December 20, 2014

CIDER session: let’s hear it for the self-paced student

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This session in the winter series of free online CIDER sessions features a presentation and discussion with Dr. Steve Weiland from Michigan State University.

Title: A Case for the Self-Paced Online Course

At a time when the conventions of online teaching and learning favour student interaction in a variety of synchronous and asynchronous design features, what could sound more out-of-step than the self-paced course organized around autonomy and the isolated student? But claims for the value of online “learning communities” can be overstated, and the preferences of adult students overlooked. The self-paced course in which students work on their own to complete a sequence of activities (like reading texts, viewing and listening to digital media, exploring websites, and completing writing assignments) may actually satisfy the needs of adult learners as much (or more) than online courses reflecting one version or another of social constructivism in design. This presentation explores historical, theoretical, and practical dimensions of the self-paced course and concludes with evidence for success in using the format in a fully online MA program.

When: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 – 11am to 12noon Mountain Time (Canada)

Where: Online through Adobe Connect at:

CIDER sessions are brought to you by the Centre for Distance Education, Athabasca University: Canada’s Open University




More for less: why Ontario students are complaining

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Pin. L., Martin, C, & Andrey, S (2011). Rising Costs: A Look at Spending at Ontario Universities. Toronto: Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

This is another excellent and well-researched publication from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, and this post is not unrelated to my previous post on British academics rejecting systematized training in teaching.

“Per-student funding increased more than $3,000 over the last five years due mostly to increases in government contributions and student fees well above the rate of inflation. Students wanted to know how much went to improving the quality of their learning experience,” said Sean Madden, President of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA). 

Good question, Sean. The report notes:

More than 70 per cent of the increase in funding from 2004-05 went to salary, pension and benefit costs largely for existing full-time academic faculty and administrators, as well as increased use of part-time instructors.

Paul (2011, p. 143) notes: ‘the continuing trend to higher faculty salaries and flat university funding is just not sustainable over the longer term’. Basically students (and taxpayers) are having to pay more for less.

There is now a pressing moral obligation on universities to improve quality and/or reduce costs by doing things differently – how about training in teaching for a start?

IRRODL June 2011

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For the very few readers of this site who are not already subscribers, the latest edition of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning is now available.

First of all, congratulations to Terry Anderson and his team at Athabasca University for gaining recognition of IRRODL by its being indexed in Thomson’s Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), apparently essential for authors if they are to be recognized for their publications by tenure and promotion panels. It shouldn’t really be necessary, because it is the outstanding journal in its field, in terms of the quality and frequency of its publications.

There is no single theme in this edition so I will plagiarize (sorry: reference) Terry Anderson’s own editorial to summarize what’s in it:

Research articles in this issue cover

We also include a research note on the value of start-of-class surveys and a book review that looks at the impact of e-learning on globalization of higher education.

As always, issue 12.5 features contributions from many countries. There are three articles from the USA, two from Sweden, and one each from Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ghana, and Spain.


How does the University of Phoenix measure up?

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University of Phoenix (2010) 2010 Annual Academic Report University of Phoenix AZ: University of Phoenix

This is third academic annual report from the University of Phoenix (UofPx).

There are at least three different ways to assess the University of Phoenix, besides the obvious one of making money, which it does by the bucket: $1.04 billion profit in 2009 (before tax), which is more than the total operating budget of most research universities. (The profit figure comes from a different report, the Apollo Group Annual Report, 2009, p. 52)


One way to look at the University of Phoenix is to ask: does it provide a needed service?

In its 2010 Annual Academic report, UofPx compares its student profile with that for the rest of the United States higher education system and concludes:

Close to half of the University’s enrollment consists of students from underrepresented racial or ethnic communities.’

In particular:

  • 2% are classified as ‘non-resident alien’ (for those readers outside the United States, aliens are non-USA citizens, not creatures from Mars), compared with 9% in the rest of the system.
  • 18% are Black/Afro-American compared with 12% in the rest of the system
  • 35% are white, compared with 58% in the rest of the system
  • 69% are female, compared with 57% in the rest of the system.

In other words, UofPx is providing the same role that many publicly funded open universities fulfill in the rest of the world: providing an alternative route to higher education for disadvantaged minorities. Unfortunately, UofPx suffers from the stigma of being ‘for-profit’, which is somewhat ironical, given the value system in the USA that generally favours privatization, whereas, at least in the European countries, publicly funded open universities such as the UK Open University and the Open University of Catalonia often have a higher degree of public acceptance than the UofPx.

The question I have is: why are not the public sector institutions in the USA making more effort to accommodate these disadvantaged students? There are several obvious answers:

  • these are often ‘unwanted’ students, since they are not generally high-flying students who will go on to become full-time research students,
  • they require more effort from instructors to teach successfully;
  • there is little incentive from state legislatures to encourage the traditional system to accommodate such students;
  • the institutions would need to change their way of working to accommodate such students, because such students are working and require more flexibility.

I don’t think any of these is an adequate reason for a publicly-funded university not to provide services to such students. Such students have every right to access to public higher education – or should higher education be barred to such students? And why should disadvantaged students, usually on much lower incomes, have to pay full cost to a for-profit when other students are more highly subsidized in public institutions? (UofPx students do generally qualify for federal financial aid, but they still end up paying a lot more than if they were at a public institution.)

In terms of meeting a real need, in terms of the market it serves, I would give the UofPx an A+ compared to the rest of the system.

Quality assurance

It has some interesting things to say about measuring academic quality. (Regrettably, neither the Annual Academic Report nor the Apollo Group financial report make any distinctions between online and face-to-face programs, although more than half the students are online at the UofPx.) In particular, it makes the claim that the University of Phoenix should not be measured in terms of graduation rates:

Most of the current measures of academic quality are those applied to full-time on-campus students, who make up only about one quarter of the total college enrollment in America. These students go directly from high school to college, attend classes full time, and experience residential life on campus. They then proceed to the world of work. For these students there is an orderly progression that can be tracked and quantified institutionally by
such measures as graduation rates, job placement rates, or lifetime earnings.

However, some three-quarters of all students in America today do not fit this mold. They are older; they work full or part time and have family responsibilities, including financial obligations. …. Their progression is not linear or orderly and is complicated by a variety of life factors (i.e., risks), and yet access to higher education is vital. For these students, measures such as graduation rates are not the best indicators of institutional success.

As a result of the needs of the new majority, and because technology has advanced to a point that anyone can attend class at any time and almost anywhere, delivery methods have evolved and the appropriate metrics to measure quality have yet to be defined.

The University of Phoenix has determined that academic quality must be discussed from two perspectives: as a measure of internal integrity in which key indicators that tie academic outcomes to student success are a part of a system of continuous improvement, and as a set of measures by which institutions can be compared in regard to student achievement.

It argues that:

defining the knowledge and skills students are expected to possess upon graduating with a degree in a given discipline has been at the core of both the curriculum design and the assessment process at University of Phoenix for several years. It is, in fact, one of the major ways that the University believes academic quality can be engaged, ensured, and evaluated for improvement.

So how well does the UofPx do in terms of measuring success in developing ‘the knowledge and skills students are expected to possess’? It provides some interesting comparative data, comparing UoP students’ scores with students from universities that offer bachelors through to masters, on the following scales:

  • NSSE (the National Survey of Student Engagement),
  • SAILS (Standardized Assessment of Information Literacy Skills)
  • ETS proficiency profile (formerly MAPP)

In general, UofPx students were equivalent to or outperformed other groups on these measurements.

Of course, this does not answer the question whether UofPx students will make better graduate students, or better students in American literature, or better students in physics ; probably not, because their focus is on skills required by employers. But does it give these students what they want, in terms of learning outcomes? From surveys of those that graduated, apparently so, but of course there is always an element of cognitive dissonance in such ratings.

In terms of quality, and allowing for some degree of selection in the methods chosen by UofPx to measure quality, I would give a B-.

In particular, an effort was made to measure academic outcomes and benchmark them. I think the UofPx could improve on this a great deal, but then this is a challenge for the whole post-secondary system, not just the UofPx.

Graduation rate

Of those who completed at least three credits, 34% graduated within six years, compared with 53% nationally.

This is for me is the Achilles heel of UofPx. I realise that many taking UofPx’s programs are working, and one would expect them to take longer to graduate. However, I think it is a scandal that students in traditional universities need to take six years or more to graduate at the bachelor’s level. It is true that many working adults already with a degree may be less interested in acquiring another degree when returning to university, but this is not UofPx’s primary market. Most students want a degree at the end of their studies, and this applies especially to UofPx’s students, most of whom do not have a first degree.

Just because the rest of the system is inefficient is not an excuse for UofPx. It should be finding a way to get more students graduated, especially given the high level of fees that UofPx’s students are paying, and the financial aid students are getting through Federal grants. On this I would give UofPx a D grade. (But then I would give more or less the same to public institutions on this measure).


Overall, I would give the University of Phoenix a C+. It meets a real need, and sets and achieves realistic academic goals for the students it attracts, as far as it goes. However, it does not succeed in giving the majority of students who enroll what they are seeking, a degree in a reasonable amount of time.

The prejudices against the University of Phoenix are misplaced. The fact that it is successful is a criticism of the failure of public higher education policy in the USA to accommodate fully disadvantaged minorities within the public system. The UofP is filling a massive hole in the US post-secondary education system vacated by the public institutions and more so by their state governments. In an ideal world, there should be no need for the University of Phoenix, but since it is not ideal, the University of Phoenix is providing a service that the rest of the system is failing to deliver.

See also Doug Clow’s excellent blog on the Apollo Group and especially their acquisition of the UK private Law and Business School company, BPP.

Financial challenges of college students in the USA

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Lumina Foundation (2010) Focus, Fall Indianapolis: The Lumina Foundation for Education

Although not directly about online learning, this document provides data and scenarios of the financial challenges students are facing in the USA. Nothing surprising in this somewhat depressing document.