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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Students: Be very afraid of online degree programs, especially if Pearson had anything to do with them

The other day I read this article in Politico:

No profit left behind
In the high-stakes world of American education, Pearson makes money even when its results don’t measure up.

Anyone who cares about education knows that Pearson is running our school systems through its tests, grading of tests, and nearly anything else it can think of. What I learned in this article is that they are now a major provider of online courses to universities and virtual high schools as well. So, I thought I would take a look at their courses which would of course, be the usual crap mixture of reading and taking tests interrupted by a  lecture.

But, the University of Florida, one place that buys these courses, doesn’t show them to the casual viewer. Instead it provides a promo video which includes the following keywords:

innovative pedagogy
positive game play
social interaction 
promotes pure learning
encourages collaboration
values individual student identity
builds upon student’s strengths and interests
allows for student choice
provides opportunities for reflection

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought they were describing the learn by doing, experiential, mentored simulation courses that me and my team have been building for over a decade. We too have created an innovative pedagogy that encourages (in fact, it requires) collaboration. provides choices, and is big on reflection.

(I don’t know what pure learning is and I don’t know what it means to value student identity, nor do I think positive game play means anything, but, I am getting the idea that Pearson (and Florida) are learning innovative educational vocabulary rather then learning how to build good educational experiences.)

I went on in the U of Florida video. I found that:

Students interact with each other

This, I have found, means that there are student discussion boards and students get to talk to other students just as they do in MOOCs without ever actually involving the faculty in any way. There are “team discussions” which would be fine if they ended up in something shared and engaged with by a teacher, but that doesn't happen. What does happen is the use of “playful promo videos for each module topic,” which seems to mean a funny intro of some sort. There are also short “weekly constitutionals covering foundational topics.” I have no idea what that means. Maybe it means the lectures they assure us they don’t use or the readings they don't mention they will make you read.

They do have an instructor however. 

“The instructor interacts with students via twitter, live tweeting during public events, and sharing content related to course activities.”

Wow. The students get to read tweets from  a professor. Now that is an innovative pedagogy! 

We also find that “the course does not rely on assigned readings and multiple-choice assessments (although all those are featured to a limited degree.)”

I have no idea what that sentence means, but my best guess is that course is nearly all assigned readings and multiple choice tests since that is what Pearson does for a living and that is what Pearson is ramming down the throats of every student online and off line whenever it can do it.

We are told that students complete missions. What is a mission you ask?

“Missions are the experiential component of the course:   They have to interview people, they have to talk to people, they have to do research and they have to build something, whether its something as simple as an essay or maybe even an infographic, a digital timeline, or a video.”   

So students are writing essays as usual, but they can also make graphical or video essays. I wonder who looks at them. The twitter bird?

So this is what I learned: Be very afraid of online courses. They are worse than live courses by a lot, and live courses are usually just boring lectures and tests. 

Students: Be very afraid of these online degree programs  because if Pearson continues to be in charge they won’t be worth the price of printing the diploma. You will have learned nothing except how to argue with other students on a discussion board and take lots of test and complete many “missions.”

The U of Florida may use the vocabulary of experiential learning but accomplishing real live tasks, tasks that someone might one day actually employ you to do, requires the learning and practice of real skills.   But, building courses that simulate actual experiences is expensive, and neither Florida nor Pearson is willing to spend much money on building new things. If you want to see what an experiential learning by doing course should look like, take a look here:

They can steal our vocabulary, but they can’t copy what we do, mostly because they really don’t want to. 

Universities are, for the most part, not concerned with teaching. I also watched the video promo of an online U of Florida Psychology course where the speaker was the instructor. She never said what the online course was like but she did say the word “research” about ten times. 

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