There are a lot of bright ideas floating around about higher education right now: that massive online courses are the answer to more affordable education, that tuition should be free, that administrative bloat is to blame for the increasing cost of tuition, and many other ideas that are often taken for granted.

Not so fast, say William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson. In their new book, Lesson Plan, published by Princeton University Press, the two authors hold these ideas for education reform in the cold light of reason and evidence, based on their expertise in the field. In most cases, they argue against the simple solutions being offered in the mainstream press, and propose more nuanced approaches.

Bowen was president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988. After Princeton, he joined the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he investigated topics in higher education.

As an author, he has written or co-written 19 books, including The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, and Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. His co-authors have included former Harvard president Derek Bok and Eugene M. Tobin, former president of Hamilton College, among others.

McPherson, the co-author of Lesson Plan, is president of the Spencer Foundation and formerly president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The two recently talked to Scott Jaschik, co-founder of the online magazine Inside Higher Education ( Excerpts from the interview are reprinted below:

In the introduction, you discuss how “so-called crises” in higher education are “overblown.” What do you consider the fundamental incorrect critiques of higher education today?

Perhaps the dominant case is the supposed truth that all or most people who attend college are “drowning in debt” that threatens their future opportunities and livelihoods. The fact is that most people who successfully complete a B.A. degree borrow a manageable amount of money (at public institutions about 40 percent borrow nothing at all) and wind up substantially better off in financial and other ways than if they had forgone college. In fact, the people who are at greatest risk of getting in trouble with debt from college are those who spend time in college and emerge with no degree or certificate.

But the fact is that even if you don’t borrow any money, spending time, often years, in college and emerging with nothing is a serious misfortune. Debt is a real problem for a limited subset of borrowers, and we need to do much better at helping people avoid this kind of problem and at solving the problem if it does emerge. But the central issue here is the dropout problem, and we shouldn’t let an obsession with debt blind our eyes to the need to focus on improving students’ prospects of success in school. Money is part of the equation, but it is far from the whole story.

Here are two other topics we will mention more briefly.

Controlling “administrative bloat” is not the key to bringing public college tuition down. The big thing pushing public tuition up is state governments’ reducing their real higher education spending per student as a result of budget pressures and expanding enrollments; total nonfaculty employment per student has barely risen at all in public higher education in recent years. Let’s not spend energy solving a nonproblem.

Rescuing every small college from closing, no matter its future prospects, is no way to strengthen the private college sector. Certainly, strong efforts should be made to preserve these places, which are often important community assets. But some colleges need to close, and that is best done in an orderly way, before the final crisis arrives, leaving students and employees stranded. The fact is that the small-college sector would be in better shape if there were fewer institutions and the remaining ones were larger and more robust financially.

In several parts of the book, you stress the importance of academic rigor as opposed to speed of learning. Would you discuss how rigor and substance seem to be missing from the emphasis on training people as speedily as possible?

We think colleges need to be places for learning, first of all; being places for credentialing should be a distant second. As the great work of Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz suggests, it is by building a better-educated workforce, not merely a more credentialed one, that the largest benefits of higher education come about. We worry that learning may sometimes get lost in the rush to give credit for prior learning, or to set students up to take a series of tests with minimal instructional support (as some — not all — competency-based learning programs appear to do). Some of these efforts may lose focus on the hard and time-consuming work of helping students learn.

That said, we absolutely reject the idea that slowness is a good thing in itself. Both intuition and evidence indicate that full speed ahead is the best setting for a demanding program of learning. We think colleges can be strengthened by reducing time to degree, and that encouraging students to attend full-time, even at the cost of doing some borrowing, is wise.

One of the most popular ideas in some circles today is free or debt-free public higher education. You write critically of this idea. Why?

A basic problem with making public higher education free in a society as unequal as ours is that the benefits of “free” will go disproportionately to people from higher-income families. Such students are more likely to go to college, they go to places like research universities that are more expensive to run and they go for more years because they are less likely to drop out. Making those advantages free is not the way to achieve greater equity! At the same time, making the colleges that low-income students are more likely to attend free isn’t good enough to meet their central needs. Eliminating tuition doesn’t solve the problem of covering living expenses, and we would rather see some of the money that would go to eliminating tuition for the affluent devoted instead to support for living expenses for disadvantaged students.

Even more important, for the most part the public institutions that are most likely to serve low-income students don’t succeed in seeing enough of them through to graduation. It is in our view far more important to make these colleges more effective for the students they serve than it is to make them less costly. And the most promising ideas to strengthen community colleges and broaden access to four-year institutions will cost money to implement and sustain.

You note both the potential of technology to improve pedagogy and the way this promise has sometimes been oversold. How can academic leaders think about technology in a better way?

We think two big points need attention. First, we need to think about educational technology as a developing field. People have been trying lots of things and learning a lot (and making many mistakes) as they do so. We see signs, particularly in the field of foundational mathematics, that there is the potential for real breakthroughs through the use of adaptive learning, in which the computerized instruction provided to a particular student adapts to the level of skill and understanding that the student reveals in her responses to problems and exercises.

The second big point is that the world of software engineering has increasingly come to think of human and computer-based approaches as complements instead of substitutes. Thus, while there is a place, particularly in professional training, for the kind of purely online learning that may replace the work of an instructor wholly, there is increasing recognition that the best results in many instances may come from hybrid courses in which human instructors rely on computers to complement, extend and, we hope in many cases, make less costly the provision of instruction. In some areas, this seems to be happening quickly, in others perhaps more slowly. We would modify a familiar aphorism about simplicity: everything should happen as quickly as possible, but not more so.

#b#Online Education: Potential to Weigh But Not a Panacea#/b#

In their new book, Lesson Plan, former college presidents William Bowen and Michael McPherson write that “ongoing advances in information technology offer higher education extremely promising opportunities to improve outcomes and control costs. This subject deserves a high place on the agenda for change. In thinking about the potential of technology . . . and the potential for online learning in particular, a useful mantra is distinguish, distinguish, distinguish — between types of online learning, kinds of courses taught, student populations, and so on. There is so much ‘noise’ in this rapidly evolving area that generalization is hazardous, albeit necessary in limited ways.

One obvious distinction is between MOOCs (“massive open online course”) and other forms of online learning. The age of hyper-adulation of the MOOC has come and gone. To be sure, MOOCs are here to stay — but they are no panacea. . . . They are not the solution, at least in their present form, to the needs of mainline educational institutions seeking to improve outcomes for their students while reducing or at least controlling costs.”

To see how some area colleges are approaching online education, U.S. 1 interviewed representatives from the College of New Jersey, which has mostly traditional college-age on-campus students, and Rider University, which serves adult learners as well.

The two institutions have taken different approaches to online education.

The College of New Jersey, a four-year institution, has been less aggressive in offering online classes, but is offering a growing number of them, and is integrating technology into its traditional courses. U.S. 1 interviewed Judi Pruitz Cook, the director of TCNJ’s Office of Instructional Design, about the college’s online offerings.

Could you give an overview of TCNJ’s online learning programs, and a description of how the courses work? We don’t currently offer any fully online programs at The College of New Jersey. What we do have are a small number of online courses that have been developed and offered primarily during our winter and summer sessions. These are asynchronous online courses, so students have the convenience of logging in when it best for them, as long as they complete the work according to the course calendar. The courses are taught through our learning management system (Canvas) which allows for all aspects of the course to take place in an online environment. Lectures, discussions, assignment submissions, etc. all happen online.

What do you see as the advantages of online courses? Online courses provide flexibility for students with a busy schedule or an inability to travel to campus. There are also opportunities to participate in online discussions and engage with peers in a way that could be intimidating in the traditional classroom if a student is shy.

Additionally, online course content is available to be revisited. A student can return to the course material and access it as often as needed. There are also skills an online student will develop in terms of communicating, collaborating and operating in an online environment that may be useful in a professional capacity. These are just a few of the benefits that come to mind.

Other than strictly online courses, what Internet-enabled elements are professors including in regular classes (e.g. the “flipped classroom,” etc.)

We have faculty developing blended courses, which incorporate both online and face-to-face delivery modes. Outside of our blended and online offerings, TCNJ students will encounter a variety of internet-enabled course elements depending on their course of study and their individual professors. I work with many faculty who bring online resources to their face-to-face courses through Canvas.

The flipped classroom is a nice option for faculty who want to encourage students to engage with specific course content on their own, outside of the classroom, so that when they do meet face-to-face they can spend class time on activity-based or collaborative learning.

What results have you seen from online classes? Are student outcomes better, worse, or the same?

Our online offerings have been low, so I don’t have a formal sense of student outcomes in comparison to face-to-face courses at TCNJ specifically. Moving forward, this is something to examine more closely. Anecdotally, I get the sense that student learning is the same in our online courses. A 2010 report from the US Department of Education (“Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies”) suggests students actually perform better in an online environment.

Are there any downsides that must be mitigated?

We are purposefully taking our time and rolling out online and blended courses at a slower pace than other institutions. We don’t want to sacrifice or lose any of our TCNJ identity by adopting online programs or courses too quickly. We also want to be mindful of providing our students with the learning environments that meet their needs, too.

Will online courses be a bigger part of TCNJ in the future?

We are in the process of developing some masters programs that will likely have a blended format. It all comes down to finding the delivery mode that meets the instructional needs of the curriculum and the students. For some majors or disciplines, online courses may provide an important option.

Rider University has been under pressure due to declining enrollment, and last year was forced to pare back its course offerings and make cuts in faculty and staff. At the same time, the college has sought to make efficient use of its resources by taking advantage of technology.

Boris Vilic, dean of the College of Continuing Studies, was one of the early pioneers of online education. Before joining Rider 10 years ago, he was director of technology and faculty team leader for computer systems technology curriculum for the school of leadership and professional advancement at Duquesne University. He has an MBA from Duquesne and a bachelor’s in administration from LaRoche College in Pittsburgh.

Vilic, who grew up in Croatia where his mother ran a nursing home and his father was a businessman, first encountered online learning as a graduate student in the mid 1990s when he helped organize Duquesne’s first online course. Since Vilic joined Rider, the university has launched a number of online-only courses aimed at working adults, including a bachelor’s in nursing, a bachelors of business administration, and graduate level classes in psychology, accountancy, homeland security, and organizational leadership.

Vilic said last year Rider had more than 2,500 enrollments in online courses. “For working adults, they’re juggling family responsibility, employment, sometimes multiple jobs, and often times the only option for pursuing education is taking courses online,” Vilic said.

Rider’s online courses vary, but normally take place on a weekly time frame. Students have the week to read materials outside the class, and the faculty will give recorded mini lectures to supplement the reading. Like a normal classroom, there will be discussion of the material, but it takes place on a message board instead of in a room so that people can post messages at their convenience.

Vilic, who teaches an online class on the history of technology, said this enables people to contribute to the discussion late at night or during the day, whenever is most convenient for them.

Offering online courses hasn’t really saved Rider money in infrastructure, since the entire campus still must be maintained for the many offline courses the university still offers. But it does allow Rider to reach students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in classes.

Online courses also enable faculty to track student progress more effectively than just watching them in the classroom, Vilic said. “You can figure out individually where students struggle and provide them individual support. It’s a lot more visible in the online software than it is in the classroom.”

In recent years, the technological barriers to online learning have come down. When Vilic put together the first online course in 1996, some of the students had just bought their first computers for the class, and had no idea how to use them. Today, students use multiple devices including desktop computers, phones, and tablets, to take the courses. “Students have become technically proficient,” Vilic said. “I don’t see students today not knowing how to use a computer. Technology has become more personalized to students and is more ubiquitous. They can truly use it almost anywhere”

The online component of classes will only grow going forward, with more online classes being offered and “flipped classroom” components added to traditional courses. “There has been more of a mainstreaming of online learning in the U.S. in general, and it has become a legitimate way of delivering instruction,” Vilic said.

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