October 25, 2014

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

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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.


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.


For a more detailed analysis, see also:

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


The success or otherwise of online students in the California Community College system

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 Online offerings vary widely across subject

Johnson, H. and Mejia, M. (2014) Online learning and student outcomes in California’s community colleges San Francisco CA: Public Policy Institute of California, 20 pp

I’m not a great fan of studies into completion rates in online learning, because most studies fail to take into account a whole range of factors outside of the mode of delivery that influence student outcomes. However, this study is an exception. Conducted by researchers at the highly influential PPIC, it takes a very careful look at how well students across the whole California community college system (CCCS) do in online learning, and there are some very interesting findings that may not come as a surprise to experienced observers of online learning, but will certainly provide fodder for both supporters and skeptics of online learning.

Why the study is important

Several reasons:

  • California’s community colleges offer more online credit courses than any other public higher education institution in the country. By 2012, online course enrollment in the state’s community colleges totaled almost one million, representing about 11 percent of total enrollment
  • Over the past ten years, online course enrollment has increased by almost 850,000, while traditional course enrollment has declined by almost 285,000.
  • Community colleges are more likely than other institutions of higher education [in the USA] to serve nontraditional students. These students often have employment and family obligations and therefore may potentially benefit the most from online learning.
  • The state of California is investing $57 million over the next five to six years for online learning initiatives within the California Community College system
  • The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) provided … access to unique longitudinal student- and course-level data from all of the state’s 112 community colleges

Main findings

  • Between 2008–09 and 2011–12, total credit enrollment at California’s community colleges declined by almost a million. The scarcity of traditional courses has been a factor in the huge increase in online enrollments. With the state cutting support to community colleges by more than $1.5 billion between 2007–08 and 2011–12, community colleges experienced an unprecedented falloff in enrollment 
  • online course success rates are between 11 and 14 percentage points lower than traditional course success rates.
  • in the long term, students who take online classes tend to be more successful than those who enroll only in traditional courses…students who take at least some online courses are more likely than those who take only traditional courses to earn an associate’s degree or to transfer to a four-year institution.
  • for students juggling school, family and work obligations, the ability to maintain a full-time load by mixing in one or two online courses per term may outweigh the lower chances of succeeding in each particular online course.
  • if a student’s choice is between taking an online course or waiting for the course to be offered in a classroom at a convenient time, taking the online course can help expedite completion or transfer
  • participation in online courses has increased for each of the state’s largest ethnic groups—and online enrollment rates for African American students, an underrepresented group in higher education in California, are particularly high. However, these rates are much lower among Latino students.

Main recommendations

  • move from ad hoc offerings to more strategic planning of online courses
  • improve the ability to transfer credits between community colleges and between colleges and the state’s universities
  • improve the design and provide more consistency in the quality of online courses between institutions
  • adopt a standardized learning management system across all colleges
  • collect systematic information on the cost of developing and maintaining online courses

My comments

This is another excellent and succinct research report on online learning, with a very strong methodology and important results, even if I am not at all surprised by the outcomes. I would expect online completion rates for individual courses to be lower than for traditional courses as students taking online courses often have a wider range of other commitments to manage than full-time, on campus students.

Similarly, I’m not surprised that online course success is lightly lower for community colleges than for universities (if we take both the figures from Ontario and my own experience as a DE director) and for certain ethnic groups who suffer from a range of socio-economic disadvantages. Online learning is more demanding and requires more experience in studying. Post-graduate students tend to do better at online learning than undergraduate students, and final year undergraduate students tend to do better than first year undergraduate students. Nevertheless, as the study clearly indicates, over the long term online learning provides not only increased access but also a greater chance of success for certain kinds of students.

I am worried though that online learning in California has ‘succeeded’ because of the massive cuts to campus-based education. It is better than nothing, but online learning deserves to be considered in its own right, not as a cheaper alternative to campus-based education. Online learning is not a panacea. Different students have different needs, and a successful public post secondary education system should cater to all needs. In the meantime, this is one of the most useful studies on online completion rates.




Hooray for Janet Napolitano and her views on online learning (and public HE in general)!

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Napolitano, J. (2014) A conversation with University of California President Janet Napolitano Sacramento CA: Public Policy Institute of California

Hiltzik, M. (2014) UC’s Napolitano throws cold water on the online education craze Los Angeles Times, March 26

The conversation

I never thought I would be a cheerleader for Janet Napolitano, formerly Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and a former governor of Arizona, but in her role as the relatively new President of the vast University of California System, she recently made some much needed comments about the hype around online learning in a ‘conversation’ at the Public Policy Institute of California two days ago (captured in a YouTube video).

The whole ‘conversation’ lasts about an hour, but her comments on online learning come 31 mins 10 secs into the interview and last only two minutes, with another brief comment at 48’15. However, the whole of her comments, about UC and the importance of publicly funded higher education, are well worth listening to by anyone interested in the future of public higher education.

What she said about online learning

She did not (contrary a possible reading of Hiltzik’s headline in the LA Times) pour cold water on online learning. What she said was as follows:

  • it is one tool in the toolbox
  • it’s not easy to do well
  • students need regular interaction online with other students and with instructors
  • so it’s not going to save buckets of money
  • it’s better for students in upper level programs
  • it could help in sharing courses across campuses and in assisting transfers (between community colleges, state universities and UC).

Why what she said is important

There are probably many of you reading this article who like me, would agree with all the points she made about online learning. But these comments need to be seen in the following context:

What she is doing is bringing online learning down to the level of sensible policy – not a silver bullet for all HE’s ills, but one, important, tool in the box. This allows policy makers to focus on the true value of online learning, and also protects it from disappearing off the radar when the next fad hits the USA, or when disillusionment sets in around MOOCs.

What she also said about public higher education

You probably know the feeling of going into a bookstore to look for just one book, then another book catches your eye and keeps you riveted. That’s what happened to me with this video. My intent was to skip through the video until I got to the bit on online learning (not knowing when it would come up). But she held me with her thoughts right from the beginning in two related areas: the value of a strong public higher education system; and the enormous importance of the University of California system, for the USA as a whole. I’ll start with a few points about the UC system (see  New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all for more details)

The UC system

  • the state of California is the eighth largest economy in the world
  • the UC system has 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students
  • UC’s total operating budget is $28 billion a year
  • 46% of UC’s new entrants are first generation university students, and almost half come from homes where English is not the first language
  • 50% of UC’s students pay no tuition at all, because of scholarships, grants, and a reinvestment of 30% of paid tuition fees into funding poorer students. Students from families earning less than $80,000 pay no tuition
  • 30% of each annual intake transfer in from California’s two year community colleges
  • 70-75% of all UC undergraduates complete within four years (the highest percentage among public universities in the USA)

The value of a public higher education system and UC in particular

I can’t really do justice to her eloquence on this subject, but the main points are

  • UC is an essential component of California’s knowledge-based economy: thousands of top-quality graduates entering the work force each year. In terms of sheer numbers, UC is a critical economic generator for the future in California
  • UC is a powerful engine that drives social mobility (see above).

The need for a public debate on the funding of HE in California

Despite the massive size of the state system, the universities and colleges are turning away qualified high school graduates because all the places are full (the two year college system in particular is hugely oversubscribed in terms of places). There has been continuous and systematic reductions in the state budget for higher education over the last six years, due to tax cutting and a major drop in other sources of state funding. The affordability of HE is a key concern of Californian voters, and a key priority of UC is to keep tuition as low and as predictable as possible. However, this has to be balanced in terms of providing the education that California will need if it is to maintain its position as an economic powerhouse.

Napolitano was cautious about  leading a campaign for a debate or a new state-wide agenda on public higher education,  but if there is a case to be made, I’m sure she’ll make it – and make it forcibly. In the meantime, la-la land may be getting its feet back on the ground.

New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all

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The University of California system

The University of California system

To, K. (2014) UC Regents announce online course expansion, The Guardian, UC San Diego, undated, but probably February 5

The University of California system continues to struggle with providing a system-wide approach to online learning. This is a report of decisions made at a UC Board of Regents meeting on January 15.

The California public higher education system

The UC system consists of a number of publicly-funded Tier 1 research universities such as Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis and Irvine, spread across a very large state. Altogether there are 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students. In addition, the California State University system, with 23 campuses and nearly 450,000 students, operates mainly at undergraduate level, although many campuses also offer masters and Ph.D. programs. Lastly there are 72 community colleges, with 2.4 million students, focusing primarily on vocational education and training.


First though a little background, because what the UC Regents are trying to do – create economies of scale by sharing online undergraduate courses across the different institutions – is really important in terms of productivity and effectiveness. A number of other jurisdictions or state-wide systems, such as the University of Florida, and here in Canada, the province of Ontario, are trying to do something similar. Many institutions have had online graduate programs, but these new initiatives are focusing on online undergraduate education, which for many institutions is a new development. Even more controversial is the idea of sharing courses, so that a course developed at one campus will automatically be accepted for credit in another.

UC Online

In January 2012 the Regents set up UC Online after a two year pilot. This program now offers 11 courses for cross-campus enrollment, so it’s pretty modest. More importantly, not all of the UC campuses are participating in this endeavour. For instance, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara have decided not to participate in the program because of issues around student admission and enrollment.

The Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI)

This is a new initiative launched in early 2013, helped by grants totalling $10 million that Governor Jerry Brown allotted to the UC and to the California State University systems in July 2013, to offer more undergraduate courses online with an emphasis on high-in-demand and prerequisite classes, i.e. extra money specifically for online courses.

At the recent Regents meeting three critically important decisions were made:

  • the establishment of a cross-campus enrollment webpage, i.e. one-stop shopping for potential students
  • funding for an additional 30 courses to be created
  • the development of an approval process for cross-campus course credit.

Under the ILTI, the regents intend to create 150 credit-bearing online and hybrid courses by 2016. Presumably these will be in addition to ones already on offer from the individual campuses themselves. (In 2011-2012  UC campuses individually offered over 2,500 online courses, with more than 90,000 enrolled students.)

Online courses without human interaction?

One major reason for anxiety within the UC system is the pressure from the governor:

Brown continues to urge for a complete absence of human interaction in online courses. “You say you need human touch — I say, maybe you don’t need it,” Brown told the The Daily Californian on Jan. 28. “The barrier here is the human software, the human thought that we’re putting into the technology.”

Politics and economics

What’s pushing the governor’s support for automated online learning is the large state debt accumulated over many years. California had massive current account deficits preceding and following the recession in 2008. Governor Brown is now able to project a small surplus on operating costs, but only because of massive funding cuts to the post-secondary education system over the last few years. However demand from students has not gone away, so the pressure for a low cost way of providing undergraduate education is a political and economic necessity for Brown.


First, I am more than 1,000 miles away, I don’t work in the system, so I don’t have all the information I need. But the big picture seems to me to be clear, and the implications are much wider than the just for the state of California.

The three decisions recently announced by the Regents are essential first steps to creating a more coherent approach to online learning in the UC system, or elsewhere. However, in terms of the overall UC system, the number of new courses being funded through the ILTI initiative is tiny. The real drive towards online learning is coming from the individual campuses themselves, and it would make more sense to try and co-ordinate these activities than to add a further layer on to an already large and complex system, particularly a layer that is directly funded from the governor’s office and politically driven, with all the risks that are entailed.

Nevertheless we are already seeing other state or province wide public higher education systems moving in this direction and we will see more. There are possible economies of scale to be gained from sharing at least content across high-demand, standard foundational programs, and students need the flexibility to take online courses from different campuses in the same system without unnecessary barriers. It seems absurd to me that UC San Diego would not accept credits for online courses taken from UC Davis or vice versa – they are all part of the same system. This doesn’t mean to say it will be easy. It will need cross campus agreement on combinations of courses for particular programs, and some common admission standards between the campuses, if that doesn’t exist already. While this involves some work, though, it is not rocket science (come to British Columbia to see how this is done, via the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer).

Much more worrying are the political aspects. I am sure Governor Brown will find many distinguished computer scientists and California-based companies such as Coursera and Google who will tell him that university teaching can be fully automated – but they are wrong. They do not understand how learning takes place. Someone needs to get the message through to Governor Brown that the research on online credit-based learning shows clearly that for high level learning, student and instructor interaction is essential, as well as student-student interaction. So you run a real risk then of poor quality outcomes if you try to automate online learning, at least given the status of artificial intelligence now and well into the future. At the same time, there are opportunities for economies of scale, but mainly on the transmission of content side and sharing of courses and programs.

This leads to my last point. None of this will be satisfactorily resolved without some clear vision for California’s public higher education system. What we are seeing is tinkering around the edges, without a clear picture of what the goals are other than cutting cost. What kind of system does California want for the future, and where does online learning fit within this vision? For instance, does it want to be the best public post-secondary education system in the world – which it could well be – or does it want a mediocre, low cost public system with the private institutions carrying the heavy load in research and status? Only when Californians make up their minds on this will we see a coherent system-wide strategy for online learning in California.


Book review: The Smartest Kids in the World

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Ripley bookRipley, A. (2013) The Smartest Kids in the World – and How They Got That Way New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/New Delhi: Simon and Schuster

OECD (2013) PISA 2012 Results in Focus Paris: OECD

Amanda Ripley’s book isn’t about online learning at all, but it was the best book on education that I read in 2013, and there are lessons for online learning.

What the book is about

This book is an exploration of the OECD’s PISA tests, what they mean, and in particular, why students from the USA do so badly on the PISA math tests. Amanda Ripley is a journalist, not an educator, and doesn’t even specialise normally in education stories. But she had a good question: why are some kids learning so much – and others so little? In particular, why do kids in Finland, Korea and Poland do so much better on math tests than students from the USA?


First, she examined the history and methodology of the PISA tests, interviewing in particular Andreas Schleicher, who helped create the PISA math test. Readers of my blog will know that I am somewhat sceptical about PISA testing, not so much the tests themselves, but in particular how they are often interpreted, especially by national media. Differences between countries’ scores may be statistically significant because of sample sizes, but small differences in average scores between countries over different time periods can result in large drops or gains in comparative rankings, and differences within countries are often greater than differences between countries, due to a wide range of factors.

It became clear from talking to Schleicher that what may have seemed obvious factors, such as children from low income homes will do worse than children from high income homes, just didn’t hold true, particularly when cross-country comparisons are made. Other factors were at work that influenced a nation’s PISA scores that could not be explained by the statistical data alone.

So Amanda Ripley hit on the brilliant idea of tracking several American high school exchange students and asked them to describe the differences in their experience between their home schools in the USA and their foreign exchange school. She picked kids who had gone to Finland, South Korea and Poland respectively. The three exchange students came from three quite different schools and home backgrounds in the USA as well. These students were tracked and interviewed over a period of nearly two years,, both in the USA and abroad. Ripley also visited all the schools these students attended, both in the USA and abroad, and interviewed other students, teachers and administrators in these schools.


The mini case studies were very revealing both about the USA school experience and the school experience in the other three countries. It was clear that many different factors are associated with student performance in math. Amanda Ripley herself is cautious about jumping to conclusions and you have to work out some of the conclusions for yourself, but some clear patterns emerged from the case studies for me:

  • setting high standards and expectations is critical for success in teaching math;
  • successful schools and teachers expect all their students to succeed/meet the standards set; no excuses (low income parents, immigrants, race, learning styles, learning difficulties, illness) are accepted
  • high standards mean that most students, at some point in their school career, will fail; this is an important lesson in itself (successful schools of course provide extra help for students who fail, so that they don’t fail next time)
  • successful schools have teachers who are highly qualified in both math and teaching. Finland is the best example of this: the highest scoring high school leavers are chosen for teacher training; the opposite is true generally in the USA. Salaries reflect the status of teaching also within a particular country – low salaries, low status.
  • it is not necessary to cram or take extra tutorial help outside school to succeed if the schools are doing their job properly – indeed such private, outside school cramming undermines the public schools
  • Korea may have high scores, but the methods used to get these high scores – cramming, late night private tutorials – destroy childhood. There are social and cultural as well as educational choices to be made, but this need not compromise high academic standards if the right choices are made – see Finland again
  • learning was taken far more seriously by students in Finland, Korea and Poland, where students seemed to be more aware of the importance of doing well academically, than in the USA, where success in sport ranked higher than in education; again, this is an expectation set by both the school system and by parents.

What are the lessons one can take away for online learning from this book, which after all is about campus-based education? Here’s what I take from this:

  • the quality of teaching matters. This means both having highly qualified subject expertise, but even more importantly, high quality teaching methods
  • online learning should aim if anything for higher standards – better outcomes, higher completion rates – than classroom teaching;
  • this requires using well qualified, well paid and well trained instructors for online learning
  • these expectations and standards need to be clearly communicated to, and understood by, students entering online learning for the first time.

What about Canada?

Hey, it’s not all about you. Indeed, there is very little about Canada in this book, but it is clearly different again from both the USA (Canada does much better on PISA scores) and the other three countries (Canada does worse, but not a lot worse).

In fact, removing individual cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, Canada was fifth, after Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Switzerland, in the PISA 2012 math rankings. (Finland, Poland, Estonia and the Netherlands scored almost the same as Canada). However, Canada’s overall math score has dropped from an average of 534 in 2006 to 518 in 2012. (The tests were given to 15 year olds). It’s difficult though to know what this means – have the tests got harder over the years, is the average affected by a high rate of immigration, etc? Who knows. This seems to be a trend with all the major countries who scored higher in 2006. Which is the problem with PISA tests – they tell you what, not why, which is why Ripley’s book is so useful.


This is a fascinating, extremely well written book. Anyone who cares about PISA testing, what it means, and how to interpret the results, should read this. Particularly fascinating was the description of the Korean system, with late night vigilante raids by government agencies on cramming schools operating after a midnight curfew. But I also found the in-depth descriptions of USA schools and school systems very enlightening and hugely depressing at the same time.