Campus closures likely to hit low-income college students harder

As classes at colleges and universities across the United States are moved online, and as some students are being told to move out of their residence halls, the COVID-19 coronavirus is creating more uncertainty.

A commentary from CNN argues that forcing students to leave campus is likely to have a disparate effect on low-income students who may not the resources to return home or connect to online classes.

Many schools do not yet have a clear public plan for how to handle students who can’t go home: those whose homes are in affected countries, those who are low-income and rely on financial aid for their housing, those whose homes don’t offer space conducive to learning (not every home has the fast WiFi connection necessary for online classes), those who may not have a bed or place to stay in their childhood homes, and those who support themselves and don’t have homes to go back to.

Many low-income students rely on their schools for housing, food, and income—including work-study income (the only income many international students can legally make).

Some first-generation college students also support family members back home by paying bills, sending cash and otherwise sharing their resources with a network of people who all rely on one another. An unexpected change can have dire consequences for a family.

Read more at American School and University

Wick Sloane on Fixing College Completion

At the 100th annual meeting of the American Council of Education, Wick Sloane, a former Chief Financial Officer in higher ed, proposed a serious challenge to attendees: fix college completion by the year 2040.

According to Mr. Sloane – supported by research presented by a UN report detailing the extreme poverty facing Americans – students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds have been overlooked by the American education system for far too long. Sloane unapologetically urged leaders in higher education to move past the basic planning stages of mending our completion problem and take real action – or any action for that matter – now.

One of the major concerns presented by Sloane is an insurmountable faculty workload. A faculty member covering five classes, capped at 22 students per class, during a typical 37.5 hour work week has only nine minutes to spend with each student on an individual basis, according to Sloane. For non-traditional, low-income students, this is often simply not enough time to tackle the curriculum with one-on-one support. This is in addition to the difficulty in juggling academics, part-time jobs, and family responsibilities experienced by many low-income students that may interfere with their ability to reach their goals. Ultimately, it has become a daunting challenge to support the millions of non-traditional students learning in America.

Realistically, what can we do to help improve completion rates, specifically for non-traditional, low income students? One possible answer is the increased use of personalized learning systems. Adaptive learning platforms have the potential to improve student outcomes, and are particularly important for those students who struggle to make ends meet.

Adaptive learning helps students learn by doing, rather than just reading and attending lectures. An advantage to using this kind of platform in addition to traditional lectures is in the opportunity for students to work on a flexible schedule that works best with their lifestyle, while also giving instructors the ability to monitor each student’s individual progress in real time. This kind of technology allows instructors to make targeted interventions with students who are at risk of failing, ensuring that what little time they do have to spend on an individual basis is spent with the students who need the most help tackling the material.

Not only does data generated by adaptive learning platforms help instructors get a bigger picture of who needs help and when, it also gives them a better idea of what concepts being taught are being understood by the class. If after a specific lecture has been taught, the students are unable to apply what was taught to the online lesson, the instructor will know that the concept should be revisited.

Adaptive learning technology is increasingly showing evidence that it can be a key tool in solving the completion problem for many post-secondary schools. While not a silver bullet, by implementing more adaptive courses that also provide actionable analytics on individual student performance, educators can more quickly identify at risk students, and provide more effective learning interventions that help keep students on track to graduate.

To read the complete transcript of Wick Sloane’s speech to the American Council of Education, visit Inside Higher Ed.

How COVID-19 Could Shift The College Business Model: ‘It’s Hard To Go Back’

Could A Virus Accelerate Disruption Of The Four-Year Degree?

The price tag of a four-year degree has increased almost eight times faster than wages. But what will happen as we hit an unemployment rate that is the highest since the Great Depression?

It took just a few tumultuous weeks to completely change the entire U.S. higher education system. Campuses sit empty as millions of students are back in households that already fighting to pay the cost of college, and are now closing businesses, losing jobs, and struggling to pay even basic expenses.

Those students with internet access have been thrust overnight into hastily prepared digital substitutes of the campus experience. Could this abrupt and far-reaching shift put enough pressure on the college business model to trigger lasting change?

Read the whole post on Forbes.

An Interview with Bill Cerbin, Professor and Director of CATL

Bill Cerbin is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He has been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in general, developmental, educational, cognitive and learning psychology for 30 years. 

In June, Bill is co-teaching a faculty seminar, Improving Learning by Design, in a blended format. He is also the author of Exploring How Students Learn, a website providing resources, research findings and theoretical perspectives to help teachers better understand how students learn and inform their teaching.

How did you first get into teaching online?  

My first experience teaching online was years ago, using email to collect student writing assignments. This predates course management systems. A day before each class period, students emailed responses to several questions related to the reading assignment for that day. Their responses revealed their prior knowledge and misconceptions of the topic, which helped me decide what to do in class the next day – what concepts to highlight, what kind of practice might help to develop an idea. I still use this technique, but with newer technology.

Fast forward a few years. I currently direct the teaching center on my campus and we offer a three-week intensive online instructor training course. To maintain street credibility among faculty, I took the course in 2009. It was offered online, so participants essentially experienced what it’s like to be a student in an online course. The experience reaffirmed that good teaching and learning, regardless of the format, depend upon careful design.

From your work as a Carnegie Scholar with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, are there a few takeaways you can share with instructors?

My experience with Carnegie underscored the importance of systematic inquiry into teaching and learning, regardless of the format or delivery mode of a course. The mode, format, and context of teaching are always important, but so are differences in the level of students, the discipline, and intended learning outcomes. Systematic inquiry is a tool instructors can use to better understand how and why students learn from instruction, whether that takes place online or face-to-face.

I can offer three other Carnegie-inspired ideas that are important for online teaching:

  1. Focus first and foremost on learning. Unless you know clearly what you want students to know or to be able to do, you have little basis for deciding how to teach them.
  2. Read what others have done before you. In our disciplinary research, we habitually study the field thoroughly and build on previous work. Too often in teaching we try an innovation without any empirical or theoretical rationale. Consequently, we miss the opportunity to learn from our predecessors, and we may produce something that has already been done and does little to advance teaching and learning.
  3. Never underestimate the complexity of teaching and learning. There is a fair amount of simplistic thinking among pundits, who advocate for certain pedagogies or best practices in higher education. In their view, all you have to do is adopt the best practice and students will learn. But teaching and learning are inherently problematic.  Two former Carnegie colleagues, Steve Chew at Samford University, and Randy Bass at Georgetown, capture this idea in slightly different ways.

Both perspectives emphasize uncertainty as the norm, and that we need to carefully investigate teaching to determine not just whether it works, but how it supports or does not support learning.  Steve talks about teaching as an ill-structured problem, in which we always face uncertainties about students’ learning. There are multiple factors, such as students’ background knowledge of the subject, their skill and approach to learning, and their motivation that make the outcome of teaching uncertain.  Randy suggests that every time we teach a course it is an experiment. The syllabus is the hypothesis.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered since you began teaching online? 

Technology overload and the conceptual transition from teaching face-to-face to an online format.

To the annoyance of my colleagues, I have started using the phrase, “Is technology working for us, or are we working for technology?” Course management systems are still clunky. Updating software, fiddling with glitches, and trying workarounds are time-consuming distractions.

Some instructors initially imagine that an online course will be identical to their face-to-face class, with the same structure, rhythm, sequence, and assignments. For instance, an instructor whose customary mode of teaching is to lecture, may simply record the lectures for an online class, and use the same assignments and exams.

However, teaching online can and should involve rethinking one’s assumptions and reasons for one’s instructional practices. Why lecture? What should a lecture consist of? What’s its purpose? How long should it be? Should it be students’ first exposure to the material, or should it come later after they have read or engaged in an exercise?

What are your creative solutions to those challenges?

Perhaps teachers would be better served by attempting small-stakes innovations before adopting large-scale changes. For example, if you like trying out different technological tools, play with them and explore their features before adopting them for a class. More importantly, start with a need or problem you want to solve and then look for a technology that can help you.

Teaching online is significantly different than traditional instruction. I recommend that instructors participate in a rigorous course in how to teach online, especially one that is well grounded in instructional design principles. Part of that experience should involve designing a unit or module for a course that can serve as a prototype when it comes time to fully plan and design an online course. A good training experience not only exposes instructors to various techniques, but also addresses underlying assumptions and beliefs about instructional practices and how they support learning.

What are some of the authoritative sources of content you seek out (other than textbooks)?

I look for:

  • Authors in my field, who publish articles on topics suitable for an undergraduate course.
  • Journals and periodicals that publish articles accessible to undergraduate students.
  • Video and multimedia material from certain sources, e.g., TED Talks, specialized videos by researchers, and peer reviewed learning objects from sources like MERLOT.

What would you say to instructors, who care about improving student outcomes, and are looking for a better alternative, but are reluctant to change what they’ve always done?

I think most good teachers work to improve their practice. Having tried a lot of major changes over the years, I gradually discovered that it makes more sense to think small — identify an aspect of student learning to focus on, rather than adopt an alternative pedagogy wholesale.

Change sometimes is disruptive, does not work well initially and may arouse student resistance. However, by focusing on a specific learning problem, one reduces the workload and the risk if change does not work as anticipated. I would strongly advocate approaching the problem as a form of classroom inquiry or research. This will enable you to describe what you did and why, and most importantly, explain how or why students learned or did not learn from the experience.

Do you have any suggestions or tips to help online instructors teach more effectively?

As an experienced novice, I am still learning and thinking about ways to teach in online and blended formats. I would advocate approaching teaching from a perspective of cognitive empathy. Try to put yourself in the minds of students, who are unfamiliar with both the course structure and the content.

How would you like to see online learning evolve? What improvements would you like to see?

I am very interested in courseware that can scaffold student learning of foundational knowledge. We know a lot about the benefits of certain learning strategies, such as practice testing and distributed practice. We know about the benefits of targeted feedback. There are examples of pedagogical approaches that incorporate these ideas effectively, e.g., Peer Instruction by Eric Mazur. I would like to see courseware that focuses on the most difficult concepts in particular disciplines and provides intelligent tutoring and feedback that help students revise misconceptions and deepen their understanding of core concepts.

Learn By Doing


In 2015, cognitive scientists at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) sought to better understand whether “watching to learn” using video lectures — a popular approach used in many Massively Online Open Courses — produced differences in learning outcomes when compared to courses that stressed interactivity (a “learn by doing” approach).

“Learn by doing” is a course design methodology that emphasizes giving students frequent practice opportunities and feedback to help master learning objectives. In their research results, published in the Proceedings of the Second (2015) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale, CMU researchers concluded that having students “watch to learn” offers limited value. The key takeaway was that students who do activities in fact learn more than students who only watch video or read pages. The researchers summarized their findings as “The Doer Effect” — more doing yields better learning.

What does this research tell us about digital learning? First, engagement matters. The research out of CMU shows that “learning by doing” has six times the effect size over reading aloneSecond, increasing engagement by using formative practice activities does lead to student learning gains.

Using learning science research like “the doer effect” to better understand which learning methods yield the best learning gains has clear application for course designers, educators, and students. By designing courses that provide students with more opportunities to practice as they learn, and by enacting good course policies that encourage and motivate students to “do” the practice, educators (and course designers) can significantly improve learning outcomes.

What Do Students Want Most in Online Learning

In a recent article by The Chronicle of Higher Education, What Do Students Want From Online Courses?, the publication examined the findings of a study on the wants and needs of students enrolled in online courses, conducted by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research  – from what mediums students learn with, to the support services they are offered.

The survey offers a wide range of information that could drastically improve the way online courses are delivered. Three main takeaways stand out: addressing these specific needs could improve enrollment in courses delivered online, as well as increase rates of completion by making online courses more of what students really want.

1. Mobile Capabilities

70 percent of survey respondents said that they wanted to complete at least some of their online coursework on their mobile device, while 12 percent said they would prefer to complete all coursework via their smartphone. While it may not be necessary to make courseware entirely mobile compatible, this suggests that having quizzes, review modules, or other learning activities easily accessible to students with smartphones could be a huge benefit to students who are always on-the-go.

2. Access to Career Services

One of the biggest issues raised by survey respondents was the lack of access to career services for students in distance learning. Many students said that they would like better access to services including internship search guidance, mentorship, job shadowing programs, resume workshops and more. Ensuring online students have the same advantage as traditional students in finding a job post-graduation should be high priority for schools providing online degrees. Additionally, investing more time and resources into providing effective and reliable career services for online students should be at the forefront of the minds of higher-ups in higher ed.

3. Taking more time to decide

Lastly, the survey revealed that most students feel some kind of regret towards their college admission decisions. A whopping 84 percent of survey respondents only requested information from three or fewer colleges, leaving many feeling as though they did not properly weigh their degree options. In addition, 12 percent of survey respondents said they regret not learning more about financial aid, and tuition and fees before making their decision to enroll.

For more insights, read the full report from Learning House

Distance Learning Ramp-up: A Strategic View

Excellent article and interview with Arizona State University’s EdPlus CEO Phil Regier, discussing how ASU has shifted the whole student body to online learning during its COVID-19 campus closure.

In this article, Regier discusses lessons learned by EdPlus and ASU Online over the last ten years, including both the pains and promise of online learning.

Read the full article from Campus Technology.