Raising the Stakes Without Raising the Price

In a new article for PBS NewsHour, Timothy Pratt discusses how Georgia Tech’s Computer Science MOOC Master’s Degree is a proof-of-concept for MOOCs in degree programs. One of the points he brings up is the low completion rates which, though not valid indicators of MOOC success in general, are important for degree programs.

A big reason that so many people dabble in, but don’t complete, MOOCs is that they are free—students make no financial commitment to the courses. Pratt references a study that found that paying for online courses is enough to increase completion rates to between 68% and 82% at community colleges, and indeed students at Georgia Tech are paying $6,600 for their degrees.

While $6,600 is still thousands of dollars less than a traditional master’s degree costs, it isn’t insignificant, and as one goal of MOOCs is to make education more accessible to all who want it, it seems like we can do better. One option is to charge something, but not an exorbitant amount. For example, according to Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller, pass rates among students who sign up for the company’s paid Signature Track programs (which cost about $50) are around 70%. Putting several of these courses together for larger credential, such as in Coursera’s Specializations, costs only a couple hundred dollars. But a couple hundred dollars might still be out of reach for learners in many developing countries, who are making up an increasingly larger proportion of MOOC students.

Is there a way we can raise the stakes without raising the price? Here are a few ideas:

Accredited degree programs. University of the People is a tuition-free accredited online university that is not based on MOOCs. According to the website, its completion rates are between 85% and 90%. This suggests that having “skin in the game” doesn’t necessarily require paying tuition, but that working toward a recognized credential might be enough.

Industry-recognized credentials. Not all students need degrees. Instead, they may be interested in earning certificates and badges. While many MOOCs do offer these things, there aren’t yet many industry-recognized alternative credentials available.

Employer support for continuing education. If MOOC completion were tied to promotions and raises in the same way as continuing education, the rates would probably go through the roof.

What are some other ideas for encouraging students to get more “skin in the game”?

What About a MOOC on How to Go to College?

Last week, I wrote a post about MOOCs’ potential in boosting college readiness. The idea here was primarily academic—judging by recently released ACT scores, only about 40% of students hoping to attend college are academically prepared to do so.

But there is another aspect to college readiness: understanding how the whole college thing works to begin with.

In a recent article for The Evolllution, University of South Carolina’s Susan Elkins describes four challenges rural high school students face in getting a college education. Two of the challenges she identifies are comfort with college and underpreparedness. Many of these students are first-generation college students and have not had the same access and exposure to college students or graduates as their more urban, second- or third-generation counterparts. She notes that “students in underserved populations often do not know ‘how to go to college,’” and that for them the experience can be “as daunting as traveling to a foreign country without knowing the language or having an interpreter.”

The University of Pennsylvania has a MOOC aimed at international students called “Applying to U.S. Universities.” What about a similar course for underserved students in the United States on “How to Go to College”? Something that could help rural and other underserved students bridge the gap, perhaps through interviews and discussions with current students and alumni. The course could include information about what college is like, what is expected of students, and probably much of the material from UPenn’s course on how to navigate the application process.

Taking the course may also help expose underserved students to the types of technologies they will be expected to use in college, as well as start to develop a support network, which are both challenges Elkins identifies.

How else might MOOCs be used to help students learn about and become more comfortable with the idea of going to college?

Data science is all the rage right now, as companies in all industries scramble to incorporate big data into their operations and especially their marketing. Gartner has predicted that by next year, there will be 1.9 million jobs created in the United States to support big data. And that’s just in IT – the firm expects that for every one of these positions, three roles will be created outside of IT.

The problem will be finding the talent. Gartner global research head Peter Sondergaard has said: “There is not enough talent in the industry. Our public and private education systems are failing us. Therefore, only one-third of the IT jobs will be filled. Data experts will be a scarce, valuable commodity.”

The higher education system has started to respond to the huge increase in demand for data scientists, but that response has been slow. For students interested in pursuing this pathway, there are several programs available, mostly at the master’s level. There are, however, other options. Alternative education providers have heeded the call, offering faster, less expensive pathways to a data science career.

Here are four ways to become a data scientist, without getting a degree.

Coursera’s Data Science Specialization

Coursera’s Data Science Specialization, offered by Johns Hopkins University, is a nine-course program that culminates with a capstone project. The program is offered completely through MOOCs. According to the company, top students will be profiled on the Simply Statistics Blog, and some will have the chance to video-conference with instructors. At the end of the program, students will have a portfolio of their work. Total cost (verified certificates plus a fee for the project): $490

Udacity’s Data Science Track

Udacity’s Data Science Track consists of 11 courses developed in partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology as well as industry leaders including Facebook and Cloudera. The courses can be taken free of charge, but for access to tutors and projects, the price is $150/month per course. They are self-paced, but Udacity estimates they will take between one and three months each. The company also has a nanodegree in Data Analysis coming soon.

edX Foundations of Computer Science XSeries

This seven-course XSeries offered by MIT is more geared toward computer science, but does include a course in data science. Not all of the courses are available yet, so the earliest one could finish is the end of 2015. Total cost (program fee plus course fees): $425

Data Science Bootcamp

Building on the popularity of coding bootcamps, Kaplan’s tech training company Metis and Datascope Analytics have partnered to launch a 12-week Data Science Bootcamp. Like other bootcamps, this is a full-time in-person program that includes tech education as well as career-related activities. The total cost is $14,000, scholarships are available for underrepresented minorities, and the company will refund a portion of the tuition to students who get a job through their placement program.

MOOCs to Boost College Readiness

A new report on ACT scores is out, and the results are a far cry from encouraging. According to the company, only 39% of students who took the ACT in 2013 scored at a level indicating that they are ready for college. Since a college degree is increasingly important for employees to be competitive in the job market, this number needs a serious boost. Can MOOCs help?

Students who enter college without being ready to handle the academic challenges face an uphill battle in more ways than one. Not only do they require remediation (extra courses to get them up to speed), but this effort also often means it costs more and takes them longer to earn their degree.

MOOCs have been proposed as one way to bridge the “college readiness gap,” by providing a way for them to up their knowledge and skills without too much additional investment of time and money.

One experiment in using MOOCs for remediation is currently underway at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College, Tri-C for short. Using a grant from the Gates Foundation, the school developed a math MOOC for students at local high schools who were likely to enroll in the college. The MOOC is hosted on Blackboard’s CourseSites and was built using open educational resources. According to the college, the goals of the course are fourfold:

•  Addressing the developmental education challenge and Tri-C’s priority to help students get to college ready status at a faster pace.
•  Opportunities for partnership with K-12 by targeting high school students and helping students get to college ready status before they enroll at Tri-C.
•  Supporting returning students who want/need a brief math refresher.
•  Contributing to explore innovative and experiential practices in teaching and learning […].

Results of the MOOC haven’t yet been released, but it seems like even a small increase in college readiness would be a huge benefit—both for students and for the school. If it is successful, it could be a valuable model for other community colleges around the country that are undoubtedly faced with the same situation.

Here are some other MOOCs specifically targeted at high school students.

Employers Rate Experience More Valuable Than Academics

In just a week or two, millions of students will quit their summer jobs and head to their dorm rooms for the start of yet another school year. For most of these students, one of the main reasons they are earning their degree is to prepare to enter the career field of their choice. However, according a recent survey, what employers are really looking for can’t be obtained sitting in a college classroom, because what they really want is experience.

When asked about the relative importance of various experiential and academic factors, employers were decisive in their emphasis of experience over academics. The top two most highly rated factors were internships and employment during college. College reputation, GPA, and relevance of coursework were at the bottom of the list.

These results may come as an unwelcome surprise to all of those students who work so hard and take on significant amounts of debt to attend elite colleges. They may also be a bit shocking to educators and administrators at those elite colleges. But they really aren’t surprising to anyone who has been following the sentiments of employers lately. Hiring managers are increasingly unimpressed with the skill levels of recent graduates, thus, they are now emphasizing what graduates can do rather than other more traditional factors, like major and GPA.

This is great news for students. If employers are more interested in demonstrable skills than in college transcripts, it may open the doors of gainful employment to students who have the skills, even without the transcripts. Learners who can’t afford or don’t want a traditional education may be able to pursue alternative educational pathways, like MOOCs, and then translate these pathways into an internship. Read more about how to use your MOOCs to gain an internship and also how to translate your MOOC-plus-internship experience into a job.

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