February 11, 2016

State support for public higher education is declining in the USA

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Young Invincibles 2

Young Invincibles (2015) 2016 State Report Cards Washington DC: Young Invincibles

This is a very interesting state by state report card on the support for public higher education in the USA since the economic recession of 2008. Key results:

  • states have cut per student spending by 21 percent since 2008. Only two states spend as much as they did before the recession (Alaska and North Dakota). Six states are now spending less than two thirds of what they were spending in 2008
  • tuition and fees at both 4-year and 2-year institutions rose 28 percent since 2008 (inflation rose 14%).
  • in 2008, students and families paid approximately 36 percent of the cost of public college; in 2014 that percentage increased to 50 per cent.
  • the gap between white non-Hispanic adults and Latino adults with postsecondary degrees grew by 2.2 percentage points between 2007 and 2015

As interesting as the result is the organization that did the study. Young Invincibles is:

a national organization, representing the interests of 18 to 34 year-olds and making sure that our perspective is heard wherever decisions about our collective future are being made. We do this through conducting cutting-edge policy research and analysis, sharing the stories of young adults, designing campaigns to educate on important issue areas, informing and mobilizing our generation and advocating to change the status quo.

It can be seen that state funding of public higher education in the USA has declined significantly over the last six years, even though the economy in general has more than recovered (U.S. GDP in 2015 was $1.5 billion higher than before the recession kicked in).

This is clear evidence in the decline of political support at a state level for publicly funded higher education in the USA over the last six years. Once again it is young people who are paying the price.

In Canada we didn’t suffer as badly during and following the recession and I suspect public funding of universities is if anything slightly higher today in most provinces per capita than it was in 2008. However, can anyone give me the exact figures?

In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014

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Image: WCET, 2015

Image: WCET, 2015

Straut, T.T. and Poulin, R. (2015) Highlights of Distance Education Trends from IPEDS Fall 2014, WCET Frontiers, 21 December


WCET (the Western Co-operative for Educational Technology) has once again done an excellent job in analysing the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)’  Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data that reports Distance Education (DE) student enrollment for the Fall of 2014.


Enrollments by students ‘Exclusively in Distance Education’ continued to rise in 2014. There were 2,824,334 fully online enrollments in 2014, compared to 2,659,203 in 2013, representing a 6% increase in just one year, or just under 13% of total enrollments.

Students taking at least some fully online courses but not an entirely fully online program also increased, from 2,806,048 in 2013 to 2,926,083 in 2014 (a 4% increase). [Note: these are not students taking blended or hybrid courses, but taking some fully online courses as well as campus-based courses.]

At the same time overall enrollments dropped slightly (just under 1%). Thus online learning continues to grow faster than conventional higher education. Taken together at least 28% of all U.S. higher education students are taking at least some fully online courses.

Image: WCET, 2015

Image: WCET, 2015

However, perhaps more interesting is where this growth occurred. The biggest increase in fully online courses came from the more prestigious private, non-profit sector (22% increase), while the for-profit sector (UofPhoenix, etc.) actually declined by 11%.  Indeed, the for-profit sector now accounts for less than one third of all fully online enrollments.


The IPEDS data is relatively new (this is the third year of reporting). There are problems of definition (‘distance education’ and ‘fully online’ are not necessarily the same), and there appears in past years to have been inconsistent reporting across institutions.

WCET will be following up on this initial report with more detailed reports in 2016, including an analysis of the reliability of the data.


Despite the cautions, this data, based on a census of all U.S. higher education institutions, is probably the most reliable to date.

Despite the (assumed) growth in blended learning, fully online learning appears to be more than holding its own. One reason is clear. Many of the more prestigious private, non-profit institutions have room to grow in their adoption of online learning, being slower initially to move in this direction.

To what extent this growth of online learning in the private, non-profit sector is owed to the publicity from or experience with MOOCs remains to be assessed, but the growth of for-credit online learning in this sector is an indication of the increasingly broad acceptance now of fully online learning.

What is needed now is more data on – and clearer definitions of – blended learning, as it seems reasonable to assume that as on-campus programs become more flexible through blended learning, this will impact eventually on fully online enrollments. But kudos to the U.S. Department of Education for setting up these surveys and to WCET in helping with the analysis. Now if only Canada…….Justin?

U.S. university/college financing ‘stabilizing’

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Image: © Moody, 2015

Image: © Moody, 2015

Unauthored (2015) Stability and Modest Growth Expected for U.S. Colleges, Inside Higher Ed, December 3

Lederman, D. (2015) ‘Stabilizing’ Financial Picture, Inside Higher Education, July 8

These two reports are for the record (i.e. to help me find the data when I need it for other articles). Nevertheless, they are still interesting.

These are reports of analyses by Moody on the financial status of universities and colleges in the USA. Lederman’s article is about a report released on the financial status of universities and colleges in 2014, and the more recent article is a projection over the next year to 18 months into 2016.

These reports are important, because for the first time since the great U.S. recession in 2008, there is actually overall growth in revenues, especially from state funding, even though tuition revenue is actually declining slightly overall. Nevertheless, the proportion of funding from the state is still considerably less than in 2004, and the situation is not even, with the less prestigious local/state universities still more likely to be in financial trouble than the larger, more prestigious land-grant and private universities.

‘Stabilization’ does not mean that the pressure to reduce the costs of higher education will ease, especially with regard to tuition fees, but it may mean that we will see less media hype about MOOCs and other technology innovations disrupting higher education. Getting costs under control while revenues stabilize will still remain essential, and the more local, less-selective institutions are particularly vulnerable, which is likely to lead to even less equity in the system: to those that have shall it be given.

Research on ‘academic innovation centres’ supporting online learning

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One of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

UT Austin Learning Sciences was one of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

Bishop, M. and Keehn, A. (2015) Leading Academic Change: An Early market Scan of Leading-edge Postsecondary Academic Innovation Centers Adelphi ML: William E. Kirwan centre for Academic Innovation, University System of Maryland

What is this paper about?

This is a paper about the development of ‘academic innovation centers’ in the USA. These go by a variety of names, such as ‘the Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘the Centre for Learning Sciences’, but they are basically integrating faculty development, instructional design and a range of other services for faculty (and in some cases also directly for students) to provide a locus for innovation and change in teaching and learning.


Information was collected in three ways:

  • a Leading Academic Change summit, to which 60 academic innovation leaders were invited to engage in discussions around how academic transformation efforts are unfolding in their campuses
  • interviews with 17 ‘particularly  innovative academic transformation leaders’, to talk about the evolution of teaching and learning centres at their institutions
  • a ‘national’ survey of campus centres for teaching and learning; 163 replied to the survey (there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the USA).

Main results and conclusions

The paper should be read carefully and in full, as there are some interesting data and findings, but here are the main points I was interested in:

  • the information collected in this study ‘seems to point to the  emergence of new, interdisciplinary innovation infrastructures within higher education administration.’
  • this includes new senior administrative positions, such as Vice Provost for Innovation in Learning and Student Success, or Associate Provost for Learning Initiatives
  • the new centres bring together previously separate support departments into a single integrated centre, thus breaking down some of the previous silos around teaching and learning
  • their focus is on online, blended and hybrid course design or re-design, improving faculty engagement with students, and leveraging instructional/learning platforms  for  instruction.
  • some of the centres are going beyond faculty development and are focusing on ensuring new initiatives lead to student success;
  • the leaders of these new centres are usually respected academics (rather than instructional designers, for instance) who may lack experience or knowledge in negotiating institutional cultures or change management


Despite the methodological issues with such a study, which the authors themselves recognise, the evidence of the development of these ‘academic innovation centres’ fits with my recent experience in visiting Canadian universities over the last two years or so, although I suspect this study focuses more on the ‘outliers’ with regard to innovation and change in USA universities and colleges.

What I find particularly interesting are the following:

  • the desire to ensure that faculty become the leaders of such centres, even though they may lack experience in bringing about institutional change, and in addition may not have a strong background in learning technologies. Perhaps they should read the book I co-wrote with Albert Sangra, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘, which directly addresses these issues;
  • the study found that neither technology nor even faculty success was the leading focus of these centres, but rather student success. This is a much needed if subtle change of direction, although the report did not suggest how the link between innovation in teaching and student success might be identified or measured. I suspect that this will be a difficult challenge.
  • where does the move to integrated centres leave Continuing Studies departments, which often have the instructional design and online learning expertise (at least in many Canadian universities)? The actual location of such staff is not so important as the intent to work collaboratively across institutional boundaries, but for that to happen there has to be a strongly supported common vision for the future development of teaching and learning shared across all the relevant organizational divisions. Organisational re-alignment can’t operate successfully in a policy vacuum.

Nevertheless if what is reported here is representative of what is happening in at least some of the leading U.S. universities, it is encouraging, although I would like to see a more rigorous and comprehensive study of the issue before I throw my hat into the air.

Why the fuss about MOOCs? Political, social and economic drivers

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Daphne Koller's TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

Daphne Koller’s TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

The end of MOOCs

This is the last part of my chapter on MOOCs for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. In a series of prior posts, I have looked at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. Here I summarise this section and look at why MOOCs have gained so much attention.

Brief summary of strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

The main points of my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs can be summarised as follows:


  • the main value proposition of MOOCs is that through the use of computer automation and/or peer-to-peer communication MOOCs can eliminate the very large variable costs in higher education associated with providing learner support and quality assessment
  • MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection
  • MOOCs can be useful for opening access to high quality content, particularly in Third World countries, but to do so successfully will require a good deal of adaptation, and substantial investment in local support and partnerships
  • MOOCs are valuable for developing basic conceptual learning, and for creating large online communities of interest or practice
  • MOOCs are an extremely valuable form of lifelong learning and continuing education
  • MOOCs have forced conventional and especially elite institutions to reappraise their strategies towards online and open learning
  • institutions have been able to extend their brand and status by making public their expertise and excellence in certain academic areas


  • the high registration numbers for MOOCs are misleading; less than half of registrants actively participate, and of these, only a small proportion successfully complete the course; nevertheless, absolute numbers of successful participants are still higher than for conventional courses
  • MOOCs are expensive to develop, and although commercial organisations offering MOOC platforms have opportunities for sustainable business models, it is difficult to see how publicly funded higher education institutions can develop sustainable business models for MOOCs
  • MOOCs tend to attract those with already a high level of education, rather than widen access
  • MOOCs so far have been limited in the ability to develop high level academic learning, or the high level intellectual skills needed in a knowledge based society
  • assessment of the higher levels of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs, to the extent that most MOOC providers will not recognise their own MOOCs for credit
  • MOOC materials may be limited by copyright or time restrictions for re-use as open educational resources

Why the fuss about MOOCs?

It can be seen from the previous section that the pros and cons of MOOCs are finely balanced. Given though the obvious questions about the value of MOOCs, and the fact that before MOOCs arrived, there had been substantial but quiet progress for over ten years in the use of online learning for undergraduate and graduate programs, you might be wondering why MOOCs have commanded so much media interest, and especially why a large number of government policy makers, economists, and computer scientists have become so ardently supportive of MOOCs, and why there has been such a strong, negative reaction, not only from many traditional university and college instructors, who are right to be threatened by some of the claims being made for MOOCs, but also from many professionals in online learning (see for instance, Bates, 2012; Daniel, 2012; Hill, 2012; Watters, 2013), who might be expected to be more supportive of MOOCs

It needs to be recognised that the discourse around MOOCs is not usually based on a cool, rational, evidence-based analysis of the pros and cons of MOOCs, but is more likely to be driven by emotion, self-interest, fear, or ignorance of what education is actually about. Thus it is important to explore the political, social and economic factors that have driven MOOC mania.

Massive, free and Made in America!

This is what I will call the intrinsic reason for MOOC mania. It is not surprising that, since the first MOOC from Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller attracted 270,000 sign-ups from around the world, since the course was free, and since it came from professors at one of the most prestigious private universities in the USA, the American media were all over it. It was big news in its own right, however you look at it, especially as courses from Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford professor, and others from MIT and Harvard followed shortly, with equally staggering numbers of participants.

It’s the Ivy Leagues!

Until MOOCs came along, the major Ivy League universities in the USA, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as many of the most prestigious universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill, and elsewhere, had largely ignored online learning in any form.

However, by 2011, online learning, in the form of for credit undergraduate and graduate courses, was making big inroads at many other, very respectable universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, and the University of Maryland in the USA, and also in many of the top tier public universities in Canada and elsewhere, to the extent that almost one in three course enrolments in the USA were now in online courses. Furthermore, at least in Canada, the online courses were often getting good completion rates and matching on-campus courses for quality.

The Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities that had ignored online learning were beginning to look increasingly out of touch by 2011. By launching into MOOCs, these prestigious universities could jump to the head of the queue in terms of technology innovation, while at the same time protecting their selective and highly personal and high cost campus programs from direct contact with online learning. In other words, MOOCs gave these prestigious universities a safe sandbox in which to explore online learning, and the Ivy League universities gave credibility to MOOCs, and, indirectly, online learning as a whole.

It’s disruptive!

For years before 2011, various economists, philosophers and industrial gurus had been predicting that education was the next big area for disruptive change due to the march of new technologies (see for instance Lyotard, 1979; Tapscott, undated; Christensen and Eyring, 2011).

Online learning in credit courses though was being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of university teaching, through blended learning, without any signs of major disruption, but here with MOOCs was a massive change, providing evidence at long last in the education sector to support the theories of disruptive innovation.

It’s Silicon Valley!

It is no coincidence that the first MOOCs were all developed by entrepreneurial computer scientists. Ng and Koller very quickly went on to create Coursera as a private commercial company, followed shortly by Thrun, who created Udacity. Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at MIT, went on to head up edX.

The first MOOCs were very typical of Silicon Valley start-ups: a bright idea (massive, open online courses with cloud-based, relatively simple software to handle the numbers), thrown out into the market to see how it might work, supported by more technology and ideas (in this case, learning analytics, automated marking, peer assessment) to deal with any snags or problems. Building a sustainable business model would come later, when some of the dust had settled.

As a result it is not surprising that almost all the early MOOCs completely ignored any pedagogical theory about best practices in teaching online, or any prior research on factors associated with success or failure in online learning. It is also not surprising as a result that a very low percentage of participants actually successfully complete MOOCs – there’s a lot of catching up still to do, but so far Coursera and to a lesser extent edX have continued to ignore educators and prior research in online learning. They would rather do their own research, even if it means re-inventing the wheel. The commercial MOOC platform providers though are beginning to work out a sustainable business model.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Of all the reasons for MOOC mania, Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan resonates most with me. It should be remembered that by 2011, the consequences of the disastrous financial collapse of 2008 were working their way through the economy, and particularly were impacting on the finances of state governments in the USA.

The recession meant that states were suddenly desperately short of tax revenues, and were unable to meet the financial demands of state higher education systems. For instance, California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts between 2008-2012, resulting in a shortfall of 500,000 places in its campus-based colleges. Free MOOCs were seen as manna from heaven by the state governor, Jerry Brown.

One consequence of rapid cuts to government funding was a sharp spike in tuition fees, bringing the real cost of higher education sharply into focus. Tuition fees in the USA have increased by 7% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with an inflation rate of 4% per annum. Here at last was a possible way to rein in the high cost of higher education.

Now though the economy in the USA is picking up and revenues are flowing back into state coffers, and so the pressure for more radical solutions to the cost of higher education is beginning to ease. It will be interesting to see if MOOC mania continues as the economy grows, although the search for more cost-effective approaches to higher education is not going to disappear.

Don’t panic!

These are all very powerful drivers of MOOC mania, which makes it all the more important to try to be clear and cool headed about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. The real test is whether MOOCs can help develop the knowledge and skills that learners need in a knowledge-based society. The answer of course is yes and no.

As a low-cost supplement to formal education, they can be quite valuable, but not as a complete replacement. They can at present teach conceptual learning, comprehension and in a narrow range of activities, application of knowledge. They can be useful for building communities of practice, where already well educated people or people with a deep, shared passion for a topic can learn from one another, another form of continuing education.

However, certainly to date, MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate that they can lead to transformative learning, deep intellectual understanding, evaluation of complex alternatives, and evidence-based decision-making, and without greater emphasis on expert-based learner support and more qualitative forms of assessment, they probably never will, at least without substantial increases in their costs.

At the end of the day, there is a choice between throwing more resources into MOOCs and hoping that some of their fundamental flaws can be overcome without too dramatic an increase in costs, or whether we would be better investing in other forms of online learning and educational technology that could lead to more cost-effective learning outcomes. I know where I would put my money, and it’s not into MOOCs.

Over to you

This will be my last contribution to the discussion of MOOCs for my book, so let’s have it!

1. Do you agree with the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs that I have laid out? What would you add or remove or change?

2. What do you think of the drivers of MOOC mania? Are these accurate? Are there other, more important drivers of MOOC mania?

3. Do you even agree that there is a mania about MOOCs, or is their rapid expansion all perfectly understandable?


Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs, Online learning and distance education resources, August 5

Christensen, C. and Eyring, H. (2011), The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education, New York, New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons,

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility.Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Vol. 3

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs must overcome to build a sustainable model, e-Literate, July 24

Lyotard, J-J. (1979) La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir: Paris: Minuit

Tapscott, D. (undated) The transformation of education dontapscott.com

Watters, A. (2013) MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive, open online courses The Digital Shift, 18 April