higher education is a crucial consideration during the planning and building stages of a skills-based approach. After graduating from high school, professionals’ primary focus in life is building skills necessary for their career. They commit to building a combination of transferable and technical skills – a skill set – so they are prepared to enter the workforce or continue on to a graduate level education. Investment in higher education is often on par with buying a house (likewise, the accumulation of debt). There are a growing number of learning channels that offer cheaper ways to build skills, such as MOOCs, online badges, and apprenticeships and they might work for some professionals, but they do not have the holistic benefit of a traditional college experience.  Most Americans aspire to obtain a college degree, which Obama backs up with his initiative to raise the number of Americans with some sort of college degree to 60 percent by 2020 (page 89).

[1] Derek Bok (2O13). Higher Education in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.