The CITE, a blog published by the National Association of College Stores, takes a look at the intersection of education and technology, highlighting issues that range from course materials to learning delivery to the student experience. Comments, discussion, feedback, and ideas are welcome.

Friday, July 21, 2017

MS Plans to Connect Rural America

More than 23 million people in rural America, including college students, have no broadband access. Microsoft plans to change that.

The company announced an initiative to connect two million rural Americans over the next five years by using a cheap technology on the wireless spectrum known as TV white spaces to transmit broadband data. Microsoft also asked the Federal Communications Commission to keep the spectrum available and to collect data on rural broadband coverage to help policymakers and companies provide Internet access.

The initiative probably won’t produce impressive financial results, but it is politically savvy.

“[President] Trump on the campaign trail used rhetoric to speak and resonate with those voters, in these sort of left-behind economies as we talk about them,” Seth McKee, associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University, told National Public Radio. McKee added that building a digital infrastructure should get backing from both parties.

“They would be a first mover,” McKee said of Microsoft. “If they were the first ones to really go in this area and actually show some willingness to put some skin in the game, that could go a long way in terms of politicians taking notice and further bankrolling this sort of thing.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Tools Foil Fraud on Online Exams

When a college student takes an online exam for an online course, who’s really sitting in the test-taker’s seat—the student who enrolled or someone else?

Potential cheating has always been a concern for online college courses. New analytical tools, according to a report in EdTech magazine, are helping institutions ensure that the person who gets credit for the course actually does the work.

By analyzing how thousands of honest students fill out an examination form, researchers can determine if a dishonest student is trying to cheat or obtained access to test questions in advance.

Other schools are attempting to prevent cheating with online proctoring services. Students must take the exam from a computer with a webcam that keeps an eye on their work during the test. In case a student is tempted to substitute an impersonator, figuring the school won’t know the difference, some services verify the person’s identity with scanned photos.

On the positive side, proctoring services also enable “the university to offer students more flexible test times, an important factor for some nontraditional students,” said the report.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The BYOD Approach Comes of Age

While quite a few K-12 school districts now have 1:1 programs to provide a Chromebook or other digital device to every student for classwork, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) programs have found favor in many other districts for combining that same sort of access with lower expenditures and fewer technical hassles.

Initial concerns that students would use their devices to play games, watch cat videos, or access social media during school have been dispelled by strict use policies, detailed communication with parents and families, and efforts to instruct children on responsible behavior both online and in the classroom.

Although there is usually flexibility to allow students to use a device with which they’re most comfortable, in some districts smartphones are not among the permitted devices. The preference is for something with a screen large enough for students to write and create diagrams. If a child doesn’t have an appropriate device of their own—or doesn’t want to bring it to school—they may be given access to a district-supplied Chromebook or tablet.

“We recognize that students are living in a digital age, and BYOD helps students establish the foundations of digital citizenship,” Superintendent Robert Shaps, of Mamaroneck Union Free School District, Westchester County, NY, told the Associated Press.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Concerns about Personalized Learning

Many have jumped on the personalized-learning bandwagon because of its potential to tailor instruction to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. While the promise—and substantial funding from groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—is there, the results aren’t quite livingup to the hype.

A recent RAND Corp. study of 40 K-12 schools found that customized instruction does produce gains in test scores in math and reading, but those gains were just 3% better than average scores in a more traditional school setting. The study also noted students in personalized-learning schools who started the year academically behind did slightly better than their counterparts in traditional programs.

However, there are challenges. Finding time to develop customized lessons for each student was the most significant issue for instructors, who also had trouble finding high-quality digital resources.

“There’s a growing acknowledgement of the reality of how personalized learning actually plays out,” said Benjamin Riley, executive director of Deans for Impact, a nonprofit that focuses on teacher preparation. “Even if it were a good idea, developing a personalized-learning path for every student, in a system that has to educate tens of millions of children, might not be realistic.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Foreign Students May or May Not Show Up

In a few more weeks, U.S. colleges and universities will learn which recent report is the most accurate in predicting whether international students will still enroll in American schools this fall. Some institutions’ budgets depend on the full tuition these students typically pay.

As a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education noted, three different studies drew somewhat different conclusions about the intentions of foreign students this year. While one study estimated foreign enrollment might even exceed original projections, two others saw signs of an impending drop in international students.

The uncertainty over the proposed travel ban is expected to have an impact, but The Chronicle noted some institutions “adjusted their recruitment and admissions strategies in order to head off potential declines.” As a result, these schools received a positive response from foreign students and anticipated relatively normal enrollment.

However, two groups of overseas students might be more likely to stay away from American colleges and universities. Students from India, which make up 15% of foreign enrollment in the U.S., are showing increased interest in Canadian schools and fewer are requesting information about U.S. institutions.

The other group are master’s degree students. Unlike students in bachelor or doctoral programs, “students who pursue a master’s … often are taking time out of careers to earn an advanced career,” said The Chronicle. “Delaying a year while the travel-ban dust settles may be the easiest for this group.”

Monday, July 10, 2017

Public Ed Asset Used for Private Gain

At a time when the Census Bureau reports a quarter of U.S. households are without Internet access, critics contend that a federal program to shrink that gap is broken, with much of its revenues enriching nonprofits and commercial operators while many low-income and rural students are left still bereft of needed access.

The Educational Broadband Service (EBS) grants school districts and educational nonprofits free licenses allowing them to use a portion of spectrum—the range of frequencies that carry radio and the mobile Internet—to offer instructional services using low-power broadband and high-speed Internet access.

EBS traces its origins to a post-Sputnik push in the 1960s to modernize American education, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allotting a section of spectrum to encourage teaching by television. Since then, the government has given away thousands of licenses. When spectrum use officially shifted from TV to the Internet in 2004, the value of those licenses suddenly shot through the roof.

One observer told The Hechinger Report that “licensees got blindsided by a bunch of money,” with commercial operators offering cash payments running from tens of thousands of dollars up to millions to lease spectrum in a major metropolitan area. Many license-holders chose to lease up to 95% of their spectrum instead of using it for public purposes. It’s estimated that about 90% of the approximately 2,400 EBS licenses have been at least partially leased, many of them for 30 years.

The majority of EBS licensees have just one or two licenses, but over the years a handful of nonprofits have accumulated a national network of 50 or more spectrum licenses.

“Think about the amount of pure lease payments they receive for this public asset that they don’t own, which they’ve been given to steward,” said Zach Leverenz, founder of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit whose aim is to eliminate the digital divide.

While a fraction of those big nonprofits’ revenue from leased spectrum does support providing students, seniors, and other groups with broadband access, reviews of tax disclosures show that in at least one case, about three-quarters of those revenues were instead directed into savings and investments.

Leverenz has called for greater accountability and transparency for the program, but the FCC has demurred from making any changes, stating that the best course is to continue relying on “the good-faith efforts of EBS licensees.” 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Quality Matters to Online Students

Quality tops convenience for most online college students, according to a survey of 1,500 former, current, and prospective students. However, Online College Students 2017 also found that most of these students still live near the institution where they take classes.

The study noted that while students usually stay close to home, just over half requested information from three or more schools, a 23% increase over the 2016 survey. The number of students who considered only one school fell from 30% to 18%.

In addition, most students (59%) said they would change some part of their search for an online program and 23% of current and past students said they wish they had contacted more schools.

More than half of the respondents said they would take a course in person if it wasn’t available online. Nearly 60% said they traveled to campus at least once a year to meet with instructors or a study group and about three-quarters said they liked virtual office hours for teachers. About a quarter of the respondents said more engagement with classmates and instructors would improve online courses.

The study also reported that 81% of online students use their mobile device to search for a program. Nearly 70% said they use their devices to complete their studies.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Take-Home Devices vs. ‘Summer Slide’

More school districts are allowing students to take home school-issued devices over the summer break to reduce learning losses known as the “summer slide.”

There is no research yet to back the success of the practice, but educators say they hope that letting students use school laptops or tablets to extend learning through the summer will bridge the gap between haves and have-nots by providing access to students who otherwise wouldn’t have it.

“Summer is the most unequal time in America,” Matthew Boulay, interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, told NPR. “I think we tend to have this idyllic view of what childhood summers are, but the reality is that for kids living in poverty, summer can be a time of isolation and hunger.”

There are, however, observers concerned that districts need to supply parents with instructions on proper device use at home so the technology isn’t wasted on games rather than educational content and so it doesn’t pull kids away from family activities during the summer.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Enjoy the Fourth!

From all of the NACS Inc. staff in Oberlin and Westlake, as well as the staff in California and Washington, D.C., have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Friday, June 30, 2017

New Standards Rate E-Books’ Accessibility

Benetech, a nonprofit social enterprise that focuses on scalable technology solutions to improve accessibility and human rights, has rolled out a third-party verification program that lets schools and colleges determine how well e-textbooks meet the needs of visually impaired or dyslexic students or those with other print disabilities.

Called Global Certified Accessible (GCA), the program was developed in conjunction with the U.K.’s Royal Institute for the Blind, Vision Australia, and Dedicon, a Dutch creator of accessibility products and services, and underwent a six-month pilot. GCA is a standardized ratings system for evaluating digital titles based on more than 100 accessibility features. It can be used by publishers as well as school districts and higher-ed institutions, and recommends remediation where content falls short of its standards.

“We find that files improve significantly after first-round reviews and that subsequent files reflect the insights gained from our feedback,” said a Benetech release.

Accessibility is a key issue for schools, both to serve students better and to avoid legal action for falling short. A Blackboard study earlier this year indicated that the average overall accessibility score for college and university campuses hasn’t improved greatly over the past five years, inching up from 27.5% to just 30.6%.

On the publishing side, Ingram Content Group will incorporate GCA into its VitalSource and CoreSource platforms. Elsevier, HarperCollins, Harvard Business Publishing, Macmillan Learning, and Penguin Random House are among GCA’s other early supporters, although the system is now open to all publishers.

“Every publisher should strive to make their content as accessible as possible,” Denis Saulnier, managing director of product design and delivery, higher education, for Harvard Business Publishing, said in a Benetech blog post. “The first step is getting an accurate snapshot of compliance. Benetech’s process is invaluable in identifying areas of improvement and helping to prioritize work.”

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tool Brings Gaming into the Classroom

“Gameful” instruction allows students to choose assignments they think are challenging and uses software to guide them through those choices. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, recently launched a tool to make that learning approach available in the classroom.

GradeCraft employs competitive leaderboards, badges, and links to unlock information to help students work their way through the coursework. The web application also allows instructors to create course shells in the learning management system (LMS) where students are encouraged to try new things, as well as receive analytics about their progress.

“Everyone starts at zero and then they build toward mastery of the course material,” Barry Fishman, a U-M professor who helped developed the tool, said in a university release. “We get questions about how rigorous a course is given how many students earn high grades, but we consistently hear instructors describe their students doing creative and high-quality work. When you design these environments properly, you can create an incredible learning experience for students.”

The tool, developed in 2012, was made available to all U-M faculty through its LMS earlier this year. Some parts of the gameful learning software are now being used in 58 courses, serving more than 10,000 U-M students. A site license has also been purchased by the University of Arizona.

“We believe gameful is a great way to reconnect students to learning and we’re excited to bring it to a larger audience,” Fishman said.

Monday, June 26, 2017

OER Project Takes Off at Community Colleges

After its first year, Achieving the Dream’s Open Educational Resource (OER) Degree Initiative appears to be on track for success, according to the 38 community colleges taking part in the project.

The initiative intended to boost the use of OER for community-college courses as a means to reduce the cost for students. A new report released by Achieving the Dream said that “faculty at colleges participating in ATD's OER Degree Initiative are changing their teaching and that students are at least as or more engaged using OER courses than students in non-OER classrooms.”

The report estimated students saved an average of $134 on textbooks per course, although it also noted a more in-depth study was underway to determine true savings “given that not all students purchase textbooks at full price, and some OER savings may be offset by other costs.”

Among the strategies deployed by the initiative was targeting faculty who had experience using digital resources as part of online or hybrid courses and encouraging them to build on that experience in developing and selecting course materials for regular classes. The quality of the materials was the main factor for faculty; cost to students ranked second.

The report also outlined a number of “key actions” to increase faculty use of OER materials, including providing more training and support, better communication of the initiative’s long-term goals, enabling faculty to work together on OER materials to save time, offering incentives, getting noninstructional staff to assist with OER, and “getting students involved in evangelization.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

MOOC Less Stressful to MIT Students

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, departed from its normal practice of marketing massive open online courses (MOOCs) to the public by offering a popular circuits and electronics class to its on-campus students for credit. A study of that pilot program found students who took the class online not only liked the flexibility, but also reported feeling less stress.

MIT launched the pilot to address student concerns over scheduling conflicts. The results have MIT administrators considering more ways to create flexible learning environments for students and professors.

“As you can imagine, MIT students are a very active bunch,” Sheryl Barnes, director of digital learning in residential education, told Insider Higher Ed. “And they expressed frustration they couldn’t resolve scheduling conflicts by having more flexibility.”

There were differences between the MOOC version of the class and the traditional course. MOOC homework and final exam allowed for multiple tries at answers, but provided no partial credit. MOOC students weren’t able to review their graded exam to find out which answers they got wrong, but were provided instant online feedback on homework.

“On the open courseware version of the class, they have lecture slides for each topic that also almost match identically in order of topic,” one student said in the report. “And so I’d just read through all those lecture slides, which were similar, but it was just a little cleaner and a little easier to go through. And they had nice summaries at the beginning of each lecture, like a review of what was covered in the previous set, so I went through those, and then I’d go to the homework, and then while doing the homework, as needed, I’d go back to the videos and watch to listen and review over anything that I didn’t get.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Gen Z Blurs Line Between Web and Physical

Generation Z’s first college graduating class has already made its mark on the world by being the first “phigital” generation—a term coined to indicate these young adults (born 1995-2012) don’t separate online from offline. It’s all one experience to them.

In an article for eSchool News, writer Meris Stansbury noted how “phigital” students are reshaping higher education. For one, this group has had access to information via the Internet their entire lives, mostly through mobile devices.

“For higher education, it’s never been more important to allow prospective students to explore their potential institutions via mobile and online methods,” Stansbury wrote.

Because of their exposure to digital technologies, Gen Z seeks more personalization, customization, and individual options when it comes to their studies. While millennials typically liked to tackle class projects in groups, Gen Z students prefer independent work in order to pursue their own goals.

As part of that, Gen Z also expects coursework to provide some sort of real-life connection, such as supporting social causes or honing skills directly related to jobs after graduation.

“In higher education, many colleges and universities have begun tailoring courses, like journalism, to the real world by harnessing ed-tech to mirror current job expectations,” Stansbury wrote. “They’ve also started creating entirely new programs to address current student and job market interests.”