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One Small Step for a Course; One Giant Leap for MOOCs

Posted on September 20th, 2012, by Leave a comment

Colorado State University’s Global Campus recently became the first American university to decide to grant transfer credits to students who have completed a massively open online course (MOOC).  Specifically, they are granting credit to those students who completed Udacity’s “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine” and took a proctored test.  This is a small, but very significant step in the quest to get the learning undertaken in online MOOCs to be recognized by major American universities as credit-worthy.

Two of the biggest MOOC providers, Udacity and EdX, have recently come to agreements with Pearson VUE for students to take proctored exams in locations where identity can be verified and potential cheating monitored.  This service comes with a fee of $89, according to the New York Times.  The clear benefit is that students are able to obtain college credit towards a degree for only $89, saving a substantial amount of money from the costs of tuition and other higher education expenses.

If MOOCs are to stay relevant in the world of higher education, they must adjust to offer some sort of official results that are recognized by other schools and by employers as valid.  They would offer an excellent platform from which students can learn the basics of many fields as well as potentially the more advanced concepts of some areas as well.  In the humanities and laboratory sciences, however, that require more face-to-face time, students will still need to meet in smaller groups to truly grasp the finer details of their field, but MOOCs would still offer a very good starting point from which students can learn the background necessary to build upon in later studies.  On top of being able to offer these courses to large numbers of students, MOOCs can do so at a much lower cost than traditional colleges.  If post-secondary education were to start off at MOOCs, whose classes can be transferred in as prerequisites at traditional schools, students would be able to complete their degrees while spending less time at a traditional college and, thus, at less cost.

Stumbling Towards Transparency?

Posted on September 18th, 2012, by Leave a comment

The American History Association has passed down a new recommendation calling for increased transparency among post-graduate history programs concerning job placement. The AHA wants this information to be publically available so that undergraduates and other potential applicants to a specific program know the facts about future career prospects in their intended fields of study. Many schools already provide some sort of list, but these are usually very inadequate, only reporting the highlights from a graduating class while not showing graduates who are unemployed or underemployed. This recommendation is particularly timely considering the very poor state of the job market for liberal arts academics, particularly in history-related fields.

Some historians have gone so far as to call for a reduction in the acceptance rate of graduate students to bring the number of PhDs more into align with the job market. Another option is the restructuring of history graduate programs to remove the perceived stigma of non-academic careers, such as museum curatorship, from many departments across the country. Many historians, however, are not so open to change. They point out the AHA has suggestion power only and cannot enforce its recommendations of transparency. While true, this kind of closed-minded thinking leads to the maintenance of an unsustainable status quo among historians. Department administrators must approach issues of post-graduate admissions differently than in the past in the face of major changes in the academic landscape.

Despite foot-dragging by history department administrators, the AHA is to be commended for its pursuit of transparency and is a model for academic groups across disciplines. By making information such as job placement of alumni publically available, potential students will have greater information before they apply. By providing information on the outputs of a program (i.e., job placement, income, etc), universities will give their prospective students the tools they need to make a decision on which school would serve their goals best.

The Real Significance of MOOCs

Posted on September 14th, 2012, by Leave a comment

It seems to me that the real danger to the traditional, degree-based model of higher education posed by Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) lies not so much in the possibility that MOOCs might provide a dramatically lower cost alternative for obtaining a degree (or even more broadly, higher learning). Rather, MOOCs can do more damage to the traditional model by revealing its weaknesses. Take, for instance, the results of an edX survey of its MOOC students (as reported by Steve Kolowich for InsideHigherEd this week):

perhaps the most interesting piece of data is that 80 percent of respondents said they had taken a “comparable” course at a traditional university prior to working their way through Circuits & Electronics.

Of that 80 percent, nearly two-thirds said the MOOC version was better than the “comparable” course they claimed to already have taken. Only 1 percent said it was worse.

Now perhaps this result is an artifact reflecting that prior familiarity with material is more important than the platform through which the material is presented, in terms of student perceptions. On the other hand, if the quality of instruction and material is indistinguishable between an MOOC and a traditional class, colleges and universities will have even more trouble explaining to a concerned public why the tuition bill must be measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Academic Integrity, Part 4: Cheating in Online Courses

Posted on September 14th, 2012, by 1 Comment

As online courses become more and more prevalent in the world of higher education, professors and administrators must heighten their awareness of new forms of cheating and attempt to overcome the challenges presented by students in a remote location.  Without the familiarity of a classroom setting, even that of a massive lecture hall, there is little to no guarantee that the students enrolled for an online class are actually the ones doing the work or that they are doing the work without inappropriate outside help.  While much of the information about cheating in online courses remains anecdotal, it is quite clear that it is becoming quite a large problem.  Some of this however, can be avoided if professors rethink the format of the classes they offer online.  Some students, of course, will always attempt to cheat the system, but, as it stands now, cheating in online courses is facilitated by a lack of employment of strategy to combat the problem.

One particular problem deals with the potential for cheating on homework from online courses.  While this generally is viewed as a more minor infraction than, say, cheating on an exam or a paper, cheating on assigned homework may be indicative of a larger problem.  It also certainly is an example of how students can be self-destructive when it comes to their own education.  The student’s goal appears to be the degree, not the education.  No one thinking rationally would expect to be able to lose weight and to become physically fit without a strenuous exercise routine.  The same is true of education.  Learning takes time.  It is not something that can be meaningfully done in a cram session or through dishonest methods.  Students may be able to scam the system in introductory level courses, but as classes progress, the building blocks established early on in education will be missing and ultimately a cheating student will fail.

On a more basic level, students in online courses lack the incentives to complete work that students in face-to-face class settings have.  One study demonstrates that students in online courses hardly ever complete ungraded assignments offered in the class.  In a traditional class, the assignment might be reviewed in class and thus a student might be encouraged to complete it.  In an online class, however, the peer pressure to complete an assignment so as not be unprepared for class is nonexistent.  Online classrooms, in this instance, do not promote learning as well as a traditional classroom.

Even graded homework assigned in an online setting is prone to cheating.  Surveys show that as many as 43 percent of students admit to cheating on homework by obtaining some unauthorized outside help.  A study by a professor at California Polytechnic State University shows that when there is a technological buffer between the student and the assignment students tend to not view their actions as cheating.

Cheating in online courses is, of course, not limited to homework.  It extends to exams as well.  A recent blog by Jeffrey R. Young of the Chronicle details the methods some students have used to cheat on online exams to assure they would receive an A.  Students have had the value of good grades driven into their heads, but grades are not an end to themselves.  This point has been forgotten by many students and even by many educators.  Grades are a metric of how much a student has learned and should be treated as such.  For grades to have meaning, they must reflect real learning, not just rote fulfillment of credit requirements.

Academic Integrity, Part 3: Combating Plagiarism

Posted on September 13th, 2012, by Leave a comment

The difficulties in dealing effectively with plagiarism pose a very large problem for college educators who struggle to find the balance between policing cheating in their classroom while still fulfilling their primary duty of educating those students who actually desire to be there.  As referenced in my earlier blog on custom essays, a long-running study at Clemson University found that 62 percent of undergraduates have cheated in some way on a college written assignment.  One common method used by many professors is the software Turnitin.  This program, used by over 10,000 institutions worldwide, takes a student’s paper and compares to known publications and to other students’ papers to determine the originality of the document.

Turnitin, therefore, seems almost like a miracle drug to cure the ills of plagiarism.  This, however, is certainly not the case.  Software like Turnitin certainly leads to its own issues, some of which are inherent in the program’s shortcomings while others are due to outside difficulties.  Turnitin’s website states that its databases include 20 billion websites, 220 million student papers and 100 million articles from textbooks and other publishers.  While this certainly seems impressive, Google lists over 1 trillion websites, so Turniton’s database only represents a fraction of the information that is available.  If teachers fall into the trap of relying entirely on Turnitin to catch every instance of plagiarism as opposed to their own intuition and expertise, they are taking a very large chance that cheaters will fall through the cracks.  Turnitin is also vulnerable to being fooled by copying and pasting followed by reliance on a thesaurus to vary to exact wording from an original without actually representing any of the student’s original work.

Other more unseen difficulties exist when it comes to policing plagiarism in a college classroom.  This is clearly demonstrated in the story of New York University computer science professor, Panagiotis Ipeirotis who published a blog entitled “Why I will never pursue cheating again” in 2011.  The post was subsequently taken down but not before it caused quite a stir.  Ipeirotis used the Turnitin software and caught 22 of 108 students cheating in the process.  This resulted in substantial amounts of class time being dedicated to addressing plagiarism which took away from the primary goals of the class.  Students who were not cheating in his class became disillusioned as was evidenced in his lower than usual performance on student evaluations.  Ipeirotis’ experience led him to be less effective as a teacher.

How, then, are professors supposed to deal with plagiarism in their classrooms?  One strategy that has been attempted time and again, but rarely frequently enough to have any lasting impact is to educate students on what plagiarism is, why it is a big deal and how to avoid it.  Without a clear understanding of the nature of their infraction, there is little reason for students to be careful about plagiarism.  While this may not dissuade the most serious offenders, a thorough education and frequent reminders of cheating may help prevent students from rationalizing their behavior or from plagiarizing accidentally.  In order to counteract more serious culprits, Professor Ipeirotis advises making assignments that are more difficult to plagiarize by arranging for papers to be turned in publically so as to add a degree of peer-enforcement.  While this may work in some cases, it may put some students at a distinct disadvantage if they are inherently self-conscious about their writing in the first place.  On the other hand, if assignments were worded in such a way to require students use the materials from lecture or other assignments, some methods of cheating such as the custom essay would become much less effective.

When dealing with plagiarism, professors have a very difficult line to tread attempting to police cheating while still maintaining an open environment in which learning may be encouraged.  The tragedy in all of this, as with all cheating, is that honest students get shorted of their professor’s attentions and time.  If for no other reason, cheating must be discouraged for the sake of the honest students.

TPPF Launches New Higher Ed Site

Posted on September 12th, 2012, by Leave a comment

Today the Texas Public Policy Foundation announced that it is launching a new website, The site is will feature writings on higher education reform from a variety of educators and policy analysts, including CCAP’s own Joshua Hall and Ronald Trowbridge (Trowbridge is also Assistant Editor of Richard Vedder will also occasionally contribute, starting with a piece published today titled, “American Higher Education: Is It in Crisis?” We look forward to seeing our readers over at SeeThruEdu!

Academic Integrity, Part 2: Custom Essays

Posted on September 12th, 2012, by 3 Comments

Two years ago, the Chronicle for Higher Education posted a blog written by Ed Dante, “The Shadow Scholar.”  This article caused quite a stir with coverage from major news outlets such as the New Yorker, the New York Times and ABC News.  In his article, Dante claims to have written over 5,000 pages of scholarship for every level of scholarship and in almost every field and, yet, he does not get credit for any of it.  The credit, the grade and the degree go to his clients who pay him to do their work for them.  According to International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, 62 percent of undergraduate students admit to have cheated on written assignments.  That may be simply copying and pasting from another source to the more extreme buying custom essays from services like that of The Shadow Scholar.

A simple Google search for “custom essays” reveal pages upon pages of companies that offer assistance to the struggling student for a price.  Many of these sites offer a “100% Plagiarism Free” guarantee in the attempt to convince the potential client that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing.  Some have written in defense of this service blaming universities and professors for “forcing people to do things they do not want to do.”  This writer argues that “shadow scholarship… is nothing more than a service provided to students who are looking to reduce the inefficiencies of their state-dictated education.”

A recent Wall Street Journal article explored the benefits a liberal arts education can have for business majors, a group who notoriously have shunned things like essay writing in their curriculum in favor of concentrating on the nuts and bolts of the business world.  Some business leaders, however, have begun to complain about the lack of critical thinking skills.  These skills are sharpened and honed by the hallmarks of a liberal education, such as essay writing, debates, argument dissection, etc.

Through use of services like the Shadow Scholar, students deprive themselves of the skills that would serve them well in later life even if they do not recognize it at the time.  If a student, for example, is required to take a classics course, the question often arises as to why he should care about the ancient Greeks or Romans.  It is often difficult for students to see that while studying Ptolemy and Caesar, they are, in fact, learning to create a logical whole out of seemingly disjointed pieces of evidence.  The ability to reason logically is of profound importance to almost anyone in any field.  The liberal arts are the tool by which students develop their ability to reason.

Beyond the ability to reason, another skill developed in the process of essay writing and other such college educational tools is the obvious: writing.  I do not necessarily mean writing literature, poetry or even research papers, but rather that of a much more mundane variety: emails, memos and the like.  These forms of communication may not seem like they require much in the way of training, but a formal education which includes writing surely helps to improve the clarity and content of these documents.  In a world where face-to-face communication occurs less and less frequently in favor of electronic, written communication, the ability to be clear and succinct is of utmost importance.

Academic Integrity: Part 1

Posted on September 11th, 2012, by Leave a comment

Baseball’s Steroid Era has been a black eye for the sport causing a drastic change in the way fans see the game.  Exciting events such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s race for Roger Maris’ vaunted 61 single season home run record in 1998 and Barry Bonds’ surpassing of Henry Aaron’s hallowed 755 career home runs are now viewed with suspicion (at best) and quite possibly as illegitimate.  The rampant use of performance enhancing drugs in the national pastime has led to well-publicized hearings in Congress, several trials featuring some of the game’s elite and a complete reworking of the sport’s testing policy which put in place very severe punishments for failing a drug test.  The ill-gained competitive advantage gained by the use of steroids in baseball caused a public outcry against cheating in one of the United States’ most revered traditions.

Why then, when we cannot stand cheating in such venues as Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, do we sit by idly while performance enhancers routinely reside in the classrooms of our colleges and universities.  These things may not be drugs, but certainly are intended to give students a competitive advantage?  They include illicitly gained answer keys, custom essays, using the internet to find answers for a take-home exam and any other number of cheating methods employed by students.  Studies such as Klein et al. (2006) demonstrate that approximately 7 out of 10 American college students cheat.  The reasons students cheat are primarily to gain a perceived advantage in gaining access to limited positions in business, government, medicine, etc.  Students who might otherwise be indisposed to cheat have been driven to in order to maintain a “level playing field.”  For many of these students, the point of a college education seems to be simply to get a post-graduate career, as opposed to obtaining the skills and knowledge offered by their school that would benefit them in the future.  College, therefore, has become a hoop that must be jumped through before a meaningful career can commence.  It is a great tragedy of modern American education that our students do not recognize the value of the education they are meant to receive.

As demonstrated in Klein et al. (2006), one of the biggest problems with student cheating and getting a firm grasp on the subject lies in the differentiation between those actions that are illegitimate cheating and those that are legitimate help.  Websites like purport to offer services that help students complete their course work in a timely manner.  However, these services are often used as a substitute for learning as opposed to actual aids.  It is here that the difference between cheating and help lies: the student’s intent.  If, in seeking help, they legitimately wish to further their learning and to deepen their understanding of a subject, then it does not fall into the category of cheating.  If a student attempts to gain some advantage over fellow students by bringing in outside sources not permitted by the instructor, implicitly or explicitly, it constitutes cheating.

In the following series of blogs, I will examine and address some of the more current and relevant issues in academic integrity.  I will look into some of the more prevalent and technology driven forms of cheating, including academic dishonesty in online classes and the numerous custom essay sites that have sprung up online.  I will also look into methods being used to combat cheating in major American universities, such as the plagiarism detecting software Turnitin and the tried and true Honor Code.  From there, I will explore some potential options for dealing with cheating as an institutional problem.  While there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution, there are numerous improvements that can be made to more effectively deal with academic dishonesty and the gaining of unfair advantage by one student over another.

CCAP in the News

Posted on September 11th, 2012, by Leave a comment

Bloomberg Businessweek examined student-loan debt and the burden it places on students. After students hear that student-loan debt is “good debt” and college is sold as something with guaranteed value, the reality sometimes isn’t as rosy. Writer Peter Coy quotes Richard Vedder:

Some day, low-cost online education that requires zero student borrowing may displace a big chunk of today’s entrenched establishment. The fact that it hasn’t yet says a lot about the durability of colleges and universities, several of which predate the country’s founding. Rather than places of learning, colleges have become expensive screening mechanisms. It’s not what you learn in four years at Harvard University that impresses potential employers; it’s the fact that you got into Harvard in the first place.

So maybe the real problem is that credentialism has trumped learning. That drives people to get degrees simply to displace others who don’t have degrees, says Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He notes that the U.S. has more than 100,000 janitors with college degrees and 16,000 degree-holding parking lot attendants.

* * *

A Newsweek cover story by Megan McArdle on college as an investment heavily quotes Richard Vedder:

The price of a McDonald’s hamburger has risen from 85 cents in 1995 to about a dollar today. The average price of all goods and services has risen about 50 percent. But the price of a college education has nearly doubled in that time. Is the education that today’s students are getting twice as good? Are new workers twice as smart? Have they become somehow massively more expensive to educate?

Perhaps a bit. Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor who heads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, notes that while we may have replaced millions of filing clerks and payroll assistants with computers, it still takes one professor to teach a class. But he also notes that “we’ve been slow to adopt new technology because we don’t want to. We like getting up in front of 25 people. It’s more fun, but it’s also damnably expensive.”

Vedder adds, “I look at the data, and I see college costs rising faster than inflation up to the mid-1980s by 1 percent a year. Now I see them rising 3 to 4 percent a year over inflation. What has happened? The federal government has started dropping money out of airplanes.” Aid has increased, subsidized loans have become available, and “the universities have gotten the money.” Economist Bryan Caplan, who is writing a book about education, agrees: “It’s a giant waste of resources that will continue as long as the subsidies continue.”…

“We have an academic arms race going on,” says Vedder. “Salaries have done pretty well. Look at the president of Yale. Compare his salary now with his salary in 2000.” In 2000, Richard Levin earned $561,709. By 2009, it was $1.63 million. “A typical university today has as many administrators as faculty.”

Vedder also notes the decrease in teaching loads by tenured faculty, and the vast increase in nonacademic amenities like plush dorms and intercollegiate athletics. “Every campus has its climbing wall,” he notes drily. “You cannot have a campus without a climbing wall.”…

Ah, but how do we get there from here? With better public policy, hopefully, but also by making better individual decisions. “Historically markets have been able to handle these things,” says Vedder, “and I think eventually markets will handle this one. If it doesn’t improve soon, people are going to wake up and ask, ‘Why am I going to college?’?”

* * *

Associate Director Josh Hall spoke to The Fiscal Times concerning the effect of college dormitories on rising tuition:

“If you look at the demographics, all of higher ed is fighting over fewer students,” says Joshua Hall of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Students who can pay full fare, without need-based tuition discounts and substantial school aid, are especially in demand. And they’re the ones most selective in their shopping for a school, he adds.

All of the extras have to be paid for by someone. From 2001 to 2011, average room and board at public four-year colleges rose by about 3 percent a year beyond the rate of inflation, according to data from the College Board. But Hall says the increased housing costs also may be leaking over into tuition increases, which have averaged almost 6 percent a year above inflation at those schools in the last decade: “If you have [high-end dorms], you can get people who are willing to pay more and so you’re able to charge a higher [tuition] price.”

Hall also believes the growth of student loans may be making it easier for students to make expensive choices now that they may be sorry for later. As of the first quarter of this year, the average student loan balance is more than $24,000, and the student loan total now exceeds credit card debt. On-campus room and board at public 4-year colleges costs $8,887 a year on average, according to the College Board, so with a 6.8 percent interest on loans, the price of that first year on campus turns into $12,273 before adjusting for inflation by the end of a 10-year repayment term—a 38 percent increase.

 * * *

California Watch interviewed Richard Vedder for an article on students subsidizing other students and the questions of fairness such practices raise:

“Schools have become more aggressive in this income-redistribution aspect of higher education,” said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C. “There’s an economic-theory dimension to this, which is that there’s always a small class of students who have a lot of money, and the income-maximizing enrollment manager wants to zap it to these kids.”…

“At the large research universities, the subsidization of graduate students is monstrously large,” Vedder said. “A student in a Ph.D. program sits in seminars of six and eight students taught by a professor making $150,000 a year and gets an extremely costly education. At the same university, the freshman who’s taking Introduction to Psychology, Introduction to Economics, sitting in lectures of 400 people – these kids are paying the same tuition.”


The Harvard Cheating Scandal

Posted on September 6th, 2012, by Leave a comment

While we await the final verdict of Harvard’s investigation into allegations of widespread cheating  in the undergraduate “Introduction to Congress” class, there has been quite a bit of public discussion over what needs to be done about a problem of such “unprecedented… scope and magnitude,” to borrow the wording of Harvard undergraduate dean Jay Harris.

If I do not miss my guess, Harvard’s solution to this scandal will be to institute a new required course. Of course, I offer this partly in jest, but I should note that the university did inform the New York Times that “it planned to increase efforts to teach students about academic integrity.” Higher education is not particularly good at some things, but it is incontestable that higher ed is second to none when it comes to offering courses on any conceivable subject. Why should the topic of cheating be any different? Will such a new course solve the problem? I’m not so sure but from higher ed’s perspective, it is the perfect antidote. After all, a whole class is a whale of a lot more coverage than just a simple honor code. Plus, Harvard would be able to charge tuition for the class.