Caution for Colleges Contracting with Online Learning Enabling Companies!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article cautioning colleges and universities when entering into relationships with companies that provide online learning services.

The growth of online higher education, the breakdown of competitive borders, and the decline of public support for colleges have caused traditional institutions—even sturdy ones—to reflect on their strategies for survival. In the soil of this anxiety, online “enablers” have taken root.

Enablers are companies that help brick-and-mortar colleges build online programs as quickly as possible. The companies, some of which have been around for a decade or more, have positioned themselves as experts in all the things that allowed for-profit online colleges to flourish: marketing, technology, and customer support.

The individual deals between enablers and colleges are complex, but the proposition for colleges is simple: Benefit from the business savvy of the for-profit sector without relinquishing the soul of the university. It is an enticing offer for a growing number of traditional institutions. For some, it seems like the only option.

The article specifically reviews three important issues.

1. The companies usually take the lion’s share of revenues.

Colleges may consider teaching to be the core of higher education, but when it comes to dollars and cents, the services provided by the companies—recruitment, retention, and customer support—are often more valuable.

2U, a Maryland-based enabler, , stands to collect up to $39,000 each year for every full-time student enrolled in a data-science master’s program that it runs with the University of California at Berkeley. That’s about 65 percent of the gross tuition revenue.

“It sounds like a ton, and it’s a lot of money,” says AnnaLee Saxenian, the dean of Berkeley’s School of Information. But the university thought it would be too risky to wait for prices to go down. “If we had waited a couple years,” she said, “I think we would have missed an opportunity.”

Either way, the decision to go with an enabler was inevitable. “Even if the campus had said, ‘We will loan you $5-million to launch this,’ nobody on this campus has that experience base,” said Ms. Saxenian, adding that the goal was to get the data-science program up and running “in record time.”

Bisk Education claims 80 percent of the gross revenue from the three-course, online certificate program in executive education the company runs with the University of Florida. The contract, which was signed in 2012, projects that after five years the program will have made about $1.6-million for the university and $6.3-million for Bisk.

George Straschnov, chief strategy officer at Bisk, says that the revenue split is not always as lopsided as the 80-20 deal with Florida but that his company typically claims more than 50 percent of revenues from the programs it helps run at colleges.

The reason, he says, is that Bisk assumes most of the financial risk up front.

Creating courses for a new degree program—which is the university’s responsibility—costs a lot, but building an infrastructure for those courses and filling them with students costs more, says Mr. Straschnov. Bisk bears the bulk of those start-up costs, and takes a bigger hit if the online program doesn’t pan out, he says. Therefore, the company is able to negotiate for a bigger slice of the pie if, and when, tuition revenue starts coming in. Or, as Mr. Straschnov puts it, “The share of revenues is generally reflective of the proportion of responsibilities.”

2. The Education Department is cool with the enablers.

The U.S. Education Department has spent the last few years reining in for-profit colleges, and it has taken an interest in their recruiting practices in particular. Online “enablers” have managed to avoid government scrutiny, even though their revenues are tied to how many students they can persuade to enroll.

In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, department officials outlined their attitude toward enabler companies:

“The department does not consider payment based on the amount of tuition generated by an institution to violate the incentive-compensation ban if that payment compensates an unaffiliated third party that provides a set of services that may include recruitment services. The independence of the third party (both as a corporate matter and as a decision maker) from the institution that provides the actual teaching and educational services is a significant safeguard against the abuses the department has seen heretofore.”

In other words, government regulators see no problem with enablers as long as they are not in charge of admitting, teaching, and awarding degrees to the students they recruit. Regardless of how involved the companies are in the peripheral aspects of higher-education business, the college that grants the degrees—and receives the financial-aid payments—is on the hook for any violations.

3. The deals can go wrong.

The biggest cautionary tale involving an online enabler is that of Cal State Online, the California State University system’s ambitious plan to build a centralized online campus for its 23 universities. The system, desperate to strengthen its online presence, struck a deal with Pearson in 2012 to help get Cal State Online up and running as swiftly as possible.

Under the deal, the company would do the marketing and recruiting, rent the office space, and pay to have the website built. The university agreed to pay the company a fee for every student who enrolled. It also agreed to make LearningStudio, Pearson’s learning-management product, the standard platform for Cal State Online, while giving the company an opportunity to push its other products as add-ons.

The two parties anticipated that in 2013, the first full year of the contract, nearly 17,000 students would enroll in Cal State Online programs.

They didn’t come close. By June 2013, Cal State Online had two programs running and only 138 full-time enrollments, according to university documents compiled by the blog e-Literate.

There was plenty of blame to go around. “The quality of the marketing provided by Pearson was not adequate,” wrote a university advisory board that fall. Not that there was much to advertise; California State had managed to get only a handful of campuses to put courses on the Cal State Online platform.”That same year, the university and the company quietly scaled back their agreement so that individual campuses would not have to use Pearson’s platform or services in order for their courses to be listed on the Cal State Online website. The company no longer plays a significant role in California State’s online strategy.”

There are words of wisdom in the Chronicle article and it is must reading for any college administrator considering entering into a relationship with an online enabling company.


California Adopts “Yes Means Yes” Legislation to Curb Sexual Assaults on College Campuses!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has three articles today covering the “Yes Means Yes” legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown of California that explicitly requires colleges and universities that receive state funds to define consent in students’ sexual encounters in terms of “yes means yes” rather than the traditional “no means no.”

Mr. Brown’s signing of the “affirmative consent” bill ushers in a new era in the debate about how to curb sexual assaults on college campuses.

A 2007 study by the National Institute of Justice found that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college. Congress, state lawmakers, and activists have recently been applying intense pressure on colleges to compel them to strengthen their policies against sexual assault.

At California colleges, students must ensure they have the affirmative consent of their partners at the beginning of a sexual encounter and maintain that consent throughout the activity. The law states that consent “can be revoked at any time.” The absence of “no,” the law says, is insufficient to indicate consent.

The bill’s supporters, who include activists who this month delivered a petition to Mr. Brown’s office urging him to sign the bill, have hailed the measure as an important step in clarifying the standard colleges should use in investigating sexual-assault cases. Some critics have warned, however, that the law tramples on the due-process rights of accused students.

Further details on this legislation an be found at:


Paul Krugman on The New Gilded Age and The Invisible Rich!

Dear Commons Community,

Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times posits that political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea on how the superrich live and manipulate the system to their advantage. He points out that while there is overwhelming support for higher minimum wages, and a majority favors higher taxes at the top, confronting extreme inequality hasn’t been an election-winning issue. He further comments:

“Does the invisibility of the very rich matter? Politically, it matters a lot. Pundits sometimes wonder why American voters don’t care more about inequality; part of the answer is that they don’t realize how extreme it is. And defenders of the superrich take advantage of that ignorance. When the Heritage Foundation tells us that the top 10 percent of filers are cruelly burdened, because they pay 68 percent of income taxes, it’s hoping that you won’t notice that word “income” — other taxes, such as the payroll tax, are far less progressive. But it’s also hoping you don’t know that the top 10 percent receive almost half of all income and own 75 percent of the nation’s wealth, which makes their burden seem a lot less disproportionate.”

The Heritage Foundation if just the tip of the spin iceberg that the superrich use to influence public and voter opinion. There are hundreds of other foundations, institutes, lobbying groups, and PACs (i.e., American Enterprise Institute, NRA, Koch Brothers) focusing attention away from issues of inequality. The Tea Party has lots of grassroots support but is funded largely by big money interests.  In sum, the superrich have figured out how to control information to large segments of American society and in the process influence many of the day’s issues and debates.





Occupy Central: Hong Kong Protest Underway!

Hong Kong Occupy Cnetral

Dear Commons Community,

Protests took place in nine cities yesterday as Hong Kong awoke Sunday to the news that the long-awaited disobedience movement, Occupy Central, was officially underway. Occupy Central is making two demands: for the National People’s Congress to retract its decision on Hong Kong’s electoral system made on August 31; and to re-launch the political reform process. The first demand essentially is asking for a more democratic political process in Hong Kong. As reported in the South China Morning Post, Occupy Central commenced following two days of student protests  The New York Times provided the following:

“Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the former British colony has kept its independent courts and legal protections for free speech and assembly, as well as a robust civil society. But many democratic groups and politicians say those freedoms have eroded under mainland China’s growing political and economic influence.

The current chief executive, Mr. Leung, has backed Beijing’s plan for electoral changes, which for the first time would let the public vote for the city’s leader, starting in 2017. But critics say the plan includes procedural hurdles that would screen out candidates who do not have Beijing’s implicit blessing, making the popular vote meaningless.

Anger with the Chinese government runs especially deep among Hong Kong residents in their 30s and younger, according to polls. Younger residents feel squeezed by rising housing prices and living expenses and lack of upward mobility, and they often accuse the government of pandering to tycoons.

“I think unfairness is spreading in Hong Kong, and because of the political system,” said Edith Fung, 21, a student of land surveying. “I don’t want Hong Kong to change to be like China, with corruption, unfairness, no press freedom, no religious freedom.”

Ms. Fung said she had been indifferent to politics until this year, and Eva Mo, a nursing student who helped provide first aid to protesters, said she was participating in her first demonstration against the government. “They treated the students like children,” she said. “We only asked for dialogue. But there was none.”




Bill Clinton Comments on Charter Schools and Standardized Tests!

Dear Commons Community,

Charter schools — which are publicly funded but can be privately run — present an issue that is of significant importance in large urban school systems. Even supporters have argued that such schools are not sufficiently regulated, and various studies show that they are rarely shuttered for low academic performance. Former President Bill Clinton weighed in earlier this week saying that charter schools have great potential, but they aren’t living up to their promise.” As reported in The Huffington Post:

“If you’re going to get into education, I think it’s really important that you invest in what works,” Clinton said. “For example, New Orleans has better schools than it had before Hurricane Katrina, and it’s the only public school [district] in America where 100 percent of the schools are charter schools.” But the reforms shouldn’t stop there, he added. “They still haven’t done what no state has really done adequately, which is to set up a review system to keep the original bargain of charter schools, which was if they weren’t outperforming the public model, they weren’t supposed to get their charter renewed,” he said.

After his speech, Clinton told The Huffington Post that he had been a backer of charter schools when their use first expanded in the 1990s. He said the deal was that in exchange for being “unfettered,” they were supposed to do a better job of educating students — or they would be closed. The former president made his remarks during an unannounced appearance at a dinner hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative and the Varkey GEMS Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in the United Arab Emirates that runs private schools around the globe and produces education research. The dinner was held to mark the launch of Business Backs Education, a new UNESCO-supported campaign that aims to make education the recipient of 20 percent of global corporate philanthropy aimed at matters of social responsibility by 2020, up from 7 percent now. (There was a panel discussion about it led by CNN host Fareed Zakaria.)

The campaign suggests that such increased investment would enable three million more children to attend school annually. Clinton briefly praised New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his work on regulating charter schools. Rhode Island also earned a thumbs up for “rigorously enforc[ing] the second part of the grand bargain, which was any charter school that was doing better than public schools was supposed to systematically work with the public schools to institute the practices that work.” But business leaders need to contribute more to education, he said.

“We can do this; this isn’t rocket science. We just have to sort of saddle up and do it,” Clinton said. “And the thing is, sometimes we overthink it and I’m pretty positive we overtest it,” he said, garnering applause. Clinton said he’s “not opposed” to student testing, but he thinks it should be limited. “I think doing one in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.” He stressed the importance of good teachers, adding that trimming the number of state tests could give teachers more time to collaborate.”

Clinton is on the same wave length of many educators, however, he does not go far enough in his comments about charter schools. Many charter schools “skim” to get better students by restricting admissions or counseling academically poorer students out. They generally have much lower percentages of children who are English language learners or who require special education services. In addition, charter schools tend to be the recipients of significant external funding from corporate entities and their corporate-affiliated foundations. Charter schools have a place in American education but many of them have abused the system and while some (not all) look good when measured by test scores, they also game the system to their advantage. It will be interesting to see what Hillary Clinton’s position will be on charter schools should she decide to run for president.


Derek Jeter’s Last Game at Yankee Stadium!


Dear Commons Community,

It was a sad but incredible night for baseball and New York last night as almost 50,000 fans watched Derek Jeter play his last game at Yankee Stadium. There were tears everywhere (players, the manager, family, and Derek Jeter) as he concluded his twentieth season as a player.

Yankee fans have been dreading this moment for much of this season. My grandson, Michael, and I attended a, game in July at the Stadium with my colleague here at the Graduate Center, Steve Brier. In August, I attended a game to watch No. 2 again. This time it was with one of my doctoral students, Lee Gabay, his father and girlfriend. Earlier, this week Lee sent me the youtube video above which captures much of the emotion that New York Yankee fans feel for the greatest player of this era.  I especially like the scenes where he is walking in the South Bronx talking to children and young people.

The Yankees have meant a lot to me throughout my life. Earlier this year I posted on this blog:

“I have been a Yankee fan my entire life and was born and raised several blocks from Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx.  With my brothers, I saw all the great teams and players of the 1950s, the down years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the comeback years under the ownership of George Steinbrenner.  I have to put Derek Jeter as the best all-around Yankee that I have ever seen.  Hitting, fielding, running the bases, and making clutch plays – he could do it all! Tyler Kepner, the New York Times sports correspondent, has an article today entitled:   Derek Jeter Lived a Dream, and Never Disappointed!  How true!”

I will surely miss the voice of Yankee announcer, Bob Sheppard, who died in 2010. Nicknamed “The Voice of God” for his stylish introductions, Sheppard was the ballpark’s public address announcer from April 1951 until September 2007. Before Sheppard took ill, Jeter asked Sheppard to record his introduction, which has been used when the Yankees’ captain walks to the plate for home games. Yankee fans will never forget Sheppard’s elegant:

“Now batting for the Yankees – Number 2 – Derek Jeter – Number 2!”

I can go on but as the game last night concluded with Derek Jeter getting the winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning I thought about Tina Turner’s classic lyrics: “Simply the best. Better than all the rest. Better than everyone”

The Yankees will have a new shortstop next year but Derek Jeter will never be replaced.





U.S Dept. of Education Protects Contractors But Not College Students!

Dear Commons Community,

Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education again punishes students for student loan liabilities while protecting contractors. In essence, it is turning its back on at least 1,000 borrowers in favor of shielding their former colleges from potentially crippling sanctions that would have resulted from high rates of default on federal student loans.

The move, announced late Tuesday and further detailed on Wednesday, concerns a decision not to punish as many as 20 schools for loan defaults caused by questionable servicing practices overseen by the Education Department. Borrowers, however, were provided no such relief. The estimate of the number of affected borrowers is only a small subset of those with loans in default as a result of questionable servicing practices the Education Department identified on Tuesday. As reported in The Huffington Post:

“Borrowers aren’t getting any relief or similar consideration from the Education Department,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the California-based Institute for College Access & Success, which advocates affordable education. “If the school isn’t held accountable for the default, then the borrower shouldn’t either.”

As many as 20 schools won’t lose access to critical federal student aid programs, an Education Department official said Wednesday. Losing access to taxpayer-provided student aid would be the equivalent of a death sentence for most colleges. The institutions that were let off the hook include for-profit schools, private and public colleges, and historically black colleges and universities, the official said on a conference call organized for news media.

The department did not specify the number of schools aided by its new policy. Nor would it make officials available for a subsequent interview, or answer emailed questions.

The Huffington Post identified 13 schools that may have been affected by the policy shift. Seven are for-profit institutions, four are historically black colleges, and two are community colleges. Only one — Frank Phillips College, a community college in Borger, Texas — confirmed that it was aided by the Education Department’s decision. Another — Maysville Community and Technical College, a community college in Maysville, Kentucky — said it assumed it was helped by the move…”

In commentary published online, analysts questioned the rationale behind the Education Department’s decision, lamenting the move sends a message that prioritizes institutions over students.”



Special Edition of the International Journal of Interactive Multimedia and Artificial Intelligence on Multisensor User Tracking and Analytics to Improve Education!

Dear Commons Community,

The International Journal of Interactive Multimedia and Artificial Intelligence has just published a special edition on multisensor user tracking and analytics to improve education and other social applications. Sponsored by UNESCO, the eight articles in this edition provide a plethora of information and insights on issues and applications appropriate to the theme. Multisensor user tracking and learning analytics have attracted a lot of attention across the globe as more countries attempt to provide greater access to education and other social services via online technologies.

This edition includes an article I was invited to contribute on learning analytics and blended learning. Entitled, Big Data and Learning Analytics in Blended Learning Environments: Benefits and Concerns, I attempted to contextualize analytics and to provide a critical overview of the field, with a special focus on blended learning situations. The article reviews how learning analytics can benefit from the already existing work (e.g. with Herbert Simon’s “bounded rationality” theory) with data-driven decision making models and therefore can help in the advisement and other decision-making processes for teachers and learners. My conclusion is that big data and analytics are not panaceas but can provide quite valuable tools to improve educational systems. I also caution that a data gap may take place in blended learning situations that may hinder the effective application of learning analytics tools.

The entire special edition is available at:


Jefferson County, Colorado: Students Protest Anti-Protest Curriculum!

Colorado Curriculum Protest

Dear Commons Community,

Students, teachers, and parents defied a recently enacted curriculum in Jefferson County, Colorado, that promotes patriotism and guards against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder”.  As reported in the New York Times:

“A new conservative school board majority here in the Denver suburbs recently proposed a curriculum-review committee to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” In response, hundreds of students, teachers and parents gave the board their own lesson in civil disobedience.

On Tuesday, hundreds of students from high schools across the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in Colorado, streamed out of school and along busy thoroughfares, waving signs and championing the value of learning about the fractious and tumultuous chapters of American history.

“It’s gotten bad,” said Griffin Guttormsson, a junior at Arvada High School who wants to become a teacher and spent the school day soliciting honks from passing cars. “The school board is insane. You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic. It’s stupid.”

The student walkout came after a bitter school board election last year and months of acrimony over charter schools, teacher pay, kindergarten expansion and, now, the proposed review committee, which would evaluate Advanced Placement United States history and elementary school health classes.

The teachers’ union, whose members forced two high schools to close Friday by calling in sick, has been in continual conflict with the new board; the board, in turn, has drawn praise from Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, a conservative group affiliated with the Koch family foundations. In April, Dustin Zvonek, the group’s director, wrote in an op-ed that the board’s election was an “exciting and hopeful moment for the county and the school district.”

So far, nothing is settled in Jefferson County. The board put off a discussion of the curriculum-review committee until a meeting in October, and Ken Witt, the board president, suggested that some of its proposed language about not promoting “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law” might be cut.

“A lot of those words were more specific and more pointed than they have to be,” Mr. Witt said. He said that the school board was responsible for making decisions about curriculum and that the review committee would give a wider spectrum of parents and community members the power to examine what was taught in schools. He said that some had made censorship allegations “to incite and upset the student population.”

But on Tuesday, those allegations were more than enough to draw hundreds of students into the sun. They waved signs declaring, “It’s world history, not white history,” and talked about Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leaders of the walkout urged others to stay out of the streets and not to curse, and sympathetic parents brought poster board, magic markers and bottles of water.”

These students have learned their history well. Many of the major political and social movements in this country were initiated by civil disobedience.  Remember the Boston Tea Party!