By Phil Hill
Update: This paper can be found at the 20MM site and has also been broken into four separate posts on e-Literate:
- Part I: Introduction & Current Initiatives from Three Systems
- Part II: Three Basic Approaches
- Part III: Focus on Student Rights and Perspectives & Metrics to Collect
- Part IV: Recommendations
Three Basic Approaches
By its very nature, the problem of bottleneck courses is centered on access and scale. Students need access to courses which tend to be in high demand and are overenrolled. These high-demand lower-division courses imply the ability to scale the course in a cost-effective manner, to meet the realities of budget and enrollment demands.
Face-to-face education has relied on large lecture courses, often with hundreds of students enrolled, to try and address this problem. Despite the prevalence of large lecture courses, this approach has proven inadequate, however, as a general solution to scale and access.
For the past century in higher education, the core concept of course design is that an individual faculty member, or occasionally a small team of faculty members, designs and delivers each course. There may be some guidelines and policies from the institution, but after initial review of the course objectives and design, the course belongs to the faculty designing and teaching it. While there are many benefits to this model, there is a key challenge to consider.
How do you cost-effectively scale the course or program to provide greater access to more students given the explicit connection between course and faculty? There are three basic approaches to consider for California’s three public systems.
- Leveraging educational technology to increase capacity in traditional courses;
- Using internal online providers to help scale across campuses at each system; and
- Using 3rd-party online course providers to provide a safety valve.
In addition to the three basic approaches described above, there is a future consideration of promoting competency-based education and prior learning assessments.
Adjustment to Team Course Design
In many instances of at-scale online and blended education, a course gets replicated into multiple, relatively consistent sections in a repeatable manner. In this approach, instructional design teams – typically including multi-media experts, quality assurance people and instructional designers – work with faculty members and / or subject matter experts to design a master course. Once designed, the master course is replicated in multiple sections that can be taught or facilitated by multiple instructors, typically adjunct faculty. The faculty members that are part of the design can also be instructors for a couple of sections, but by-and-large the sections are taught by instructors who were not part of the design team.
This concept changes the assumptions on who owns the course, and it leads to different processes to design, deliver and update courses that just don’t exist in traditional education. The implications of this approach or concept are significant. Because of these differences, there is in reality an institutional barrier that makes it difficult for institutions to cross without deliberate strategies.
It will be difficult for many faculty to adapt to this new paradigm. For those faculty wishing to participate in a team-based course design, they will need support. For those faculty not participating, we should expect some discomfort and pushback from the concept. In both cases, there should be deliberate support for faculty to understand the online education concepts, to allow them to engage in the conversations about future directions, and direct professional development for those faculty developing and instructing online and blended courses.
Increasing Capacity in Traditional Courses
The most promising usage of online educational technology that could increase the capacity of traditional face-to-face courses is to develop blended-learning approaches that combine the best of online and the best of face-to-face within a course.
Blended or hybrid courses, including the recent push for flipped classrooms, combine online and face-to-face class time in a structured manner. Although there are varying mixtures of content delivery and interactive activities in this approach, the logical extension is something called the “flipped classroom.” The flipped classroom model involves courses that move the traditional lecture, or content dissemination, away from face-to-face hours and into online delivery outside of class time. The face-to-face class time is used for practice and actual application rather than for introducing the content being studied. The instructor then has time to help students face-to-face with specific problems. Flipped classrooms have been in existence since around 2000, but they have recently been gaining popularity in both higher education and K-12 institutions.
The common theme is to make face-to-face class time more effective, using it to provide much of the instructor feedback and interactive skills portion of a class while pushing content delivery into more-efficient online tools.
San José State University has made significant advances in blended courses based on their partnerhip with edX. Based on this success, the school announced the creation of the Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning, the first project of which will be to teach faculty at 11 other CSU campuses how to use an edX course on circuits and electronics as the basis for a flipped class. As described in the LA Times, “early results found students in this blended class setting passed at a rate of 91%, compared to a 55% pass rate for students in the conventional class.”
Beyond California, the National Center of Academic Transformation led an effort for Program Course Redesign from 1999 – 2003 that worked with thirty institutions to demonstrate “how colleges and universities can redesign their instructional approaches using technology to achieve cost savings as well as quality enhancements”. The redesign projects focused on high-demand, lower-division courses, “which have the potential of impacting significant student numbers and generating substantial cost savings”.
The outcomes of this program were documented at EDUCAUSE Review in an article by Carol Twigg, citing several key findings:
- “Preliminary results show that all thirty institutions reduced costs by about 40 percent on average, with a range of 20 percent to 84 percent”; and
- “Consistent content coverage means that all students have the same kinds of learning experiences, resulting in significant improvements in course coherence and quality control”.
More recently, the Open Learning Initiative through Carnegie Mellon University conducted a 2007 study looking at introductory statistic courses, replacing the traditional model with a blended approach. Based on an independent review by ITHAKA, they found that students in the OLI classes “performed as well or better than students in traditional instructor-lead classes”.
It’s a short step from training faculty on how to flip a class using outside content to a “distributed flip,” where those faculty members are sharing best practices with each other as they teach the same class using the same class using the same materials, and having their students interact with each other on the online discussion board.
Internal Online Providers for Statewide System
Given the faculty- and department-driven nature of many U.S. postsecondary institutions, the creation of campus-based online courses and programs is not at all surprising. Due to this often ad hoc nature, there are also myriad reasons for the online courses and programs, ranging from faculty exploration of the new medium to the specific needs of particular programs.
Faculty members teaching campus-based online courses are one of the most important yet overlooked sources of knowledge and experience regarding online education. Although ad hoc online courses and programs blazed the trail in what is possible, they are not typically designed to address bottleneck courses, as they are not designed for scale in terms of numbers of sections or students.
CCC in particular is a system with plenty of campus-based online courses – and in fact over one in four CCC students take at least one online course.
The non-profit organizations that have delivered online programs at scale have tended to be entirely new organizations within a higher education system. These new online organizations fit within the overall system governance, but the operations, budgets and academic oversight are typically provided by these unique organizations. Examples include Rio Salado College, University of Maryland University College, Colorado Community College Online, and Penn State World Campus.
One example of this approach is to partner with another organization who already has experience and capabilities to implement online courses at scale and the associated operations, while providing these courses through the traditional institution.
There is a burgeoning industry built around outsourced, for-profit service providers – companies that can outsource the adminitstrative, marketing, support and even instructional design services for an online program. The institution selects which services are most appropriate for the outside vendor to provide and which services should remain with the institution.
Recently UC Online and Cal State Online have been created, but as discussed in an earlier section they are not currently addressing bottleneck courses. There is no reason, however, that these organizations could not be re-purposed to directly target solutions for bottleneck courses, and this is one option to consider.
3rd Party Providers (Safety Valve)
The most common method over the past decade or two for institutions looking to increase scale and access has been to use separate organizations that will implement the online program. There is a rich history, dating from the late 1990s of outsourced organizations providing such programs.
With this history comes uneven success. The state of California and its higher education systems have been proud of the academic quality provided, and care should be taken that any outside organizations are chosen carefully for their quality standards and ability to work with the three public systems.
Perhaps the type of scaled course that is generating the most interest lately has been the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). In one version – typified by edX, Coursera and Udacity – the course itself is scaled to enable thousands of students to take the course from the faculty members who both design and lead the course. This design process can include a full instructional design team, but without the need to simply duplicate the course section itself multiple times.
The challenge for this 3rd party online provider approach is to ensure instructor – student interaction and support services that will help students succeed.
Rather than directly address the institutions and how they operate, a promising concept for 3rd-party online courses is Senate Bill 520 (SB 520) – the proposed legislation in California that would identify and approve a set of up to 50 online courses that the three public systems would accept as credit. This approach focuses on the student and (if successful), this approach will change the conversation. Admitted students would have the right to get the lower-division courses they need, and if the school cannot provide the courses, there will be a safety valve of online courses that the schools will accept for credit.
Recently, the SB 520 bill has been amended to incorporate feedback from faculty groups wishing to improve the quality assurance aspects that are important to the state. The themes of the amendments are to:
shift the approval of the pool of online courses from the California Open Access Resources Council (COERC) to the administration and faculty senates of the three systems (University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges);
- tie the administration of the program to the California Virtual Campus;
- restrict each course to matriculated California public higher education and qualifying K-12 students;
- tie the provisions of the bill to funding in the Annual Budget Act; and
- focus quality approval processes through academic senates of the three systems.
This approach, while not directly addressing what any individual college or university should do, does change the risk / reward structure. It is well-known that high-enrollment lower-division courses are in fact some of the biggest money-makers for a campus. By having the availability of 3rd-party online courses, it is likely that campuses would eventually have greater motivation to expand access internally and provide the courses for more students who need them, as a method of retaining revenue.
If a school chooses to cut the seats available for these critical courses, there would be a financial cost to their decision in a way that does not exist currently. Right now, once the enrollment is set, the schools gets the same state revenue regardless of whether they provide courses or not.
There is a little-discussed issue in public higher education. Are public institutions offering the right mix of courses and programs based on student needs? The bottleneck course problem is not as simple as a course problem – it’s also a curriculum problem.
The challenge, however, is to spark change in our higher education system without having outside parties (such as state government, accrediting agencies, online providers) micromanage what is essentially an academic-led decision on curriculum.
The goal behind the proposal of SB 520 is to provide an incentive system that avoids micromanagement – let the academic bodies lead curriculum decisions – but provides a risk / reward structure to help ensure student needs come first. Should schools decide to essentially outsource part of the lower-division curriculum while providing other courses not in such high demand? Yes, there are reasons to do so in many cases, and this should be a local campus decision. But if a school decides to use its resources this way, having a safety valve would reduce the likelihood that admitted students would be short-changed.
Prior Learning Assessment Competency-Based Education
Both Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) and Competency-Based Education (CBE) are based on the notion of moving beyond using seat time as the foundation of college credit, and both are biased towards non-traditional working adults. With the goal of improving time-to-graduation and ensuring students get the courses they need, one important approach is to eliminate the need for certain students who already have the requisite knowledge and skills from needing to take the class in the first place.
Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA, is a little-discussed strategy to facilitate time-to-degree, particularly for non-traditional students. The concept is to set up the structure and processes to evaluate corporate training from employment, military training, civic responsibilities, travel, and independent study and award academic credit from these out-of-the-classroom learning situations. As the higher education population diversifies with much higher percentages of working adults, PLA can be an important factor in reducing total cost and time-to-degree.
In 2010 the Council For Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL) published a study that was funded by the Lumina Foundation. One of the key findings was that “PLA students had better academic outcomes, particularly in terms of graduation rates and persistence, than other adult students”, and that “Many PLA students also shortened the time required to earn a degree, depending on the number of PLA credits earned”.
And for this same student population – primarily working-age adults with prior working experience -there are similar methods to fill in the holes of a program where they do not have the requisite knowledge and skills. This is the role of Competency-Based Education.
Competency-based education is based on the broader concept of Outcomes-based education (OBE), one that is familiar to many postsecondary institutions and one that forms the basis of many current instructional design methods. OBE works backwards within a course, starting with the desired outcomes (often defined through a learning objectives taxonomy) and relevant assessments, and then moving to the learning experiences that should lead students to the outcomes. Typically there is a desire to include flexible pathways for the student to achieve the outcomes.
OBE can be implemented in various modalities, including face-to-face, online and hybrid models.
Competency-based education is a narrower concept, a subset or instance of OBE, where the outcomes are more closely tied to job skills or employment needs, and the methods are typically self-paced. There are explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and knowledge (standards for assessment), and adaptable programs to enable learners different paths to achieve the required outcomes.
For these self-paced CBE initiatives, which are the subject of recent growth in adoption, the current implementations of CBE tend to be:
- Flexible to allow for retaking of assessments until competency demonstrated; and
- Flexible to allow passing of assessments up front and not even need instruction / activities, thus allowing credit for life experiences or prior learning assessments (PLA).
Both of these interdependent concepts are excellent approaches to improving time-to-degree for non-traditional working-age students.