January 22, 2018

Corruption in higher education: a wake-up call

Staff at Pavol Jozef Safarik University, Kosice, Slovakia were accused of taking bribes to admit students to its Medical School

Staff at Pavol Jozef Safarik University, Kosice, Slovakia have been accused of taking bribes to admit students to the Medical School

Daniel, J. (2016) Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Integrity of Higher Education: Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice: Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO

Daniel, J. (2016) Lutter contre la corruption et renforcer l’intégrité : un défi contemporain pour la qualité et la crédibilité de l’enseignement supérieur: Déclaration consultative pour des pratiques internationales efficaces Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO

Those of us working in online learning are often berated by academic colleagues about the possible lack of integrity in online learning due to issues such as plagiarism, diploma mills, or ‘easy’ qualifications lacking rigorous academic process. Such cases do occur, but having read this document, it seems that the more traditional areas of higher education are prone to far more egregious forms of corruption.

Where do we find corruption?

At the end of this report, there is a list of references chronicling corruption in higher education in Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, and the USA. And those are just the ones who have been recently caught.

The report puts it bluntly:

This Advisory Statement is a wake-up call to higher education worldwide – particularly to quality assurance bodies. HEIs [higher education institutions], governments, employers and societies generally, in both developed and developing countries, are far too complacent about the growth of corrupt practices, either assuming that these vices occur somewhere else or turning a deaf ear to rumours of malpractice in their own organizations.

What kinds of corruption?

You name it, it’s in this report. In fact, the report describes 29 different kinds of corrupt practices. Here are just a few examples:

  • giving institutions licenses, granting degree-awarding powers, or accrediting programmes in return for bribes or favours.
  • altering student marks in return for sexual or other favours.

  • administrative pressure on academics to alter marks for institutional convenience.

  • publishing false recruitment advertising.

  • impersonation of candidates and ghost writing of assignments.

  • political pressures on higher education institutions to award degrees to public figures.

  • publication by supervisors of research by graduate students without acknowledgement.

  • higher education institutions publishing misleading news releases or suppressing inconvenient news.

Who is sounding the alarm?

Although the writer of the report is Sir John Daniel, a fellow Research Associate at Contact North, and former Vice-Chancellor, the Open University, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and President of the Commonwealth of Learning, the report draws on meetings of expert groups from the following organizations:

  • UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP)
  • the International Quality Group of the US Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA/CIQG).

What’s causing this?

Corruption is as much about lack of ethical behaviour and rampant self-interest as about policies and practices. The report though points to two key factors that are contributing to corruption:

  • the huge appetite for higher education among the young populations of the developing world puts great pressures on admissions processes;
  • the steadily developing sophistication and borderless nature of information and communications technology (ICT) has expanded the opportunities for fraudsters in all walks of life.

What are the recommended solutions?

There are of course no easy solutions here. The report points out that there are both ‘upstream’ possibilities for corruption at the level of government and accrediting agencies, and downstream, from individuals desperate to get into and succeed within an increasingly competitive higher education system. In the middle are the institutions themselves.

The report separates its recommendations for combatting corruption then into several target areas:

  1. the regulation of higher education systems
  2.  the teaching role of higher education institutions
  3. student admissions and recruitment
  4. student assessment
  5. credentials and qualifications
  6. research theses and publications
  7. through increased public awareness

It is interesting that while the report emphasizes the importance of internal quality assurance processes within HEIs, it also notes that the more ‘mature’ an HE system becomes, the more external quality assurance agencies, such as accreditation boards and government ministries, tend to pass quality assurance responsibilities back to the institutions. The report notes that students themselves have a very important role to play in demanding transparency and whistle-blowing.

A call to action

The report ends with the following:

  • governments, quality assurance agencies and HEIs worldwide must become more aware of the threat that corruption poses to the credibility, effectiveness and quality of higher education at a time when its importance as a driver of global development has never been higher.

  • external quality assurance agencies should do more to review the risks of corruption in their work and HEIs must ensure that their IQA [internal quality assurance] frameworks are also fit for the purpose of combatting corruption.

  • training and supporting staff in identifying and exposing corrupt practices should be stepped up.

  • creating networks of organizations that are fighting corruption and greater North-South collaboration in capacity building for this purpose are highly desirable.

So next time some sanctimonious academic sneers at the academic integrity of online learning, just point them in the direction of this report.

A new approach to online lab classes from the University of South Carolina

 Histology USC

Adams, S. and Duvall, B. (2014) Designing, building and supporting online lab courses, University Business, February 4

This article is a summary of a presentation made at the University Business conference last June. It describes how two biology professors at the University of South Carolina, Roger Sawyer and Robert Ogilvie, developed an online course on histology that was built around students being able to drill down into images of the cell at various levels through the use of a large repository of digitized slides of cells, accompanied by a voice over narrative:

Using Adobe Presenter to create the slides and WebMic to record the audio, Sawyer and Ogilvie built lectures, grouped slides together and developed quizzes. The program offered the flexibility for faculty to record and post content right from their desktops. With each set of slides, students can move ‘bit by bit,’ drilling deep down into a cell, reading the accompanying information, and listening to a narrative as they go. Since the self-paced content requires large files, it is hosted offline via Screencast (by TechSmith).

This was partly driven by space limitations in USC’s physical labs, and partly by increasing demand for students with health sciences qualifications. This approach has enabled the course to jump from 70 enrollments a year to 350. At the same time, student performance for the online students is the same as for the on-campus students, and over 90% of students rate the course highly on a number of variables.

One reason for the success of this approach is that the two professors worked closely with instructional designers and the university’s media services department. The team developed their own tool for recording audio over the slides (webMic), using ‘off-the-shelf’ apps, rather than programming from scratch.

There is a video recording of the presentation available here, which is worth watching because as well as describing the histology project, it also looks how online learning is being integrated into physical labs at USC, and the impact on room design. In other words, students and faculty need online access not only from home and office, but also while in the lab.

Sir John Daniel’s book review of ‘Beyond the MOOC Hype’ by Jeffrey Young

Young's book on MOOCs

Young, J. (2013) Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption Washington DC : Chronicle of Higher Education, 92 pp (available through Amazon for about $5)


Sir John Daniel has kindly offered his review of this book for publication in my blog.

Sir John Daniel’s review

In September 2012, as a visiting fellow at the Korea National Open University, I wrote an essay on MOOCs entitled Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. At that moment the phenomenon of xMOOCs was far too new to have generated any scholarly research and there was little academic literature on cMOOCs either, although they had been going since 2008. I therefore had to base my essay on the copious coverage of MOOCs by journalists and bloggers. MOOCs had captured the attention of the news media in a remarkable way, so this reporting was plentiful.

I found one of the best commentators on MOOCs to be Jeffrey Young, who has covered the MOOCs story for the US Chronicle of Higher Education from its beginnings. The thoroughness of his work impressed me. He took MOOCs himself as a learner and also performed a particularly useful service for those trying to make sense of the business model of MOOCs by using freedom-of-information rights to obtain a copy of the standard contract between the MOOCs-platform company Coursera and its university partners.

Young has now distilled his deep knowledge of MOOCs into an eBook titled: Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption. It is an excellent read, where he endears himself to non-American readers by being aware of developments outside his own country, a rare quality among US education journalists! He took a Manitoba cMOOC as a learner and visited the Indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi to find out more about open universities.

The seven chapters of the book address all the key issues. At the beginning, calling MOOCs ‘Education’s Jetpack Moment’, he draws an analogy with science fiction predictions that never came true in order to ask whether MOOCs really will stimulate the revolution in higher education forecast by enthusiasts. His concluding remarks carry the title ‘A Fight for the Future of Higher Education’.

He looks at both sides of that fight, his goal being neither to promote free online education, nor to present a critical diatribe, adding wisely that ‘the future is unknown and how things turn out will depend on college leaders, professors and anyone who might one day take a free online course’. For Young, ‘MOOCs matter, whether they work or not, because they have put the future of college into the national spotlight’.

He starts with the basic question ‘what is a MOOC’ and finds that MOOCs take lessons from a fusion of trends that add up to more than the sum of their parts. In chapter 2 he examines the history of MOOCs and tries to put them in the context of the long history of distance education. This leads him to the toughest question: ‘if MOOCs are free to students, who will pay for them?’ There is no assurance that any of the moneymaking schemes proposed for MOOCs will work. The later chapters look at how MOOCs might change classroom teaching, the claim that MOOCs threaten the long-term health of higher education, and whether MOOCs are an effective way to teach.

The book is enlivened by stories from the coalface about teaching and studying MOOCs and about his own experience as a learner, notably through an engaging account of the MOOC he took on song writing, which ‘stirred a feeling of discovery I haven’t felt since my days as an undergraduate’.

In the chapter on whether MOOCs work, he recalls the well-known fact that 80% of Coursera’s students already have a degree of some kind. MOOCs have failed to achieve the lofty objective articulated by their pioneers, which was to bring education to those who never had access before, whether in rich countries or poor. Young notes the growing sense that the US higher education system is broken, with the running costs of colleges – and therefore the levels of tuition fees – growing faster than the incomes of students wanting to go to college. MOOCs are not addressing that problem – at least not yet.

Central to this issue is the question of credit. Young points out that the few institutions offering credit for their own MOOCs have had only a handful of takers, though he notes that these offers had little publicity. Yet he reports that a substantial minority of faculty teaching MOOCs, notably in engineering, maths, science and technology, felt that their students deserved credit. Meanwhile other bodies, such as the American Council on Education, are recommending credit for certain MOOCs.

Some colleges, while not giving credit for MOOCs, will let students graduate in three years instead of four if they earn enough MOOC certificates. In this respect MOOCs can give pupils leaving secondary school the sort of advanced standing that they can earn by taking Advanced Placement tests or the International Baccalaureate, thereby achieving a 25% reduction in the overall cost of college. Other institutions are taking the obvious step of introducing MOOC like qualities – notably scale – to regular, credit-bearing online programmes so that they can reduce fees substantially.

In his summary of the fight for the future of higher education Young addresses three questions: should colleges be run like businesses; who should provide higher education; and how can colleges bring down costs? Noting that the faculty-centred nature of US higher education is responsible for its quality and dynamism as well as its accelerating costs, he makes the telling point that the opening of a new college campus is now extremely rare. This alone suggests that this business model has run its course, at least in the US. On the other hand, the entry costs to online teaching are low: ‘like the difference between buying a food truck versus building a nationwide chain of restaurants’.

This means that new players, not only institutions but also partnerships of faculty members and professionals, can join the higher education enterprise. Presently a key barrier facing them is the monopoly that colleges have on selling credits and degrees. However, the MOOCs explosion is already accelerating the break-up of this monopoly.

By stimulating policy makers to reflect more deeply on the cost structures of higher education, MOOCs have revealed the perverse nature of much recent institutional spending. Investing in technology without revising the classroom-teaching model has raised costs, not lowered them. Furthermore, colleges have tended to add amenities like fancier dorms or climbing walls, instead of improving their educational quality. Online programmes that highlight the quality and effectiveness of their teaching/learning systems rather than the grandeur of their physical plant could gain an increasing edge. Residential colleges will not go away but some will struggle to respond to the challenge of online learning that MOOCs have amplified.

Young completed his book in mid-2013. The MOOCs space is dynamic and there have been significant developments, both in the US and elsewhere, since that time. Nevertheless, his thoughtful commentary on the frenzied phenomenon of MOOCs remains highly relevant to decision makers grappling with its implications for their institutions.


Order of Canada for Sir John Daniel

Sir John Daniel

Sir John Daniel

Congratulations to Sir John Daniel for his appointment to the Order of Canada, ‘for his advancement of open learning and distance education in Canada and around the world.’ This is a well deserved honour, above all for Sir John, but it is also an important recognition of the importance of open and distance learning.

I first met a then young John Daniel in the early 1970s, when he was a visiting lecturer at the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University in the United Kingdom, where I was doing research on the television and radio broadcasts the BBC were making for the Open University. Since then, our paths have often crossed. At one time (exactly 24 years ago) I was emigrating from England to Canada at precisely the same time as John Daniel was coming from Canada to the United Kingdom to become Vice Chancellor of the Open University. I think of this as a hockey trade – the U.K. got a brilliant centre, and Canada got a grinder along the boards. (Yeah, well both are needed on a winning team).

Sir John has held senior academic positions at Télé-université, Québec, Athabasca University, and Concordia University, and was President of Laurentian University before becoming VC of the Open University. Later he became Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, and followed this by becoming President of the Commonwealth of Learning. He is now semi-retired but still based in Vancouver, BC, doing the occasional consultancy and many keynotes.

He now has national honours from three countries: L’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, France; a knighthood from the United Kingdom;  and the Order of Canada. Careful pinning on all those medals, John!


A Franco-Canadian forum on MOOCs

Stephen Downes in full flow - a sight to behold

Stephen Downes in full flow – a sight to behold

The conference

Last week was a hell of a week. I was at a two-day conference in Lyon, France (jet-lagged most of the time with a nine hour time difference) then at another three-day conference in Lisbon. So I’m trying to catch up. I’ll start with the Lyon conference.

The conference in Lyon was organized by Entretiens Jacques Cartier, an organization that promotes collaboration between universities in France and Canada. The topic of the conference was ‘Cours massifs et ouverts en ligne adaptés aux besoins du 21ème siècle’ (MOOCs adapted to 21st century needs). However, I prefer the French acronym CLOMs (Cours Libres, Ouverts et Massifs). The purpose of the conference was to ‘provide a comparative analysis of the state of the art of MOOCs to enable teachers, training managers and academic researchers to build MOOCs tailored to satisfy their goals and student needs.

As this is the third conference in a row I’ve been to that has been about MOOCs, there is not a lot more to say that I haven’t said already. I gave more or less the same presentation that I gave at MIT in the summer, on what lessons 25 years of research on online learning might have for MOOCs. Other speakers included Stephen Downes, Sir John Daniel, Richard Hotte of Téluq, Québec, and speakers from France, Belgium, Switzerland and several francophonie countries in Africa.

A combination of jet lag and a weakness in understanding French meant I missed quite a bit of the substance of the conference (sorry!) Nevertheless there were a few things that were very interesting and worth reporting.

Stephen Downes

I have heard Stephen speak before, but this was by far the best presentation I have have heard from him. He ‘outlined the major elements of a connectivist MOOC, with particular intention to distinguish it from other models of MOOCs, and to make the point that assessments of quality and effectiveness should be related to the goal of the MOOC model developed. In addition, in this presentation he addressed the subjects of diversity and community, and explained why a MOOC should not be thought of as the same thing as a community.‘ It was in essence a well explained and well defended exposition of his philosophy of learning and learning communities.

I’m not going to begin to provide a summary of this – it is too rich and complex to cover in a series of bullets – so I strongly recommend that you download his slides and above all listen to the audio recording of his presentation. (The slides, while amusing, don’t add a great deal to the substance of his talk). I will at some point make a personal review/critique of his theory, but at this stage I want to praise the clarity of his presentation, and to just state how devastating it is that Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng, Daphne Koller, Anant Agrawal and the rest of the Ivy League computer science crowd have completely misunderstood and moved contrary to the basic tenets of the connectivist MOOCs designed and supported by Stephen, George Siemens and Dave Cormier.

The ultimate irony of course is that Stephen cannot sue the bastards for breach of copyright, because his MOOCs and ideas are open to all, however badly others may abuse them.

FUN with MOOCs in France

As of November 2013, everyone (students, employees, job seekers etc.) can register on the France Digital University (FUN – France Université Numérique) website. Online courses (or MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses) designed by higher education institutions will begin in January 2014, in various disciplines: mathematics, history, philosophy, biology, law etc.

So says the English version of the web site of France Université Numerique, although for francophones there is more information here. In essence this is a French language portal funded by the Government of France’s Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche, although FUN will support francophone MOOCs developed using the edX platform. Forthcoming MOOCs include ones on digital multimedia and on mobile networks and yes, there is also one on French philosophers.

Contributions from francophone speakers

Stephen Downes provides detailed notes on the contribution from the francophone speakers, who in general offered examples of experience with francophone MOOCs (relatively few to date), pragmatic issues about quality and pedagogy, and more reflective ideas about the impact on privacy, English language hegemony (one of my favourite words), and the nature of knowledge.

What is clear is that MOOCs have gained much more traction, and much more quickly, in France than credit-based online learning has over the last 20 years. Credit-based online learning in general is relatively undeveloped for a country of its size and importance, with much of it being done outside the universities themselves, through organizations such as CNED (Centre National d’Enseignment à Distance). In this sense, MOOCs have been a wake-up call for French universities.


A report on a conference for Presidents, Rectors and Vice-Chancellors of open and distance learning universities held in Lisbon last week.