The future of counselling?

Is online counselling the future?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating story on the introduction of an online counselling programme in Florida. Initially developed as a response to resource constraints  it nevertheless seems to have real merit:

Three years ago, facing a particularly acute demand for services, the Counseling and Wellness Center at the University of Florida managed to add four full-time positions to the existing 33. That bought the director, Sheryl A. Benton, and her colleagues just two weeks without a waiting list for appointments.

Concluding that she would never hire her way out of the problem, Ms. Benton set about to expand the center’s capacity by developing an online psychotherapy program, an approach long used and studied in Australia, among other countries.

Therapist Assisted Online, or TAO, began at Florida this past fall. Designed specifically for students battling anxiety—a primary mental-health issue on college campuses—it is the first research-supported program of its kind in the United States, Ms. Benton believes.

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It does seem to have been an extremely successful pilot:

In the pilot program, 26 students treated under TAO showed more improvement, calculated using a system called Behavioral Health Measure­-20, than 26 participants in the in-person group-therapy sessions at the counseling center. The students treated under TAO also made more progress than about 700 students receiving individual in-person therapy.cwc with building

“The results blew me away, not to mention the fact that it stunned all of my counselors, who I think are still trying to come to terms with what happened,” Ms. Benton says.

The director is the first to point out the limitations of the pilot. Both the student patients and the counselors self-selected, indicating a certain level of motivation and comfort with new technology. The pool of participants was small. Other research studies show that online patients experience results equal to those of in-person patients.

Whilst many universities in the UK will be very envious of the sheer scale of the Florida counselling operation, it does seem like a really interesting development. And, while online counselling is unlikely to replace face-to-face it may be a valuable and cost-effective additional student support tool.

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More Problems for MOOCs

More gloomy news for MOOC enthusiasts

MIT Technology Review has a striking report on how some data mining has exposed a few embarrassing problems for MOOCs. The research confirms earlier reports about low continuation and completion rates and, perhaps surprisingly, notes that teacher involvement really doesn’t help:

But this new golden age of education has rapidly lost its lustre. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that the online classes it offered had failed miserably. Only about half of the students who registered ever viewed a lecture and only 4 percent completed a course.binary

That’s prompted some soul-searching among those who have championed this brave new world of education. The questions that urgently need answering are: what’s gone wrong and how can it be fixed?

Today, Christopher Brinton at Princeton University and a few pals offer their view. These guys have studied the behaviour in online discussion forums of over 100,000 students taking massive open online courses (or MOOCs).

And they have depressing news. They say that participation falls precipitously and continuously throughout a course and that almost half of registered students never post more than twice to the forums. What’s more, the participation of a teacher doesn’t improve matters. Indeed, they say there is some evidence that a teacher’s participation in an online discussion actually increases the rate of decline.

Filtering out the small talk from discussions is identified as one way forward but whether that will improve things remains to be seen. And there will still be some way to go to raise those completion rates. But there is plenty of scope for improvement.

(with thanks to Gerry Webber for alerting me to this piece)

A ‘University in a Box’ in Rwanda

More educational innovation in Africa.

Earlier this year I posted about the initiative by Kenyatta University to establish a campus in Dadaab, a huge refugee camp filled with Somali refugees. A fantastic initiative, also supported by some Canadian universities, which I am still hoping will be followed by UK universities.

More recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on a programme in Rwanda which is aiming to offer a ‘University in a Box’. The programme, called Kepler, has been established in Kigali by Generation Rwanda, a non-profit organisation:

Free for students, Kepler threads together open-source, online content from Western universities, on-site classroom instruction, and an associate degree from Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based program, College for America.

The goal is to build a low-cost, high-quality blended-learning model that can be replicated anywhere, says Generation Rwanda’s executive director, Jamie Hodari. Kepler’s first four years are being financed by a corporate foundation that insists, at least for now, on keeping its name and the size of its contribution secret. The 10-year plan includes scaling up from the inaugural class of 50—Ms. Musanabera among them—to 100,000 students at replica programs around the world.

This is a great idea it seems to me – a really positive way of exploiting the best free online material in a way which could make a real difference in supporting cost-effective higher education development in emerging nations. The programme wants others to copy it too as its director says:

“We want people to steal everything and anything we create. Our intention is to create a university in a box, a kit, down to every lesson plan.”

Let’s hope others do take him up on this.

University of the People v College for the Few

For the many or the few?

A previous post commented on the Fantasy institution that is the New College of the Humanities. This story rumbles on in the UK and is continuing source of interest for many. But whatever one might think of the merits or otherwise of the project, no-one would seek to suggest it is primarily concerned with widening participation. The BBC summary of the story captures the essence of the NCH proposition:

The New College of the Humanities says it will teach “gifted” undergraduates and prepare them for degrees from the University of London.

The privately-owned London-based college will open in September 2012 and is planning to charge fees of £18,000.

The 14 professors involved include biologist Richard Dawkins and historian Sir David Cannadine.

Professor Dawkins is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, as well as being the author of The God Delusion, and Sir David is a professor at Princeton University in the United States.

Based in Bloomsbury, central London, the new college says it will offer eight undergraduate courses in the humanities taught by some of the world’s most prominent academics.

Degrees cover five subject areas – law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy.

So it really is a marginal, if interesting and entertaining, development. As William Cullerne Brown puts it:

Yet the more I think about these aspects, the less worried I am. The NEH is reminiscent of the many liberal arts colleges that flourish in the US. Some are prestigious, most aren’t. But none has a hope of rivalling Harvard and Yale. In an established market like England, I don’t see the NEH gaining the reputational traction it aspires to. It is demanding high grades from applicants, but what if it doesn’t get them? The investors can’t just say forget it then – if things go badly it could easily become known instead as a place for rich thickos. And anyway, the NEH is not a new sector. It can’t be more than just one, apparently quite small, place. And it can never be more than a tiny fraction of what the Russell Group needs to win the political long game, even if you oppose its objective.

Contrast this with a fascinating new model for tuition-free higher education in the US as recently reported by The Washington Post:

The Pasadena, Calif., nonprofit university offers college coursework to about 1,000 students worldwide essentially for free. The only charge is a one-time application fee of $10 to $50, which varies according to the comparative wealth of the student’s home nation.

Professors and deans donate their labors. Founder Shai Reshef has just two paid academic employees. Students access and download assignments online. Class discussions take place in old-fashioned text-based chat rooms, which enable students to participate on the most marginal of computers.

“The idea is to open the gate for anyone who wants to study,” Reshef said during a visit to The Washington Post.

Founded in 2009, University of the People claims to be the world’s first tuition-free online university “dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education”. The institution exploits the growing reach and falling cost of online study.

Some volunteer administrators and faculty come from Columbia, NYU and other prestigious universities, drawn, Reshef said, by the potentially transformational power of a free, online, global university. Formal partners include Yale Law School; NYU plans to offer some of Reshef’s students transfer to its campus in Abu Dhabi.

A quite different approach.

‘Wal-Mart U’ v ‘Harrods U’

Two new entrants into HE

From the Chronicle of Higher Education an interesting story explaining that there might have been a Wal-Mart University:

As the world’s largest retailer weighed its options for making a big splash in education, executives told one potential academic partner that Wal-Mart Stores was considering buying a university or starting its own. “Wal-Mart U.” never happened. Instead, the retailer chose a third option: a landmark alliance that will make a little-known for-profit institution, American Public University, the favored online-education provider to Wal-Mart’s 1.4 million workers in the United States.

A closer look at the deal announced this month shows how American Public slashed its prices and adapted its curriculum to snare a corporate client that could transform its business. It also raises one basic question: Is this a good bargain for students?


It may or may not be a good deal for students. Of perhaps greater interest from a UK perspective is whether this opens the door to the American Public University to offer online programmes to 150,000 Asda staff. If so, they will be competing against a different kind of store which is entering the higher education arena, Harrods. Harrods is following a path set out by Lord Mandelson earlier this year when he encouraged the take up of two year degrees:

The theme of cut-price degrees has been continued by the present Government’s Universities Secretary, David Willetts. Earlier this month he called for students to be able to study online or through their local further education college, while still being enrolled on degree courses run by the country’s most successful universities.

The Harrods students, while studying at the store, will be members of Anglia Ruskin University. They will complete what would normally be a three-year BA (Hons) degree in two years, by studying through the summer holidays as well as university term-time. On the agenda will be theoretical modules in human behaviour, psychology and business enterprise, devised to deepen the students’ sales skills and effectiveness.

It’s tough competition (via The Independent).

Dog Earns MBA Online

Dog Earns M.B.A. Online – from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Just goes to show:

GetEducated.com, an online-learning consumer group, managed to purchase an online M.B.A. for its mascot, a dog named Chester Ludlow. The Vermont pug earned his tassles by pawing over $499 to Rochville University, which offers “distance learning degrees based on life and career experience,” according to a news release from GetEducated. He got back a package from a post-office box in Dubai that contained a diploma and transcripts, plus a certificate of distinction in finance and another purporting to show membership in the student council.

Cue a whole series of dreadful puns about hounding the diploma mills and a promo video about the stunt: “Dog Earns Online MBA: A Cautionary Tail.”