Please Confuse Me with the Facts
A colleague of mine recently told me about her participation in a statewide gathering of K-12 and higher education faculty and administrators. At one point, the topic of “data-driven decision-making” arose.
For those of you who are not familiar with data-driven decision-making, here’s how a recent RAND Corporation occasional paper describes it: “In recent years, the education community has witnessed increased interest in data-driven decision making (DDDM)—making it a mantra of educators from the central office, to the school, to the classroom. DDDM in education refers to teachers, principals, and administrators systematically collecting and analyzing various types of data . . . to guide a range of decisions to help improve the success of students and schools. Achievement test data, in particular, play a prominent role in federal and state accountability policies. Implicit in these policies and others is a belief that data are important sources of information to guide improvement at all levels of the education system and to hold individuals and groups accountable.”
My colleague was puzzled by this topic as well as by all of the discussion surrounding it. At one point, she hesitantly raised her hand and asked, “Excuse me, but what other kind of decision-making is there?”
To say that higher education is most decidedly not data-driven might be the understatement of the century. This is never more apparent than when our community is confronted with something new.
I have recently been drawn into a debate--most notably on the Inside Higher Education (IHE) web site--about the virtues of a new higher education entity called StraighterLine. StraighterLine is a new, online option for earning college credit for general education courses. A division of SMARTHINKING, the experienced and highly successful online tutoring service, StraighterLine combines online, individualized tutoring services with commercially available course content to create a set of general education courses. Students purchase these courses directly from StraighterLine and may earn credit by transfer to one of StraighterLine’s partner academic institutions or to a college of the student’s choice.
Why is NCAT involved? It started when Burck Smith, SMARTHINKING’s CEO, posted the following to the IHE web site: “StraighterLine courses were designed using the principles of the National Center for Academic Transformation's course redesign model. These principles--that the student engage with the content rather than being lectured to, have 24/7 academic assistance, and use alternative staffing strategies to run the course--have demonstrated significant cost reductions and student outcome improvements.”
Burck’s point got re-stated by the editor of Inside Higher Education, Scott Jaschik. “Smith cites leading education thinkers to explain his approach to education at StraighterLine, and in particular notes the work of Carol Twigg at the National Center for Academic Transformation, which argues--just as Smith says his company does--that courses need to be redesigned and that higher education should not assume that the traditional professor model is the best way to promote learning.”
Burck then went on to say, “The NCAT model and the SMARTHINKING service have both shown proven improvements in student outcomes. I will also note that the NCAT model and the StraighterLine model only really works with high-enrollment, relatively standard, general education courses.”
While there are a number of inaccuracies in each of these statements, perhaps the most important one is that there is no such thing as an NCAT “model.” NCAT does not have a model nor do we advocate one. In fact, we have identified six models that have emerged from the course redesigns invented by pioneering faculty and staff across the United States. Even within those six models, there are many variations in the ways in which the model is applied, depending on the particular circumstances of particular institutions. We identify practices that show increases in student learning and reductions in instructional cost and share those practices with the educational community. We hope that the number of redesign models will continue to increase.
So, while we do not have a “model,” StraighterLine does. And the model is both simple and compelling.
What is StraighterLine’s Model?
StraighterLine’s model has three primary components:
- Courses - McGraw Hill educational materials developed by educators who have spent years thinking about how to teach introductory courses to college students (you can read about their course development process at http://onlinelearning.uvcms.com/index.php?page=our_courses_and_programs), which are used by thousands of colleges and universities.
- Tutoring - online tutoring and writing assistance provided by SMARTHINKING to students at colleges and universities. By providing tutoring online and to many institutions, SMARTHINKING improves service and provides 24/7 assistance that wouldn't otherwise be available. SMARTHINKING has hundreds of institutional clients.
- Partnerships – a growing list of institutions who have agreed to award credit for successful completion of the courses. Current partners include three for-profit institutions; Charter Oaks State College, a nontraditional college for adult students; and, Fort Hays State University (FHSU), a traditional institution of 10,000 students in Kansas.
Currently, StraighterLine offers ten general education courses: Introductory Algebra, College Algebra, Precalculus, Developmental Writing, English Composition I and II, Economics I and II, and Accounting I and II. More courses are in the pipeline.
Students can start any time they like, set their own schedules and work at their own pace.
What do these courses cost? $399 each.
Affordable, accessible, flexible, high-quality courses with on-demand assistance. What’s not to like?
One would think that in a time of rising college costs, slashed budgets, laid-off faculty, furloughs, course enrollment caps, community colleges bulging at the seams, and so on, StraighterLine would be welcomed with open arms. You may be surprised to know that this is not the case. The higher education community, as illustrated by the discussion on the IHE web site, appears to be horrified by this new alternative to traditional higher education. One blogger on another site described the phenomenon as “a straighterline to higher education hell.”
Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts
Many of the objections to StraighterLine that have been raised are easy to dismiss and reflect a lack of knowledge (data-driven decision-making!) in higher education.
- Courses offered via distance learning cannot be as good as those offered face-to-face.
Posting: “Can anyone actually tell me (with a straight face) that virtual general education classes offer the same quality as face-to-face instruction from passionate educators on the FHSU campus?”
Distance learning is now accepted practice in higher education since just about every institution in the country offers fully online courses. This debate is over.
- Institutions should not transfer credit from non-accredited sources.
Posting: “Is this an ‘end-run’ around accreditation?”
Awarding credit for work done elsewhere is common and accepted in higher education since, again, just about every institution in the country allows students to bring credit to the college in a myriad of ways. This debate was resolved many years ago. Colleges routinely award credit for AP, CLEP, ACE, dual enrollment, life-skills assessment, or credit transfer from other colleges. There are also many third-party companies and programs, both for-profit and non-profit, that provide programs for which universities offer credit under their own names: Gatlin Education, Bisk Education's University Alliance, Ed2Go, Regis' New Ventures, the Institute for Professional Development, to name a few. Agreements with these entities are acknowledged by regional accreditors.
- You get what you pay for.
Posting: “If the courses Burck Smith provides are not as good as courses taught by a qualified teacher in a classroom (as I and many of the other respondents to this article likely assume), then Mr. Smith provides a lesser product at a lesser price. You get, in other words, what you pay for, and caveat emptor applies.”
See my comments under distance learning.
- Colleges should not out-source.
Posting: “The outsourcing of course content, grading and teaching of required gen ed courses calls into question serious issues of academic integrity and professional ethics.”
See my comments under transferring credit.
What does NCAT Think?
Even though I took exception to Burck’s characterization of NCAT’s planning methodology as a “model,” we do have a lot in common.
(I wasn’t too crazy about his implication that NCAT thinks full-time faculty members are not essential to ensuring high quality in higher education-–we believe they most certainly are. The issue is how their oversight is carried out in practice.)
There is no question that there is a need to reduce the cost of higher education-–that issue is unarguable-–and it is clear that StraighterLine is doing this. Because StraighterLine courses are relatively inexpensive, they provide a good option for many students. There is a clear benefit to both students and the taxpayer.
Some think that StraighterLine must do a better job in improving higher education’s dismal record with basic and remedial courses. Jaschik writes, “The theory behind StraighterLine is that many colleges have poor track records at teaching general education courses. If StraighterLine can do a better job, and selected colleges like Fort Hays grant credit, those colleges may be attractive places for the StraighterLine students to transfer to finish their degrees.”
It seems to me that alternate providers do not need to do a better job than traditional higher education; they just need to do an equivalent job. Many of our redesign projects at well-known universities have been motivated by increasing the cost-effectiveness of established high quality courses. The Virginia Tech (math), LSU (math) and Arizona State (graduate early childhood education) projects all wanted to maintain the quality of their traditional versions of the course while reducing the cost of offering them. If StraighterLine can offer courses at less cost and with more flexibility for students, they would seem to be a welcome addition to the higher education community.
So it seems to me that the only question that needs to be answered is, is the quality of StraighterLine courses as good as those offered at traditional campuses or perhaps even better?
The Need for Due Diligence (Please Confuse Me with the Facts)
Institutions considering awarding credit for StraighterLine courses need to know that the courses are equivalent in rigor to those offered at their particular college or university. They need to ascertain whether the course requires student work comparable to that at their institution--not to the university in the sky where all courses meet the Platonic ideal of the perfect course. They need to have enough information about the course to form an educated judgment about its quality and to accept the course as transfer credit. They need to do due diligence.
Posting: “I have personally seen and reviewed StraighterLine’s offerings and would stake my reputation on both their quality and rigor. I would have no hesitation to put them side-by-side in comparison with any course developed by any institution, anywhere. No, I did not "drink the Kool-Aid." I took the time to investigate both sides of the issue.”
Here are the facts
- The course objectives are available on the StraighterLine website.
- The learning materials are available on the StraighterLine web site.
- The learning activities are available on the StraighterLine web site.
- The course assessments, which match the course objectives, are available on the StraighterLine web site.
- The grading criteria are available on the StraighterLine web site.
- The point distributions that make up the final grade are available on the StraighterLine web site.
Look at them. If they meet your standards, you should consider accepting the courses as transfer credit. You should consider recommending them to your students who cannot get into the same courses on your campus. You should consider whether the quality offered by SL is better and more consistent than what you are currently offering and, if so, consider outsourcing these particular courses to StraighterLine. If they do not meet your standards, you should not do any of the above. The choice is yours. Larry Gould, provost at Fort Hays State University, took the time to look at the facts and concluded, “What is it about StraighterLine courses that provides me with a higher level of confidence about judging quality relative to, say, credentialed transfer credit from a community college or ACE? It’s simple. I know more about StraighterLine content, design, syllabi, instructors, etc. StraighterLine courses are more open and consistent than the credits that many colleges are already accepting under existing credit-transfer regimes.”
Students today want and demand flexibility in their educational pursuits. This flexibility includes the ability to participate anywhere at any time. Working students who cannot attend a class at 9:00 am, business people whose responsibilities take them on the road too often to consistently attend an on-campus course, servicemen and women who are never stationed at one location long enough to complete a degree, traditional-age students who need to make up a course for one reason or another—the list goes on and on.
StraighterLine courses are self-paced in that students can begin at any time and complete a course at their own pace. StraighterLine offers two payment options for students: one course at $399 or continuous enrollment at $99 per month. Thus, able students can complete a course for $99. Each course comes with up to ten hours of one-on-one live interaction with a qualified SMARTHINKING tutor (90% have a masters degree or Ph.D.) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A student struggling in college algebra at 2:00 am can get live help within three minutes. In addition, each student is assigned a course advisor who works proactively to move them through the course.
Posting: "My Comp I course changed my life."
That’s great – I’m sure it did. But what about all of the students who failed Comp I? I can assure the reader that the latter outnumber the former. What about the students who failed to get timely feedback on their submissions? What about students who are not required to complete enough writing assignments to improve their skills due to large class size and/or instructor unwillingness to grade papers beyond a certain number? Students in StraighterLine’s English Composition I course submit eight essay drafts and six graded essays and receive personalized feedback typically within 24 hours.
And what do these courses cost? Somewhere between $99 and $399 each. Please confuse me with the facts.
--Carol A. Twigg