Improving Higher Ed

One aspect of higher education that I feel is missing is the connection between the research and the teaching. Obviously there are more things missing, but when it comes to my own personal engagement in my studies, it is safe to say that I wasn’t considering graduate school until I took a class on research, which completely flipped my world upside down. And it wasn’t until after I started to look into graduate school and started challenging myself with upper level courses that I realized where all of our information comes from, which is primary research that is translated into peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Had one of my professors handed me a scientific publication during the first semester of my freshman year I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. First off, I wouldn’t have recognized the formatting of the paper so I wouldn’t have understood the difference between the abstract and the introduction or why the discussion is even important. Secondly, I would have tried to read the first few paragraphs, failed at understanding the message, and then felt stupid for not understanding. And here is where I think the problem lies; there is a fine line as a professor where you may expose undergraduates to primary research and they understand the concepts or they completely miss the point.

Carson and Miller from North Carolina State University reported on a successful way to engage first year undergraduate students with research, which involved incremental steps of exposing undergraduates to primary scientific literature through journal clubs, helping them to understand what they’re reading, and essentially adding more responsibility to the students until they were capable of successfully working on their own project and utilizing their new ability to read scientific literature critically to help them do so.

Kozeracki and colleagues also showcased the importance of engaging undergraduates (not first year students) with scientific literature and how the increased confidence that comes from understanding scientific literature and the subsequent ability to use this information to help one’s own study is of vital importance for future success in academic or professional careers.

I can personally agree with both of these studies, which enforce the necessity of controlled exposure of scientific literature to undergraduates. I can honestly say that I wasn’t genuinely engaged in my future after my undergraduate education until I took a class centered on research during my sophomore year at Ohio State. During that class I realized the importance of research, how interesting it can be, why we need to perform research in order to better understand our ever changing world, etc… I will always attribute where I’m at today to that class and how it exposed me to research, and I think it is of the utmost importance that higher education tries to engage students to think about research, scientific literature, and how that relates to what they’re learning in the classroom. At the moment, too much of it is reliant on the student to go out and do most of the searching on their own, but I think that is where more professors should step in, reach out, and bring in more students on their own.

Are Massive Open Online Courses the Future in Academia?

The idea of taking a class with 50,000 other students would sound like something out of a science fiction novel a few decades ago, but today that idea is almost seen as inevitable. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are what make this classroom size possible, but it isn’t just the class size that is worth mentioning, but rather the idea that many students are able to get quality teaching instead of just the few who can fit inside of a lecture hall.

In principle, this idea that MOOCs can provide high-quality teaching to the masses is wonderful. Providing education to the masses (and not just the masses with money) around the world is a beautiful idea that I believe shouldn’t be thought of as a dream, but rather should be the norm. Examples of a single mother with two children as well as a 15-year-old prodigy from Mongolia completing and passing an electric-circuits MOOC in 2012 show the good side of MOOCs and offer promise to an exciting shift in future education. On the other end though, we see the partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity (a for-profit MOOC company) in 2013 that resulted in such terrible passing rates that the program was ultimately discontinued. Couple this negative result in the MOOC movement with dropout rates around 96% and the picture for MOOCs is not very pretty.

The argument for MOOCs in the classroom, though, is that these results have only been in the past five years, which is a very small amount of time to make a final decision on something as large as education. Also, while MOOCs may have started out with the intention of providing high-quality education (i.e. Stanford education) to those who would have never been accepted to Stanford, there is still promise for people who are not planning on attending a university at all, but rather are just looking to learn about a particular subject from a knowledgeable source. Whether or not they have to pay for it remains to be cleared up, but profit or non-profit, there seems to be enough interest still in MOOCs to keep pushing forward.

As for how online education is fairing in general, a 2014 report has shown that people taking at least one distance education course has increased 3.7% from 2013 to 2014, which is larger than the overall increase in higher education in the US. That being said, from the same survey, only 28% of academic leaders said that their faculty think online education is valuable and legitimate form of education. And while MOOCs have been on the tips of tongues for the past few years, only 8% of higher education institutions offer a MOOC as well as only 5.6% reporting that they intend on incorporating MOOCs in the future. And to top this off, the proportion of academic leaders who believe MOOCs offer value for education has dropped 16.3% in the past year.

While some of these numbers may seem daunting for the MOOC movement, it should be remembered that numbers aren’t permanent and perceptions can be changed. Obviously as younger generations, who are more used to using current technology, step into faculty positions this perception may change, but at the moment it appears as though the push back is strong. I, for one, think MOOCs can offer great alternatives for people looking to obtain information, but how they fit into higher education in the current climate remains to be seen, if at all. They may not replace higher education entirely, but there must be a way to fit them in somewhere.