July 23, 2014

Guest blog: MOOCs: Disruptor or Indicator of Something Deeper?

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Guest blogger: Nicole Christen

Guest blogger: Nicole Christen

Introduction

I don’t usually do guest blogs, and when I do it’s always because I know they will be of the highest quality – and I NEVER accept unrequested guest blogs from people I don’t know.

However, I was a participant in a study on MOOCs by Nicole Christen for a paper as part of her Master in Educational Technology program at the University of British Columbia. She kindly sent me a copy of her final paper. I was so struck by the quality of this paper and its significance that I immediately asked her if she would be willing to provide a summary in the form of a blog post. Here is the summary of her paper. I found no need to change it. I strongly recommend though that you read the paper in full, which is available here.

Nicole Christen

MOOCs: Disruptor or Indicator of Something Deeper?

Why have massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, established a stronghold in the educational marketplace? Are they responsible for disrupting the traditional system of higher education? And, how can post-secondary institutions survive the changes taking place?

In the summer of 2013, amidst the early hype surrounding MOOCs, I conducted a qualitative research project. My objective was to explore the motivations driving institutions to launch MOOCs and join MOOC consortiums. MOOCs have been labeled as a disruptive force to the traditional system of post-secondary education; however, my research argues otherwise. MOOCs, themselves, are not the source of disruption. Deeper forces are at work.

About My Research Project

In order to understand the reasons behind the rapid implementation of MOOCs by post-secondary institutions, I interviewed educational technology thought leaders from around the world whose areas of expertise included distance learning and open learning at the post-secondary level. During each 30 minute interview, I asked a series of questions designed to help me identify common underlying themes surrounding MOOCs and the overall concept of open learning. The themes extrapolated from my interview data provide a solid overview of fundamental shifts that have occurred as a result of the technological revolution and remain relevant regardless of any changes to MOOCs that have taken place since this research was conducted.

Forces Driving the MOOC Movement

Media hype that portrays MOOCs as an all-powerful disruptive force overlooks the underlying factors behind the adoption of MOOCs. In particular, the post-secondary marketplace is becoming increasingly driven by learner desires. Self-directed, distance education at the post-secondary level has existed for decades; however, the relative ease with which people around the world can now access the Internet, has created a tipping point. In many cases, learners are no longer as limited by geographical boundaries or technological limitations. Open learning initiatives, such as MOOCs, remove financial barriers as well. Instead, learners can (and do) go where their needs will best be met. The educational marketplace is becoming learner-driven.

Interpretations and Implications

Why, then, are MOOCs significant? Because MOOCs are a clear indicator that the realm of post-secondary education is changing as a result of advances in technology. The shift from a top-down, institution driven marketplace to one where a learner can use technology to create a  personalized, piecemeal learning experience from multiple institutions requires institutions to ask themselves what they offer learners that is unique. If one institution meets a unique need, and can fulfill this need on a mass scale for learners better than any other institution, then other institutions need to find a different competitive edge.

Furthermore, if MOOCs become a viable educational option (viable in the sense that employers begin to value emerging credentialing systems created by MOOC providers), then there is a real risk that MOOCs will encroach upon the territory of undergraduate education. Post-secondary institutions rely on heavy enrollment of first and second year students to fund their operations and programs. Losing first and second year students to MOOCs will be detrimental to any institutions.

With that said, according to many of the people I interviewed, there will always a be place for research universities and Ivy league schools. These research-based schools fulfill a market need for an element of prestige attached to credentials, networking opportunities with leaders in the field of study, and the opportunity to conduct innovative research. The institutions most at risk of losing students to online and open learning initiatives are those that simply disseminate information generated elsewhere (typically from prestigious research-based institutions).

Given the potential impact of MOOCs, they can certainly be classified as disruptive; however, they are not a disruptor. The shift toward a learner-directed marketplace, widespread access to high-speed Internet, and the ever-increasing global network of information are the true disruptive forces. If MOOCs had not emerged, then some other form of open learning would have emerged to meet the need for low-cost access to educational resources.

Additionally, MOOCs may not be a lasting phenomenon, especially because a sustainable model for operation has yet to be proven; however, if their popularity fades, another innovative open learning opportunity will arise. Things will not go back to the way they were. The demand for open learning will not disappear.

How can institutions survive the disruption taking place in post-secondary education?

My hope is that my research can provide a starting point for institutions to explore the ways in which they can withstand the changes taking place within post-secondary learning by exploring new niches to fill and discovering which specific learner needs they are best equipped to meet. For example, open learning programs (such as MOOCs) often provide information in a way that can be considered akin to a free, interactive textbook. Certain institutions can build on MOOCs by providing classes that help students understand the material being presented to them. In essence, the institutional programs would complement MOOCs.  The most important take-away from my research is that the conditions which have lead to the rise of MOOCs have also created new gaps in the educational marketplace, opening the door for many other innovative approaches to adult education.

My formal research report is titled Open Online Learning: This Changes Everything and can be found at http://nicolechristen.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Open-Online-Learning.pdf

Bio: Nicole Christen is a digital media strategist and a recent graduate from the Master of Educational Technology program at UBC. Read more about Nicole’s professional background and areas of interest at www.nicolechristen.com/portfolio.

Submitting a doctoral thesis on online learning? Some things to keep in mind

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© Relativity Media, 2011

© Relativity Media, 2011

Old people often complain that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, that standards are falling, and it used to be better in our day. Having examined over 40 doctoral students over the last 45 years, often as the external examiner, it would be easy for me to fall into that trap. On the contrary, though, I am impressed with the quality of theses I have been examining recently, partly because of the quality of the students, partly because of the quality of the supervision, and partly because online learning and educational technology in general have matured as a field of study.

However, one advantage of being old is that you begin to see patterns or themes that either come round every 10 years or so or never go away, and that certainly applies to Ph.D. theses in this field. So I thought I might offer some advice to students as to what examiners tend to look for in theses in this field, although technically it should be the supervisors doing this, not me.

Who’s being examined: student or supervisor?

When I have failed a student (which is rare but has happened) it’s ALWAYS been because the standard of supervision was so poor that the student never stood a chance. Somewhat more frequently (although still fairly uncommon), the examiners’ recommendation was pass with substantial revision, or ‘adequate’ in some European countries. Both these classifications carry a significant message to the academic department that the supervisor(s) weren’t doing their job properly. (Although to be fair, in at least one case the thesis was submitted almost in desperation by the department, because the student had exhausted all his many different supervisors, and was running out of the very generous time allowed to submit.)

So the good news, students, is that, despite what might appear to be the opposite, by the time it comes to submitting your thesis for exam, the university is (or should be) 100 per cent behind you in wanting to get you through. (In recent years, this pressure from the university on examiners to pass students sometimes appears to be almost desperate, because a successful Ph.D. may carry a very significant weight towards the performance indicators for the university.)

Criteria for success

So at the risk of over-simplification, here is my advice for students, in particular, on what I, as an examiner, tend to look for in a thesis, starting with the most important. My comments apply mainly, but not exclusively, to traditional, research-based theses.

Level 1.

I have three main criteria which MUST be met for a pass:

  • is it original?
  • does it demonstrate that the student is capable of conducting independent research?
  • does the evidence support the conclusions drawn in the thesis?

Originality

The minimum a doctoral thesis must do is tell me something that was not already known in the field. Now this can still be what students often see as a negative outcome: their main hypothesis is found to be false. That’s fine, if it is a commonly held hypothesis in the field. (Example: digital natives are different from digital immigrants: no evidence was found for this in the study.) If it disproves or questions current wisdom, that’s good, even if the result was not what you were expecting. In fact, that’s really good, because the ‘null hypothesis’ – I’m trying to prove my hypothesis is false - is a more rigorous test than trying to find evidence to support something you actually thought to be true before you started the research (see Karl Popper (1934) on this).

Competence in research

For students, there are three good reasons for doing a Ph.D.:

  • because you want an academic position in a university or college
  • because you want to work as a full-time researcher outside the university
  • because you have a burning question to answer (e,.g.: what’s best done face-to-face, and what online, when teaching quantum physics?)

However, the main purpose of a Ph.D. (as distinct from other post-graduate qualifications) from a professional or institutional perspective is to enable students to conduct independent research. Thus the thesis must demonstrate this competency. In a sense, it is a trust issue: if this person does research, we should be able to trust him or her to do it within the norms and values of the subject discipline. (This is why it is stupid to even think of cheating by falsifying data or plagiarism: if found out, you will never get an academic job in a university, never mind the Ph.D.)

Evidence-based conclusions

My emphasis here is on ensuring that appropriate conclusions are drawn from whatever evidence is used (which should include the literature review as well as the actual data collected). If for instance the results are contrary to what might be expected from the literature review, some explanation or discussion is needed about why there is this difference. It may have to be speculative, but such contradictions need to be addressed and not ignored.

Level 2

Normally (although there will be exceptions) a good thesis will also meet the following criteria:

  • there is a clear narrative and structure to the thesis
  • there is a clear data audit trail, and all the raw/original data is accessible to examiners and the general public, subject to normal privacy/ethical requirements
  • the results must be meaningfully significant

Narrative and structure

Even in an applied thesis, this is a necessary component of a good thesis. The reader must be able to follow the plot – and the plot must be clear. The usual structure for a thesis in our field is:

  • identification of an issue or problem
  • review of relevant previous research/studies
  • identification of a research question or set of questions
  • methodology
  • results
  • conclusions and discussion.

However, other structures are possible. In an applied degree, the structure will or should be different, but even so, the reader in the main body of thesis should be able to follow clearly the rationale for the study, how it was conducted, the results, and the conclusions.

Data audit

Most – but not all – theses in the educational technology field have an empirical component. Data is collected, analysed and interpreted. All these steps have to be competently conducted, whether the data is mainly quantitative, qualitative or both. This usually means ensuring that there is a clear trail linking raw data through analysis into conclusions that can be followed and checked easily by a diligent reader (in this case, the examiners). This is especially important with qualitative data, because it is easy to cherry-pick comments that support your prior prejudices or assumptions while ignoring those that don’t fit. As an examiner, I do want access to raw data, even if it’s in an appendix or an online database.

However, I am also willing to accept a thesis that is pure argument. Nevertheless, this is a very risky option because this means offering something that is quite original and which can be adequately defended against the whole collective wisdom of the field. In the field of educational technology, it is hard to see how this can be done without resorting to some form of empirical evidence – but perhaps not impossible.

Significance of the research question and results

This is often the best test of how much the thesis is mainly the work of the supervisor and how much the student. A good supervisor can more or less frogmarch a student through the various procedural steps in doing a doctoral thesis, but what the supervisor cannot – or should not – provide is the original spark of a good research question, and the ability to see the significance of the study for the field as a whole. This is why orals are so important – this is the place to say why your study matters, but it also helps if you address this at the beginning and end of your written thesis as well.

Too often I have seen students who have asked questions that inevitably produce results that are trivial, already known, or are completely off-base. Even more tragic is when the student has an unexpected but important, well-founded set of data, but is unable to see the significance of the data for the field in general.

The problem is that supervisors quite rightly drill it into students that they must chose a research question that is manageable by an individual working mainly alone, and that their conclusions must be based on the data collected, but this does not mean that the research question needs to be trivial or that once the conclusions have been properly drawn, there should be no further discussion of their significance for the field as a whole. This is the real test of a student’s academic ability.

Tips for success

There are thousands of possible tips one could give to help Ph.D. students, but I will focus on just a few issues that seem to come up a lot in theses in this area:

1. Do a masters degree on online learning first

This will give you a good overview of the issues involved in online learning and should provide some essentially preparatory skills, such as an introduction to research methods and extensive writing.

Do this prior to starting a Ph.D. See: Recommended graduate programs in e-learning for a list of appropriate programs.

Do it online if possible so you know what its’s like to be an online student.

At a minimum, take a course on research methods in the social sciences/online learning.

2. Get a good supervisor

The trick is to find a supervisor willing to accept your proposed area of research. Try to find someone in the local Faculty of Education with an interest in online learning and try to negotiate a research topic of mutual interest. This is really the hardest and most important part. Getting the right supervisor is absolutely essential. However, there are many more potential students than education faculty interested in research in online learning.

If you find a willing and sympathetic local faculty member with an interest in online learning but worried they don’t have the right expertise to supervise your particular interest, suggest a committee with an external supervisor (anywhere in the world) who really has the expertise and who may be willing to share the supervision with your local supervisor. Again, though, your chances of getting either an internal or external supervisor is much higher if that person already knows you or is aware of your work. Doing an online masters might help here, since some of the instructors on the course may be interested in supervising you for a Ph.D., especially if they know your work through the masters. But again, good professors with expertise in online learning are already likely to have a full supervision load, so it is not easy. (And don’t ask me – I’m retired!)

This means that even before applying for a Ph.D., you need to do some homework. Identify a topic with some degree of flexibility, have in mind an internal and an external supervisor, and show that you have done the necessary courses such as research methods, educational theory, etc., that will prepare you for a Ph.D. (or are willing to do them first).

3. Develop a good research question

See above. Ideally, it should meet the following requirements:

a. The research is likely to add something new to our knowledge in the field

b. The results of the research (positive, negative or descriptive) are likely to be significant/important for instructors, students or an institution

c. You can do the research to answer the question on your own, within a year or so of starting to collect data.

d. It can be done within the ethical requirements of research

It is even better if you can collect data as part of your everyday work, for example by researching your own online teaching.

4. Get a good understanding of sampling and the level of statistics that your study requires

Even if you are doing a qualitative study, you really need to understand sampling – choosing subjects to participate in the study. The two issues you need to watch out for are:

1. Bias in the initial choice of subjects, especially choosing subjects that are likely to support any hypotheses or assumptions you may already have. (Hence the danger of researching your own teaching – but you can turn this to advantage by taking care to identify your prior assumptions in advance and being careful not to be unduly influenced by them in the design of the research).

2. Focusing too much on the number of respondents and not on the response rate, especially in quantitative studies. Most studies with response rates of 40 per cent or less are usually worthless, because the responders are unlikely to be representative of the the whole group (which is why student evaluation data is really dangerous, as the response rate is usually biased towards successful students, who are more likely to complete the questionnaires than unsuccessful students.) When choosing a sample, try to find independent data that can help you identify the extent of the likely bias due to non-responders. For instance, if looking at digital natives, check the age distribution of your responders with the age distribution of the total of the group from which you drew the sample, if that is available. If you had a cohort of 100 students, and 20 responded, how does the average age of the responders compare with the average age of the whole 200? If the average age of responders is much lower than non-responders, what significance does this have for your study?

Understanding statistics is a whole other matter. If you intend to do anything more complicated quantitatively than adding up quantitative data, make sure you understand the necessary statistics, especially what statistically different means. For instance, if you have a very large sample, even small differences are likely to be statistically significant, but they may not be meaningfully significant. Small samples increase the difficulty of getting statistically significant results, so drawing conclusions even when differences look large can be very dangerous from small samples.

5. Avoid tautological research design or quantitative designs with no independent variables

Basically, this means asking a question, stating a hypothesis, or designing research in such a way that the question or  hypothesis itself provides the answer. To elaborate, research question” “What is quality in online learning?’ ‘Answer: “It is defined by what educators say makes for quality in online courses and my research shows that these are clear learning objectives, accessibility, learner engagement, etc..” There is no independent variable here to validate the statements made by educators. (An independent variable might be exam results, participation rates of disabled people, etc.). Education is full of such self-justifications that have no clear, independent variables against which such statements have been tested. Merely re-iterating what people currently think is not original research.

For this reason, I am very skeptical of Delphi studies, which merely re-iterate already established views and opinions. I always ask: ‘Would a thorough literature review have provided the same results?’ The answer is usually: ‘No, you get a far more comprehensive and reliable overview of the topic from the literature review.’

6. Write well

Easily said, but not  easily done. However, writing that is clear, well-structured, evidence-based, grammatically correct and well argued makes a huge difference when it comes to the examination of the thesis. I have seen really weak research studies get through from the sheer quality of the writing. I have seen other really good research studies sent back for major revision because they were so badly written.

Writing is a skill, so it gets better with practice. This usually means writing the same chapter several times until you get it right. Write the first draft, put it away and come back to it several days later. Re-read it and then clarify or improve what you’ve written. Do it again, and again, until you are satisfied that someone who knows nothing about the subject beforehand can understand it. (Don’t assume that all the examiners will be expert in your particular topic.) If you can, get someone such as a spouse who knows nothing about the subject to read through a chapter and ask them just to put question marks alongside sentences or paragraphs they don’t understand. Then re-write them until they do.

The more practice and feedback you can get on your writing, the better, and this is best done long before you get to a final draft.

Is the Ph.D. process broken?

A general comment about the whole Ph.D. process: while not completely broken, it is probably the most costly and inefficient academic process in the whole university, riddled with bureaucracy, lack of clarity for students, and certainly in the non-quantitative areas, open to all kinds of challenges regarding the process and standards.

This is further complicated by a move in recent years to applied rather than research theses. In an applied thesis, the aim is to come up with something useful that can be applied in the field, such as the design of an e-portfolio template that can be used for an end of course assessment, rather than the traditional research thesis. I believe this to be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately though education departments often struggle to provide clear guidance to both students and examiners about the criteria for assessing such new degrees, which makes it even more of a shot in the dark in deciding whether a thesis is ready for submission.

Other suggestions or criticisms

These are (as usual) very personal comments. I’m sure students would like to hear from other examiners in this field, particularly if there is disagreement with my criteria and advice. And I’d like to hear from doctoral students themselves. Suggestions for further readings on the Ph.D. process would also be welcome.

I would also like to hear from those who question the whole Ph.D. process. I must admit to mixed feelings. We do need to develop good quality researchers in the field, and I think a research thesis is one way of doing this. I do feel though that the whole process could be made more efficient than it is at the moment.

In the meantime, good luck to all of you who are struggling with your doctoral studies in this field – we need you to succeed!

Reference

Popper, K. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery London: Routlege

Conference: 8th EDEN Research Workshop on research in online learning and distance education

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Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

What: Challenges for research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better: Doing Better Things

The focus of the event is on quality research discussed in unusual workshop setting with informal and intimate surroundings. The session formats will promote collaboration opportunities, including: parallel ‘research-speed-dating’ papers, team symposia sessions, workshops and demonstrations.

When: 26-28 October, 2014

Where: Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel, Oxford, England

Who: The Open University (UK) is the host institution in collaboration with the European Distance and E-Learning Network. Main speakers include:

  • Sian Bayne, Digital Education, University of Edinburgh, UK
  • Cristobal Cobo, Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK
  • Pierre Dillenbourg, CHILI Lab, EPFL Center for Digital Education, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • Allison Littlejohn, Director, Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, Chair in Learning Technology, UK
  • Philipp Schmidt, Executive Director, Peer 2 Peer University / MIT Media Lab fellow, USA
  • Willem van Valkenburg, Coordinator Delft Open Education Team, Delft University of Technology,
    The Netherlands

How: Submission of papers, workshop themes, posters and demonstrations are due by September 1: see: http://www.eden-online.org/2014_oxford/call.html

 

The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching

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© LifeSun, 2013

© LifeSun, 2013

Teaching in a Digital Age

I’ve now just published Chapter 2 of my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Chapter 1 looks at the fundamental changes that are happening in our digital age, and the broad implications these changes have for teaching and learning.

The book examines the underlying principles that guide effective teaching in an age when everyone,and in particular the students we are teaching, are using technology.

The Preface spells out in more detail the reasons why I decided to publish the book, and the reasons for choosing an open format.

Chapter 2: The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching

This chapter discusses the relationship between our views on the nature of knowledge and the way we decide to teach. It’s about epistemology, but don’t be frightened off by the term: its basically about what makes us believe something is ‘true.’ This has fundamental implications for how we decide to teach. The chapter covers the following:

1. A dinner party scenario showing a clash of fundamental beliefs about the nature of knowledge between an engineer and a writer.

2. Art, theory, research and best practices in teaching: what guides (or should guide) the way we teach.

3. A brief introduction to epistemology and why it’s important. In particular it very briefly describes three currently popular epistemological positions in education, objectivism, constructivism and connectivism, and their implications for teaching and learning.

4. Academic knowledge. I make the distinction between academic knowledge and everyday knowledge, and then discuss whether new digital technologies change the nature of knowledge, ending with a justification for academic knowledge in a digital age, while also arguing that other forms of knowledge can be equally important, depending on the circumstances.

The key takeaways from the chapter are as follows:

1. Teaching is a highly complex occupation, which needs to adapt to a great deal of variety in context, subject matter and learners. It does not lend itself to broad generalizations. Nevertheless it is possible to provide guidelines or principles based on best practices, theory and research, that must then be adapted or modified to local conditions.

2. Our underlying beliefs and values, usually shared by other experts in a subject domain, shape our approach to teaching. These underlying beliefs and values are often implicit and are often not directly shared with our students, even though they are seen as essential components of becoming an ‘expert’ in a particular subject domain.

3. It is argued that academic knowledge is different from other forms of knowledge, and is even more relevant today in a digital age.

4. However, academic knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge that is important in today’s society, and as teachers we have to be aware of other forms of knowledge and their potential importance to our students, and make sure that we are providing the full range of contents and skills needed for students in a digital age.

Comments and criticisms are welcome, either as comments to this blog post, or as comments directly to the chapter (but see below).

Technical challenges with open publishing

As I reported in an earlier post, I’m trying to push the boundaries with open publishing. I want to make the book as interactive as possible but to date the open publishing technology ironically is very restraining. I’m getting tremendous help from the open textbook team at BCcampus, but the platform, PressBooks, is still very much designed in the mode of a traditional book.

So far, BCcampus has been able to add functions for learning objectives, tables, activities, and key takeaways, which have been very helpful. A moderated comment  function has just been added for the end of each chapter (I’m still trying to work out how to moderate this – I’m bloody useless with the technology!)

Here’s what I’m still trying for at the moment:

1. A comment facility that an author can add to each section, as well as the whole chapter.

2. To find a neat way for me as author to provide feedback on readers’ responses to the activities.

3. To find a good, robust, reliable, secure open source, free threaded discussion forum that will allow me to manage discussion forums on different topics covered by the book – or another way to integrate an asynchronous discussion function within the book. (Yes, I AM a social constructivist!)

Any suggestions welcome – we are actively exploring options at the moment. There are probably good solutions already out there. As I said, I’m not primarily a technologist but an educator, so help is definitely needed.

Next chapter: Theory and practice in teaching for a digital age: 

  • Summary of current learning theories and teaching approaches
  • Teaching and learning styles
  • Deep vs surface learning.
  • Learner-centered teaching, learner engagement, motivation.
  • What we know about skills development
  • Competency based learning
  • Learning design models (ADDIE, communities of practice, flexible design models, personalized learning environments).
  • Digital natives and digital literacy
  • Summary of research on teaching.

I still have more work to do on this outline: suggestions welcome.

Your homework

In the meantime, please take a look at Chapter 2 and send me your comments. In particular:

1. Is it too theoretical or abstract?

2. Have I accurately represented objectivism, constructivism and connectivism?

3. Do you agree that academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge, and that it is an important distinction?

4. Does the scenario work for you?

5. Would you recommend this chapter to your teaching colleagues as worthwhile reading?

Hey – it IS an open textbook, and there’s no more World Cup football after Sunday.

WCET’s analysis of U.S. statistics on distance education

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IPEDS 2

U.S.Department of Education (2014) Web Tables: Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State: Fall 2012 Washington DC: U.S.Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) A response to new NCES report on distance education e-Literate, June 11

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences operates a National Center for Education Statistics which in turn runs the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is:

a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). IPEDS gathers information from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, requires that institutions that participate in federal student aid programs report data on enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid. These data are made available to students and parents through the College Navigator college search Web site and to researchers and others through the IPEDS Data Center

Recently IPEDS released “Web Tables” containing results from their Fall Enrollment 2012 survey. This was the first survey in over a decade to include institutional enrollment counts for distance education students. In the article above, Phil Hill of e-Literate and Russell Poulin of WCET have co-written a short analysis of the Web Tables released by IPEDS.

The Hill and Poulin analysis

The main points they make are as follows:

  • overall the publication of the web tables in the form of a pdf is most welcome, in particular by providing a breakdown of IPEDS data by different variables such as state jurisdiction, control of institution, sector and student level
  • according to the IPEDS report there were just over 5.4 million students enrolled in distance education courses in the fall semester 2012 (NOTE: this number refers to students, NOT course enrollments).
  • roughly a quarter of all post-secondary students in the USA are enrolled in a distance education course.
  • the bulk of students in the USA taking distance education courses are in publicly funded institutions (85% of those taking at least some DE courses), although about one third of those taking all their classes at a distance are in private, for-profit institutions (e.g. University of Phoenix)
  • these figures do NOT include MOOC enrollments
  • as previously identified by Phil Hill in e-Literate, there is major discrepancy in the number of students taking at least one online course between the IPEDS study and the regular annual surveys conducted by Allen and Seaman at Babson College – 7.1 million for Babson and 5.5 million for IPEDS. Jeff Seaman, one of the two Babson authors, is also quoted in e-Literate on his interpretation of the differences. Hill and Poulin comment that the NCES report would have done well to at least refer to the significant differences.
  • Hill and Poulin claim that there has been confusion over which students get counted in IPEDS reporting and which do not. They suspect that there is undercounting in the hundreds of thousands, independent of distance education status.

Comment

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Nevertheless, although the IPEDS data may not be perfect, it does a pretty good job of collecting data on distance education students across the whole of the USA. However, it does not distinguish between mode of delivery of distance education (are there still mainly print-based courses around)?

So we now have two totally independent analyses of distance education students in the USA, with a minimum number of 5.5 million and a maximum number of 7.1 million, i.e. between roughly a quarter and a third of all post-secondary students. From the Allen and Seaman longitudinal studies, we can also reasonably safely assume that online enrollments have been increasing between 10-20% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with overall enrollments of 2-5% per annum.

By contrast, in Canada we have no national data on either online or distance education students. It’s hard to see how Canadian governments or institutions can take evidence-based policy decisions about online or distance education without such basic information.

Lastly, thank you, Phil and Russ, for a very helpful analysis of the IPEDs report.

Update

For a more detailed analysis, see also:

Haynie, D. (2014) New Government Data Sheds Light on Online Learners US News, June 13