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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.


Monday, April 23, 2018

OER Benefits Extend Beyond Price


As open education librarian at the City University of New York, Ann Fiddler and her colleagues have been working for the past year to help faculty members integrate open educational resources (OER) into their courses as part of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $8 million budget investment to provide OER to students at the 21 campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY) and the 64 campuses of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.

In an opinion piece for the education website The 74 Million (a reference to the number of children in the U.S. under the age of 18), Fiddler noted that by this coming fall, CUNY students in high-enrollment classes should have saved $8.1 million through use of OER. However, she added that the impact of open content goes beyond dollars and cents, citing four other powerful effects:

1) Faculty members become reinvigorated about their vocation as they retool their courses for OER, sometimes involving their students in the creation of new learning materials.

2) With OER, all students, no matter their financial situation, have their course materials and are prepared to learn on the first day of class. Previously, because of high textbook prices, some students waited until several weeks into the term to buy some materials or skipped purchasing them entirely.

3) Evidence is beginning to mount that OER can improve student outcomes. Fiddler noted that in one CUNY math course, students using OER scored 10 points higher on the final exam and were three times as likely to pass the course as their counterparts using traditional print materials. While still early days, she said she expects further positive data as OER are expanded to more campuses and more classes.

4) OER foster collaboration, not only within systems and within states but across state borders. SUNY and CUNY are collaborating on the launch of Open NYS, a community to showcase and support use of OER for those just getting started. The group is already sharing best practices with officials in Maryland, while learning from early adopters such as California.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Online Able to Provide High-Quality

Some advocates argue that online learning can lead to better outcomes for students, lower costs for institutions, and more access to minorities. A new report concludes all are possible, if colleges and universities do it the right way.

Making Digital Learning Work, a study of digital-learning initiatives at three four-year institutions and three community colleges, found a generally higher retention rate for online students and improved outcomes for Pell-eligible and minority students. It also noted enrollment increases as a result of digital-learning initiatives.

At the same time, the report concluded that online courses do cost less to produce because higher student-to-teacher ratios and less need for classroom space offset the financial investments in course quality. It also suggested that some of the key practices in launching a digital-learning effort include a strategy to meet the needs of different students, support for remote accessibility, and treating faculty members as partners in the process.

“It is clearly important for colleges and universities to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to digital learning, making innovation a part of their institutional culture and embracing evidence-driven decision-making,” the authors of the report wrote.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Part-time Instruction Short in Other Ways

Two new studies reinforce previous research showing college students are less likely to continue their education if the first courses they take are taught by adjuncts or part-timers, rather than tenure-track faculty.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported one study looked at community college students taking remedial and introductory courses and found that fewer students in adjunct-taught classes moved on to the next course in the sequence. The other study examined students enrolled in STEM courses at four-year schools. More STEM majors switched to other fields after experiencing intro courses led by adjuncts.

Both papers were presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference.

The reason doesn’t appear to be that adjuncts are overall less capable at instruction than full-time faculty. Instead, the findings pointed to the lack of opportunities for adjuncts to assist students individually after class, often because they don’t have time due to a larger teaching load (sometimes at multiple campuses, requiring travel) and they may not have an office. Struggling students who can’t get help from their instructors tend to drop out or shift to an easier major.

“The new papers suggest that providing better support for nontraditional faculty members could make a difference for students,” noted the Chronicle article.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Prevent a Virtual Divide Before It Happens

As new technologies enter the learning landscape, educators need to ensure their introduction doesn’t create a “digital divide 2.0,” wrote Emory Craig, director of e-learning and instructional technologies, College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle, NY, in a piece for EdTech: Focus on Higher Education.

Virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are already beginning to offer virtual labs and field trips, interactive storytelling, and immersive world-building experiences. However, the cost of some VR headsets and the computers capable of supporting them can be quite high.

Lower-cost systems so far tend to confirm the truism that you get what you pay for. While Google Cardboard offers an easy-to-use, affordable option, its visual experience is poorer and interactivity is limited by the lack of a hand controller.

Newer, standalone VR headsets that don’t require a smartphone or external computer may prove to be workable solutions. Facebook, which has a stated goal of getting a billion people using virtual reality, plans to release at least two standalone devices this year through Oculus VR. Google and the Taiwanese company HTC Corp. both have standalone VR headsets in the pipeline as well.

Craig suggested that dedicated spaces or events, available to everyone on a campus, will broaden access to VR and AR experiences. “In the near future, we may see VR headset carts, checkout stations, and even lease/purchase initiatives in some academic programs,” he said, adding that institutions could also host events to allow students and faculty to experiment with rented or demo devices.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Maybe Classrooms Should Be Phone-Free

While the debate over smartphone usage in the classroom rages, new research suggested that even having the device nearby can pose an issue. Experiments conducted jointly by the schools of management at the University of Texas, Austin; the University of California, San Diego; and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, found students who had no access to their phones outperformed those who had the phone on their desk or in their pocket.

“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” said Adrian Ward, co-author of the report and assistant professor at UT-Austin’s McCombs School of Business. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

The study asked students to sit at a computer and take tests that required concentration. The first experiment split students into three groups that either left their phones outside the testing room, placed their phones face-down on their desk, or kept the phones in a pocket or bag. Students who didn’t have access to their phones outperformed both of the other groups on the tests.

The second experiment divided students into the same groups, but asked them to self-report their smartphone dependence when their phones weren’t handy. Students who admitted to being dependent on their phones did worse on the test, but only when the phones were on the desk or in their pockets.

“As educational institutions increasingly embrace ‘connected classrooms,’ the presence of students’ mobile devices in educational environments may undermine both learning and test performance—particularly when these devices are present but not in use,” the final report said.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Virginia Law Mandates OER Guidelines

Virginia is for open educational resources, or at least state legislators there think so.

The governor recently signed into law an amendment directing all public colleges and universities to develop guidelines for adopting and using open educational resources (OER) for their courses. The measure allows institutions to include low-cost commercially published materials in the guidelines, along with free and open materials.

While other states, such as Florida, have passed bills calling on their public institutions to take concrete steps toward reducing the cost of course materials for students, Virginia’s new law is apparently the first to emphasize OER to this degree. Virginia law already requires faculty to be aware of the retail prices of the course materials they choose and encourages them to select used editions when feasible.

Some university systems and individual institutions have set up programs to provide grants to professors for the creation of OER. The Virginia bill doesn’t include any funding for resource development, leaving it up to the schools to figure out how to motivate faculty.

The state’s Department of Planning and Budget, in its impact statement on the law, acknowledged, “It is unknown how many faculty members of Virginia’s public institutions of higher education would embrace the use of open educational resources and low-cost commercially published materials in their courses.”

The law takes effect July 1.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Gen Alpha’s Lifetime of AI

For children just entering kindergarten—the so-called Generation Alpha—interacting with devices driven by artificial intelligence may be among their earliest memories, and will mark the beginning of a lifelong intimate relationship with AI.

In February, the BBC announced it would create a “Listen with Alexa” series of bedtime stories to be read to children by Amazon’s virtual assistant through the company’s Echo and Echo Dot voice-operated smart speakers. Since most voice assistants don’t feature a screen, some observers view their use as avoiding the risks excessive screen time poses to healthy social development.

Giving smart speakers an even bigger role in family life, however, raises concerns about their replacing some necessary and beneficial interactions with parents or guardians. In addition to bedtime stories, AI-powered devices may also take over homework duties. While that could appear a boon to tired working parents, it also presages a significant shift in family dynamics and how children learn to interact with others.

Of course, familiarity with artificial intelligence should also benefit upcoming generations, as AI will continue growing to play a role in nearly every aspect of their lives, from home appliances to transportation to their education and work.

While most Americans remain positive about AI’s impact, nearly two-thirds predict its rising use will eliminate more jobs than it creates, according to a Northeastern University/Gallup survey of almost 3,300 U.S. adults conducted last fall. More than half of respondents said they see it as a greater threat to U.S. jobs over the next decade than immigration and offshoring.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Gen Z Looking at Info on Majors/Minors

Generation Z is often described as pragmatic and cost-conscious. A 2017 study showed just how pragmatic those students are.

EAB Enrollment Services’ The New College Freshman Survey found that 70% of the 4,800 college freshmen surveyed said they visited college websites to find information about majors and minors, up 4% over the results of the 2015 poll. College costs came in a distant second (45%), followed by information on scholarships (25%), financial aid (24%), and general information about the school (21%).

The report also noted that students checking out college ads on social media sites are still very interested in information relating to majors and minors offered at the institutions. Just over 40% of the students said information on majors and minors was the most useful part of their social media search.

Other studies by EAB have found that Generation Z students select majors and minors that will have a stronger impact on their job prospects. That fits with a rise in the number of engineering and business majors that many colleges and universities are reporting. A study by New York University found that 12% of students switched to another field of study when presented data on what majors actually earn once they enter the workforce.

“One ‘so what’ of this New College Freshman Survey finding, and from the return-on-education phenomenon overall for that matter, is that colleges and universities should be thinking more deeply about the enrollment impact of their program portfolio choices,” Anika Olsen, an EAB consultant, wrote in a blog post. “We find that as many schools review their academic programs and make changes, they too seldom and too narrowly factor in market information from enrollment managers.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Social Sites Serve as Academic Media, Too

Even though most higher education institutions have learning management systems that are intended to provide each class with a platform for communication and content sharing, some students and faculty members are tapping into social media for those purposes.

In the January 2018 Student Panel Survey fielded by NACS OnCampus Research, 69% of the student respondents said they had personally used social media for some type of academic purpose (such as sharing notes or asking questions) and 38% indicated at least one of their professors had incorporated social media into a course (creating a community or posting content, for example).

When asked which social media sites they had accessed for academic reasons, 53% of students named Facebook, followed by YouTube (30%), Snapchat (23%), LinkedIn and Instagram (12% each), Twitter (11%), Pinterest (6%), and “other” (5%), which were mainly document-sharing and messenging platforms.

Facebook probably received the most use because more students have accounts there (89%) compared to YouTube (75%), Instagram (74%), or Snapchat (72%), but it’s not the most popular site with college students. Asked to pick their favorite social media (up to three), more students chose Instagram (51%) and Snapchat (50%) over Facebook (42%), despite fewer students having an account with Instagram or Snapchat.

Facebook could lose more ground with collegians. OnCampus Research data show student accounts with Facebook have remained relatively static since 2015, while other sites have enjoyed substantial growth. For example, just 49% of students had Snapchat accounts in 2015.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Blockchain a Potential New Publishing Model

Blockchain is best known for underpinning the bitcoin cryptocurrency, but the technology is still in its infancy and may grow to be adapted to a vast array of other applications.

Information recorded on “blocks” is linked on a shared, public, and continually reconciled database that isn’t stored in a central location that would be vulnerable to hacking. The data in any block can’t be modified without altering every subsequent block, which would require a consensus of the majority of users on the network.

“The blockchain lets people who have no particular confidence in each other collaborate without having to go through a neutral central authority,” observed The Economist. “Simply put, it is a machine for creating trust.”

In a post updating a 2016 prediction on his Personanondata blog, business strategy consultant Michael Cairns noted that one area where blockchain could be applied is publishing, where it might be employed to identify copyright information and form a new method for buying, selling, and licensing intellectual content.

“Once a transaction occurs,” he wrote, “the user is supplied with a unique key for accessing the content. If the user subsequently wants to sell or lend the item, they pass their unique key to the next person for their use. This process eliminates the ‘residual’ copy issue which arises when someone tries to sell a secondhand e-file.”

He went on to list a host of companies and organizations that are already developing solutions for applying blockchain to publishing, peer review, licensing, royalty accounting, and micro-transaction payments. One of these is Publica, a platform that uses blockchain and cryptocurrency tech to facilitate direct transactions between authors and readers and enable any author, publisher, store, institution, or business to use digital keys to buy, sell, trade, or lend digital books or print on demand locally.

Such a solution could certainly be used for academic course materials, including obvious intersections with the open educational resources movement.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Limitations to Predictive Analytics

Colleges and universities are using predictive analytics, such as grades, test scores, and attendance, as a tool to help students succeed. Austin Peay State University, Nashville, TN, was a pioneer in predictive analytics, developing a system called Degree Compass to guide students to courses they should take to satisfy degree requirements.

After initial success, the university discovered limits to what the technology could provide.

“It is simply a tool that’s available for anyone to use,” said Loretta Griffy, math professor and associate provost for student success at Austin Peay, who currently oversees the Degree Compass program. “We have a decentralized faculty advising model, which means we have 385 academic advisors. They each have their own individual styles and how they interact with students and we have a variety of advising tools that they can use. This is just one of them.”

In 2013, Degree Compass was acquired by the software firm Desire2Learn, which stopped allowing students to see grade projections to avoid discouragement. The firm also found that institutions weren’t enamored with the student-directed degree-planning tool and that it was a challenge to integrate Degree Compass with a school’s course catalog and the student information system.

“Sometimes we really hit the mark and nail it early, and get it to the point where something is cultured in our organization by the time the market is ready for it,” said Kenneth Chapman, vice president of market research and strategy at D2L. “I wouldn’t call Degree Compass one of the applications that we saw as hitting the mark.”

Degree Compass is something of a Catch-22, according to Griffy. The algorithms the tool uses need a student’s prior grade history to accurately recommend courses and majors, but students can’t gain much from the information until they have attended classes for a semester or two. By that time, they may have already decided their academic path. Besides, paper degree-planning charts can be just as useful.

“But it’s not fancy,” Griffy said. “You print it and walk around with it. It’s very simple.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Budget Bill Boosts Open Textbooks

The $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill signed into law March 23 sets aside $5 million for the Open Textbook Pilot, a program intended to underwrite development and expansion of open educational resources (OER) for higher education. The aim is to trim the cost of course materials for students without diminishing their learning.

While the omnibus bill doesn’t spell out exactly how the Department of Education should distribute the funds, Washington Monthly said it will most likely use the proposed Affordable College Textbook Act (ACTA) as a guideline. The act, which has been introduced in the House and Senate multiple times, most recently in September 2017, calls for establishing a competitive grant program to create or adapt open textbooks.

ACTA also supports assistance for faculty in finding and reviewing open materials, improving access to OER (especially for students with disabilities), assessing OER to ascertain actual cost savings and academic outcomes, and fostering partnerships among higher education institutions and other groups.

ACTA also “highlights several additional considerations for evaluating proposed projects and selecting grantees, including evaluating an institution’s demonstrated capacity to create high-quality resources, focusing on high-enrollment courses at the institution, and making a clear plan for marketing and distributing open textbooks to faculty and students,” Washington Monthly noted.

There’s no timeline for implementation, but $5 million isn’t a lot of money for a national program.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Calculus Gets Gamified at Texas A&M

With so many students being avid gamers, providing coursework within video games offers a chance to make learning more relevant and show how the concepts being studied can be applied outside the classroom.

To that end, Texas A&M University, College Station, gave researchers a $100,000 grant to commercialize 3-D video games in calculus and art history/appreciation as supplements to standard coursework. The games are offered by Triseum LLC, a company that grew from the Texas A&M Department of Visualization’s Learning Interactive Visualization Experience (LIVE) Lab. Triseum’s CEO is also founder and director of the LIVE Lab and an assistant professor teaching game design and development at the university.

In Variant: Limits, players work to save a fictional planet from imminent destruction by assisting the game’s protagonist in solving a series of increasingly complex calculus problems. Prompts within the game allow students to refresh themselves on theory or firm up the concepts involved.

The one-month, one-credit elective isn’t a replacement for a normal calculus course, but is instead intended to keep students motivated and engaged with the subject to boost retention. Of those who voluntarily took the course last year, about 72% said it increased their knowledge. When a high-school teacher in Milan, Italy, assigned Variant as homework for her calculus class, she saw the pass rate on her final exam rise from 80% the previous year to 100%, with grades overall notching up by 10%.

“Much of the content in the game was new for them, yet I didn’t have to push them to get through it,” she wrote in a blog post. “They wanted to apply what they were learning throughout the game so they could see what would happen next.”

Triseum’s ARTé: Mecenas game positions players as a member of the Medici family in Renaissance Italy to discover how local and international economic policies and negotiations influenced art patronage and the creation of artistic masterworks.

A mathematician who helped develop Variant said the games could be expanded into a suite of games to cover their subjects more comprehensively.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Louisiana Finds Way to Deliver Good OER

While open educational resources (OER) are often touted as an important step in keeping the cost of course materials in line, finding quality materials can be a problem, especially for K-12 instruction. Teachers surfing the web for individual lesson plans is not really an ideal way to deliver excellent content.

“There’s more bad OER out there than good; that’s a fact,” Rebecca Kockler, assistant superintendent of academic instruction for Louisiana, said during a panel discussion at the recent SXSWedu conference. “We need to find the quality stuff and elevate it for everyone.”

The Louisiana Department of Education has taken a positive step in the right direction by making integrated curriculum available on its website. The content is aligned with the state’s core standards and adaptable to the needs of individual students, providing teachers with more time to just teach.

The Louisiana approach also couples professional development for teachers with the sharing of best practices and curricula, and it’s paying dividends. A 2017 study found record growth in the high-school graduation rate and the rate of college attendance. In addition, the research noted that state fourth-graders had the highest learning gains in the nation in a national reading assessment test in 2015.

“Using OER wasn’t our goal,” Kockler said. “Quality was our goal.