Here’s an idea to free college: 100% asynchronous based courses (self-paced), yeah e-learning

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How many of us have read it, seen it or heard it in the media?

  • College is too expensive, students can’t afford to attend
  • Free college (a pledge being made by a candidate for President of the United States)
  • Re-train our workforce
  • Need to train older employees with the latest tech skills
  • Vocational training is needed
  • How can we train our workforce?
  • Blah, blah, blah.

Each time, I do, the first thing that pops into my head is “e-learning”.  The second thing is “asynchronous based” – i.e. self-paced learning. No syllabus, no assignment requirements and for freak’s sake no MOOCs.

I won’t go into my diatribe on why synchronous based learning is setup to fail, why students who dislike online learning usually refer it to the courses themselves (the way they appear specifically and the content involved tied to how it looks) and why MOOCs are a way for companies to offer their employees an alternative yet free method of learning. 

Oh, I should add that colleges, universities and any place offering education loves to pitch MOOCs too and then there are the aggregators of MOOCs who are receiving VC funding, as a way to reinforce that this is a business opportunity for online learning.

No, it is a fallacy.  MOOCs are not successful. 

Yeah, some people love them.  A lot don’t.  Some people complete the MOOCs they take, the vast don’t. 

There are some (low though) MOOCs that are asynchronous based, and based on some talks I had with students who went through them – they loved em.  Hmmm, I think we are onto something here.  When I asked about the other way of the courses build for MOOC (the standard way), they never completed them.

Yet here we are – with news this week that some companies in the U.S. are going the MOOC route for the employees training.

Egad.   And people wonder why employees who need re-training are not receiving it.

College is too expensive, Free college

I virtually never talk politics, not in posts or speaking for sure, but I’ll say it here – I’m a liberal.  I don’t know who I am going to vote for (I’m registered) on the democratic side, but I do know one thing – that premise that Sanders is putting forth for free college for every student is not feasible, nor likely here in the states.

The U.S. is not like any western European country (a statement he often refers to).  Nor is it like the Scandinavian countries (another point of reference for him).  These are not minuses to all of those countries, they are special in all the wonderful ways, but the free college route there cannot be achieved here. 

Well, actually that is not exactly true.  In its current form of students going to class at brick and mortar locations, paying astronomical tuition, high debts load and so forth, yes the idea of free college while idealistic, is not going to happen.

But what if we went about it another way.

My proposal is as follows

Online learning for every student who wants to attend college, complete and graduate.

I know some of you are probably rolling your eyes, “oh boy, I can’t wait to hear the pitch” well here it is and the counterpoints on the benefits and way it works.

Facts about attending college

At most colleges/universities the first two years are all about requirements for science, math, language (in my example I will use the U.S.) – language being some type of English class – literature is a better word for it. The Junior and Senior years are the courses the student needs, and more importantly is in their major. 

A student will take what amounts to 15 credits a semester (five courses) – which is the recommended norm, albeit some students take more courses. 

Thus, if we count the junior and senior year, we are talking about 60 credits related specifically to their core subject area.   At some places, they might take a few electives, so let’s pull that 60 credits down to 45 credits.

45 credits =  15 courses (many schools each course equates to three credits, excluding labs and variants of courses).

What are the challenges right now for those courses?

Being able to take the courses needed to complete their core and thus graduate on time.  I recall the days of going to the gym, being selected early enough to walk around and pick the courses needed – it was first come, first served.  You were doomed if you were in the behind the pack groups. 

Thus you either had to show up in the class and hope the professor let you in or try to take the course in another semester (assuming it is offered each semester) or hope it is available in the summer and if not, back in the circle.

Funny thing, it is happening today. Right now, some student is unable to take the course or courses needed to graduate because they weren’t the early ones to get the course and so they wait. And pay.

Payment as you are aware is not cheap. Even with in-state colleges, fees are going up and while one state university might charge X per credit hour, another might charge Y.  Oh and private colleges, yowsa, good luck.

My Proposal towards a realistic free college education

In a multi-tier process that I believe will work, if the universities/colleges/community colleges/technical schools and so forth follow the steps. 

I’ll be upfront, it won’t be easy. It will take time.  And it requires the university/college to think out of the box, something they say to their students, but they themselves rarely follow (unless it is MOOCs).

Step One

Change the application process for admittance. 

These are online courses, whereas people from anywhere in the world or in this case the U.S. can apply to be admitted.  The current process is inherently flawed.  There is no study I am aware of that shows a direct correlation between high SAT or ACT scores and success at the college level. 

We know as those in the training/L&D world that people can do poorly on assessments for a variety of factors, but colleges still see assessments as a key player. 

Step Two

Create a universal process to admit students. 

This goes back to step one.   If I am Michigan State my process for acceptance should be the same as the University of Michigan and the Western Michigan. 

We are talking about 100% online courses here, no 50/50 where students have partial class in the brick and mortar classroom, then go online OR the synchronous based approach (linear, think A to B to C) which in some cases includes the instructor/professor presenting “live” some session.  

This approach is and has always been an angle for basically sticking the classroom online and calling it online learning.  No, it is what it specifically is – sticking the classroom online. 

I mean syllabus?  Assignments?  For an online course? 

Private schools have their own process too.  I don’t see private universities ever willing to go free online, because look it is the money here and the prestige of set forth.  So, I’m going to exclude them.

Step three

100% online asynchronous based courses focusing on real world applications of learning. 

Asynchronous are courses that are self-paced whereas everything is contained within the course, including the information needed for whatever subject matter. 

On top of that, a good self-paced course has a TOC (table of contents) which enables the learner to jump around and focus on the areas of knowledge to learn.  Thus it could be A to D to J to B, etc.

The irony here is that we do this all the time without realizing it. 

How many times have you purchased a book, regardless if it is online or not, tied to a subject matter and then jumped around to find the information you need and focus on?  Recently I was going thru a Microsoft Excel Bible (that is what it is called or close to it).  I wanted to learn about macros. 

I looked up in the TOC where that section was and went right to it.  I did not read the first chapter nor go linear A to B to C.  

Back to the asynch. courses.  There are a lot of amazing folks out there who know how to build engaging, interactive courses with scenarios. 

And here’s the wild thing to all of this – there are quite a few faculty, professors, instructors, etc. who are right now using 3rd party authoring tools, which will create asynchronous based courses.   Thus, the idea that it is not feasible, goes right out the window.

When I was in Berlin, I remember hearing from professors in a workshop I was presenting, complaining about the course build within a well-known higher ed LMS.  I explained that the authoring tool within it is not designed for true asych. design, nor are LMS vendors, authoring tool vendors. 

The tool is to enable anyone to build a course.  It won’t match the power of say Storyline or Lectora, since they are authoring tool companies, whose primary focus is authoring.

Back to the 100% online self-paced courses. What do students want when they take a course?

Real world applications. 

A book on the theory of nursing or how to do X in nursing isn’t going to be recalled or relevant when the person is a nurse or about to become one. 

On the other hand, a course which provides the information and adds a real life scenario to which the student can apply that new knowledge will work.  I know, because I did it back in the days when I taught at a university.

Oh as for the “I am unable to take the course needed”,  with 100% self-paced courses (all contained, I can’t emphasize that enough),  they can now take the course. 

Best of all, they can always go back and refer to specific areas of the course, during their remaining years at the university.  Now, they have another venue for retention and synthesis.

Students complete the courses with scenarios and not assessments.  There are courses where the person can take the assessment as often as they want, until they pass.  Dump that.  Secondly, people can guess and there are folks who can pass the test, by guessing.

If you offer mini- modules within each course, you will have students who bypass and go right to assessment (assuming you have one). 

Here though is the catch,  the assessment is a real world scenario based upon the other mini-modules.  

At the end of it all, the point is this:  You are teaching students for post-college, i.e. the workforce and not the subject matter of theory or the book or info that may not be relevant to what is happening now.

Step four

Entering the workforce.  

If you empower students to achieve success based upon applications relevant to what they want to do, outside of college, you will reap the benefits.  Companies will have an early trained workforce out of the gate, well into the company. The notion that we hear all the time, that “college is just getting a degree or what I learned in college isn’t relevant”, is removed. 

Will everyone be successful entering the workforce?  No.  But they will be better prepared.

Step Five

Moving forward with new ideas. 

Maybe VR technology will at some point create new rich environments for students on a certain subject matter.  It is already being seen in some K-12 schools, where the students wearing a VR headset can walk around the Rome Colosseum and see it as it once was.  Not just viewing it as a picture or a video, but being in it.

VR though is for another day.

Bottom Line

The notion that this cannot be created or launched until some time down the road is an absolute pile of garbage. 

A university or college could have this done by 2017 (if they implemented the entire 100% free angle).  Even if they tested out a couple of 100% asynchronous based courses that are free – this could be ready to go by the Fall of 2016.

MOOCs do not work.  They sound wonderful, but so does gorging yourself on junk food at a sporting event. 

The idea for online courses that are synchronous based (linear in delivery) with stop points because – you have to follow that syllabus, is a flawed idea.  No, it is a flawed premise and process.

Talk to your students.

I suspect that those who dislike online learning will state it is because of the courses. 

I found that to be the case in Berlin, when my conversations with professors went into more depth of the dislike by their own students of e-learning. 

It wasn’t the whole online thing. Nor was it the LMS which housed the courses, Nor anything else for that matter.  It was how the courses were built – and all of them were built with the linear synchronous based approach.

Remember that when someone says synchronous based learning they are referring to the course design methodology and approach.  They are not referring to the chat room, groups, webinars, communities, social, gamification or anything else in the LMS. 

Although I do hear it often from vendors who think synchronous based means all those things – sorry, Charlie it is only related to the courses themselves.

Because you can have all those items in an LMS, where the courses are 100% asynchronous based.

Look, free college sounds amazing.  It sounds perfect.

But as we all know, Utopia doesn’t exist.

What does exist though, is a new mechanism of learning and an approach that will instill the free college angle.

It will take two factors to make it work.

First, the US DOE (Department of Education) to buy into it, and provide the colleges that go this route some financial benefits. 

Maybe those folks in the house and senate will provide additional funding – I mean some have done it in the past with pork barrel inserted into bills. 

Number two, have the colleges and universities test the waters.

There are some out there right now, I suspect who are willing to see if it can work.

Find them, tap into them, provide them with the financial incentives. 

One approach is have them focus on re-training, and charge a fee for doing so.

There are so many areas for vocational training. So many areas and subjects to re-train folks who have lost their jobs and need the skills today, to get back into the workforce. 

At the end of it all,

It comes down to wanting to do it.

Not just saying it.

Which sounds good and generates possibilities.

Possibilities that are available now,

Not with MOOCs. Not with words.

But with action.

E-Learning 24/7

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  1. Hi Craig,

    Did you ever read the study and report by Dolence and Norris in the mid nineties?
    It endorses exactly what you are saying, and predicted it would be in place long before now. More than anything it was that report that inspired my early work with asynchronous learning platforms. Sad that we are having the same discussion 20 years later, but there are deeply entrenched vested interests in the Higher ed sector.


    Roger Mundell
    Udutu Online Learning Systems Inc.
    108-3550 Saanich Road
    Saanich, BC V8X1X2
    tel: 250-388-5003

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