Platform ‘Uberizes’ English-learning from US educators for Chinese students

Dive Brief:

  • An online English-learning platform called 51Talk — which pairs U.S. educators with Chinese students for 25-minute, one-on-one videoconferencing lessons — is the latest to be hailed as the Uber of education.
  • Three educators using the platform shared their experiences with eSchool News, citing improved work-life balance, ease of use, and the helpfulness of trainers they were provided to adjust to the model.
  • Additionally, all three note the respectful, hard-working and excited nature of the Chinese students they teach, with two suggesting these traits were even more pronounced than in many American students they had taught.

Dive Insight:

Recent years have seen education become a top field for freelance work. This embrace of the gig economy can be traced to a number of factors, including low pay increases, perceived lack of public support, and high demands on time that come with the teaching profession.

With teacher shortages already a concern nationwide, this is a trend that policymakers and administrators will need to pay attention to. If the reputation that the teaching profession has gained from the aforementioned conditions — real or perceived — is already dissuading talented people from entering, greater attention will also need to be paid to efforts to retain talented people already in the field if other opportunities prove more lucrative.

Some states and districts have worked to do this with salary increases and other financial incentives, but giving teachers a greater voice in decision-making rather than mandating initiatives from the top-down can also embolden them and improve morale. In one Minnesota district, a superintendent worked with teachers who wanted to try a new approach with more autonomy, fostering greater teacher collaboration and more personalized learning opportunities for students.

Pedagogical progression and digital divides: The week’s most-read education news

This week, Education Dive explored how investing in training faculty to improve pedagogy at the risk of losing them to other colleges or universities is better than not doing so at the risk of hindering success.

Also in higher ed, a recent survey found student life/experience is often ranked near the bottom of higher ed presidents’ priorities, with newer presidents ranking job functions as more financial and operational and seasoned administrators focused most on academics.

Meanwhile in K-12, is the most harmful digital divide of all centered more around skills that involve using tech devices creatively to solve problems rather than simple access? Some say yes, citing the increasing importance alongside digital citizenship skills. And on the professional development front, utilizing micro-credentials for skills-focused teacher learning opportunities may be key to personalizing those experiences for maximum impact.

Be sure to check out our look at the role of faculty in the higher ed business model and more in this week’s most-read posts from Education Dive!

  • Professors are hired to teach, but few are ever taught how: It’s better to train faculty and lose them to other institutions than to not do so and have them become a drain on institutional success.
  • What is the role of faculty in the higher ed business model?: Carroll Community College recently examined teaching efficiency and found a potential $1.2 million in savings — without any layoffs.
  • Many presidents don’t see student affairs as a top priority of the job: Recent dismissals of presidents at Baylor, Missouri and Mount St. Mar y’s over student issues underscore this trend.
  • The true digital divide is around skills, not devices: Learning how to use tools creatively to solve problems, rather than passively consuming content, must be a key component of learning in the digital age.
  • Are micro-credentials the key to personalizing professional development?: States including Delaware, Florida and Tennessee, along with individual districts elsewhere, have experimented with using the model to provide teachers training on specific skills of interest.

History shows higher ed is actually defined by change, not stagnance

Dive Brief:

  • Though higher educational institutions are often considered antiquated and intractable, colleges and universities have always been spaces of transition and transformation over decades and centuries, with constant debates about higher ed’s purpose, according to Inside Higher Ed.
  • College has always been a means for upward mobility, but higher ed institutions must work to ensure that they are adequately providing that chance to more students from previously underrepresented groups, as well as serving the increasing number of non-traditional students.
  • Pedagogical approaches have also changed over time, from a “transmission” model that assumed all students must learn all the same information at the same time, to a new approach in which technological advances are demanding a experiential, individual approach.

Dive Insight:

In light of the many technological advancements, including the preponderance of online/distance learning, many students and educators are questioning the validity and necessity of a traditional campus-based college education, with some supporters urging colleges to lean into the things about those institutions that could not be replicated in a digital space. However, these shifts are coming at a time when the pedagogy of colleges and universities are quickly transforming into a much more personalized and individualistic approach that can meet each student’s needs.

While this is a positive development for those students/consumers, it can come at the expense of the traditional stability of a uniform curriculum and approach. Colleges and universities are being forced to upend and question established norms in order to continue to be vital to the growing collection of non-traditional students; while this may be beneficial in the long-term for those institutions, in the immediate it can create new anxieties of school staff.

Impact of postsecondary educators on student outcomes is underreported, report says

Dive Brief:

  • A new study found that effective instruction from postsecondary educators could have a positive and lasting impact on students during their college career, according to a new Education Next report that analyzed data on more than 5,000 algebra instructors with the University of Phoenix.
  • Studying UPX faculty allowed the analysis to measure the impact of online and in-person faculty, as the institution employs both. The report found that the deviations between positive outcomes for students was far greater for in-person faculty than for professors who taught classes online.
  • The study’s authors asserted it was essential to analyze the ways in which professors can impact the educational potential of students, noting the research about postsecondary professor impact is sparse in comparison to the research available on teacher efficacy in K-12 education.

Dive Insight:

It is important to be able to measure how faculty can fare with non-traditional students and in non-traditional settings, though readers of this analysis should be cautious not to extrapolate UPX’s results to higher ed as a whole without taking note of some of the university’s controversial recent history. However, as colleges struggle to identify their unique strengths in a time marked by an increased fracturing of a once-stable industry, the potential positive impact an exemplary in-person educator can have on a student is hard to dispute.

As higher education continues to transition more robustly into online learning, universities must be sure that they are not shortchanging the inspiration that could stem from the perfect professor for the perfect class. Deviations between poor and quality teachers in online learning may be smaller than the positives and negatives of an in-person experience, but colleges must question if an online learning experience can really get the most out of a quality educator. As schools begin to utilize virtual reality and personalized experiences into online learning, it would be interesting to see future studies find that additional tech and innovation widens the gap between good and bad teachers in the case of an online learning experience.

Project Tomorrow report details students’ digital learning preferences

Dive Brief:

  • According to the “Speak Up 2016 Research Project for Digital Learning” report from Project Tomorrow, 56% of students report using technology to learn outside of school more often than at school.
  • The report, which details student digital learning habits and preferences, also shows rising student demand for a wider variety of online course and subject options among those who have taken online courses in math, science and English, eSchool News reports.
  • Also among the findings: Chromebook numbers have doubled since 2014, students in 6th grade and beyond are increasingly using mobile devices for self-directed activities including research (84%) and note-taking (40%), 42% lament the amount of rules around tech usage, 66% still prefer conferencing with teachers in the classroom, and 68% of boys and 58% of girls in grades 3-8 want to learn how to code.

Dive Insight:

With the increasing prevalence of technology in classrooms and homes, it’s no surprise that student preferences are increasingly in favor of tech-driven solutions. But those advanced methods have also brought a need for greater focus on soft skills around digital citizenship.

Of particular concern in the past year has been students’ ability to think critically and perceive bias in online sources. According to this Project Tomorrow report, for example, only 41% of students reported being able to spot bias in online content. Educators, however, can play a significant role in tackling this problem, as highlighted by a recent Common Sense Media survey that found while students prefer getting news online, 48% trust educators over news organizations.

But, as Kaltura VP of Product Learning and Collaboration Jeff Rubenstein argues, students should be exposed to real-world problem-solving situations that require real-world solutions with creative thought in addition to picking up those digital citizenship skills. It’s not enough that they passively consume content via devices, they must be actively engaged.

Questions arise over the application of online schools in Alabama

Dive Brief:

  • Alabama State Superintendent Michael Sentance said he has “questions” around the finances and academic rigor surrounding virtual classes in state schools, according to
  • The Eufala and Athens school districts have both seen a surge in enrollment since offering virtual schools, which has resulted in a surge in funding, since Alabama, like many other states, allocates money based on enrollment.
  • Director of Innovative Programs Dr. Rick Carter said virtual schools are actually not less expensive education options, and emphasized the idea that students considered “at-risk” require more funding than students who are on-grade level.

Dive Insight:

The questions Sentance raised are similar to the questions surrounding for-profit education in higher ed. Much of the recent scrutiny over for-profit providers, both in the K-12 and higher ed space, is around the financial incentive to enroll as many students as possible, and the lack of incentive to ensure these students are successful in school and well-prepared for life after graduation. However, increasingly, these are the same concerns with traditional schooling, where “financial incentive” may be replaced by demographic necessity.

Online courses and schooling have largely taken off in popularity as an answer to the overcrowding in traditional courses due to a lack of funding and teacher shortages across the country. Potential benefits to students are endless: For example, students may be afforded the opportunity to receive instruction in more languages than a school can provide foreign language staff to teach. And as the gig economy spreads to education, the opportunity to interact with students and instructors in different parts of the country or the world helps bring new perspectives into traditional subjects like science and reading.

Cloud computing takes off as top new discipline on campus

Indranil Gupta, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, recalled the first time he offered a free Coursera online class on Cloud Computing Concepts in the spring of 2015. In the first class, Gupta said, Coursera registered a total of 179,000 enrollees from 198 countries.

“That shows you how much interest there is,” he said. “It seems like every single country has some students who are interested.”

Gupta’s assessment matches numerous reports that interest in cloud computing among students had skyrocketed, and courses in computer science departments throughout the nation were increasingly becoming commonplace. However, a recent report by Clutch, a Washington, D.C. based B2B and research firm, found that there were still concerns among universities and professors regarding the cost of teaching cloud computing. Riley Planko, a content developer at Clutch who authored the report, noted that while individual courses and certification programs were increasingly available, undergraduate and Master’s programs were still developing.

“For the cost, there was definitely optimism. There’s potential with regulation, and learning how to manage this, that it’s something that can be more more under control by the university,” she said. “It still a young field. It’s only been around in it’s true power for a couple of years.”

Employers Seek Cloud Computing Skills

Higher education institutions have been interested in storing data on cloud servers for several years, and as the Clutch report indicates, cloud computing skills are in high demand by corporations, and increasingly, public institutions (LinkedIn found that knowledge in cloud computing was the most desirable skill in job applicants among employers, according to the report).

Kevin McDonald, the founder and managing director of GreyStaff Group, LLC, also teaches a cloud computing course in the Technology Management Master’s program at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. He said the sea change cloud computing brought to public and private industry was now benefitting individual startups. By eliminating the need for expensive server infrastructure and IT staff, new companies can significant cut their upfront costs, building their entire infrastructure in the cloud. It is an opportunity McDonald echoes in his course, with teams visualizing and building a phone app within a matter of weeks before presenting it to the class; some had even sought investors for their creations.

“It’s a total revolution under our feet, so as we’ve developed the program, we’ve tried to keep it in the real world,” he said, marveling at the fact that students “come up with an idea, and go through a startup and are able to present to a venture capitalist within six weeks.”

Integrating the skills

Gupta agreed there was an ongoing transition amongst higher education institutions on how to offer cloud computing courses integrated in disciplines, instead of in isolation, and he detailed a Master’s of Computer Science in Data Science currently offered by UIUC. The MCS-DS is an online program with a $19,200 tuition, offering students the ability to proceed at their own pace, and Gupta’s Coursera class in Cloud Computing Systems is integrated into the degree.

Gupta said that while there is always a period of transition where professors in a particular discipline may wonder whether a new facet of the discipline should be integrated or is merely temporal, he was optimistic about how computer science had quickly warmed to introducing cloud computing and big data into curricula.

“Cloud computing as it is today is new, but many of the systems in cloud computing have been around for decades,” he said. “Many of the building blocks have been around for a long time, it’s just that it’s become more available and accessible to students.”

Gupta also said the imposing costs of accessing cloud storage for student use could be alleviated by partnering with companies that offer free or reduced-price resources for students, citing that Amazon Web Services ran a program for several years that would offer $100 worth of credit for proposed research projects.

The company currently offers “AWS Educate” for institutions, educators and even individual students, touting access to company technology, training resources and open-source content for educational use. Much of UIUC’s work, Gupta said, was done with Microsoft Azure due to a mutual partnership. He said students benefitted from the cloud space, while industries could see benefits once students enter the workforce.

“Companies want students who are more familiar with the state of the technology, so they need as little training as possible when they join,” he said.  “They know that all our students are smart; it’s whether they have the necessary skills or need extra training. If Microsoft has students use Microsoft Azure courses, they’re kind of already training them.”

New Opportunities for Students and Employers

McDonald, who is also the author of “Above The Clouds: Managing Risk In The World Of Cloud Computing,” said government, after some lag time, was catching up to private industry in the adoption of cloud technology. The Federal Cloud First Initiative, instituted in 2010 by the Obama administration, had led to the closure of more than 3,000 data centers as of April 2016, with a goal of closing 5,203 federal data centers in total by 2019, almost half of the 2010 number.

He said cloud computing, like many burgeoning computer science fields, was increasingly viewed as interdisciplinary, asserting that while the School of Professional Studies valued the technical processes inherent in cloud computing, the increased accessibility of cloud storage for novice users lowered the complexity barrier for interested students.

“It’s gotten to that level of simplicity where we don’t need to worry about that unless we’re turning out system engineers,” he said. “That’s always been the philosophy for this program since day one.”

In addition to cost concerns, Panko’s report found that some professors expressed concern with how to appropriately teach cloud computing in a rapidly-changing field, and also said the lack of necessary staff at universities that could be a hindrance.

Nevertheless, the report concluded that it would be worthwhile for colleges and universities “to at least consider the topic for future implementation in their curricula.”

Survey: Higher ed’s future holds a variety of models

Dive Brief:

  • Around 1,400 education leaders, scholars, technologists, practitioners and “strategic thinkers” recently responded to a survey from the Pew Research Center and Elon University that asked if the next decade would present new educational and training programs that could train large numbers of workers in future skills at scale.
  • According to Campus Technology, some 70% of respondents predicted the emergence and success of these programs, though the general consensus was that the future will hold a variety of models due to remaining demand and prestige around a traditional college education and the need for retraining in new skills among lifelong learners, as well as certifications and training for low- and middle-skill workers disrupted by automation.
  • Some, however, predicted the new models needed wouldn’t arrive at scale in time, noting the struggles MOOCs have experienced in providing education and training at scale, and that political and other challenges stand in the way for the ongoing development of alternative credentialing models.

Dive Insight:

Alternative credentialing models like MOOCs and coding bootcamps have created a significant source of competition for colleges and universities, especially when it comes to continuing education models. That lost revenue will likely lead many to experiment with adopting similar models that allow learners to gain the specific skills they need rather than completing an entire program, and some have already begun to do so via partnerships.

Campuses are also facing pressure from the other end due to the increasing popularity of free community college programs, which potentially cut into four-year institutions’ revenue from large lecture hall gen-ed courses. While these challenges will likely see some institutions shutter, especially as additional factors like increasing demand for fewer potential students, a traditional four-year college education will likely remain in demand, particularly from some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions. And those that survive will also likely be those most successful in adapting the variety of options future generations of students will demand.

Cybersecurity and shorter school weeks: The week’s most-read education news

This week, Education Dive took a closer look at how colleges and universities nationwide are responding to increasing demand for cybersecurity experts by offering degrees, certificates and tutorials in the growing field.

Also in higher ed, Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan could face roadblocks amid regulator scrutiny, and criticism is growing around the exclusion of scholars of color when it comes to weighing in on issues facing black America, like the Black Lives Matter movement.

Meanwhile in K-12, 96 of Oklahoma’s 513 school districts are addressing budgetary concerns by scaling back to a four-day school week, with another 44 potentially joining in the fall.

Be sure to check out our look at how the Armed Forces are partnering with schools to benefit STEM ed and more in this week’s most-read posts from Education Dive!

  • Higher ed stepping in to fill cybersecurity gaps: As cybersecurity concerns grow among governments and corporations, experts who can combat the threats are in greater demand.
  • Armed Forces see STEM education as ensuring a bright future: The U.S. military employs thousands in STEM-related pursuits, and the branches are trying to ensure those skillsets are paramount for today’s students by promoting them in workshops and mentorships.
  • Oklahoma school districts enact four-day school week: Facing state budget cuts, weeks are getting shorter at more and more districts in the state.
  • Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan faces scrutiny from regulators: The deal, which has been criticized by faculty and questioned widely, could change the way traditional institutions interact with their for-profit competitors.
  • When scholars of color aren’t considered experts on issues facing black America: The Journal of Political Philosophy recently published a 60-page article on the Black Lives Matter movement, but none of the three authors were black, stoking discussion about conversations that leave out those most impacted by their outcomes.

Should there be an accrediting body for online K-12 providers?

Dive Brief:

  • Online credit recovery programs are cheaper and, some say, more efficient than any other option to help schools and districts boost graduation rates, and thus their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, Dallas Morning News reports.
  • Despite their surging popularity, critics still say these programs are “subpar substitutes for traditional classroom instruction,” and little data is available about the quality of instruction students are receiving.
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics in a 2011 report, nearly 90% of districts use credit recovery programs, both online and otherwise, and according to International Association for K-12 Online Learning, 75% of districts nationwide or more are using blended and online learning to expand their course offerings.

Dive Insight:

The current political climate is focused around the idea of less regulation and from-the-top mandating about what constitutes a good education. But it may be in the best interest of not only students, but also districts and the online credentialing programs for there to be a national governing body — much like accreditors in higher education, which establishes a set of standards to maintain the quality of education provided in online recovery courses and other online programs.

While accrediting bodies certainly have their fair share of criticism around effectiveness of standards and the limitations on innovation, allowing students to take courses of low quality will only artificially inflate graduation numbers while continuing to churn out students who are unprepared for college and beyond.

Still, there are tremendous benefits to online education in K-12 education. For one, it affords students the opportunity to take courses not offered at their local schools. And as higher ed looks more and more to blended and hybrid learning, having the early exposure to online classes and the self-discipline and pacing they require to be successful is beneficial to students. For districts, the cost savings aspect can’t be denied, and as states continue to cut back on funding and districts continue to look for ways to overcome historic funding inequities and advanced course desserts, having the ability to offer more classes at a lower cost is paramount. But as with any shift in the education paradigm, careful emphasis must be placed on strategy and proper planning must occur on the front end to ensure a successful roll-out. If the planning step is overlooked, districts could end up doubling their work and cost in the long run.