Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New Studies: Liberal Arts Majors Make Money, MOOCs Don’t Get Completed, and Snow Days Rock

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

You’re not alone if you think winter is a good time to curl up with a good read. Professional journals are awash with reports, studies, and findings that impact a great deal of our work—here’s a small sampling of what’s out there:

  • A report from MIT and Harvard shows what most counselors could have predicted--completion rates for online courses is remarkably small. Over 800,000 people signed up for the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) the two institutions offered last year, but less than five percent completed the course—and over a third never opened the course material.  If those numbers sound worse than students who enroll in traditional classes, there’s a reason for that—they are…

…but the authors of the report say that’s not their fault, and measuring the success of a MOOC by the percentage of completers misses the point of MOOCs.  "Some students who register for MOOCs have no intention of completing, and some instructors do not emphasize completion as a priority. Success and failure take many forms."

It’s certainly encouraging to hear some students are signing up for MOOCs merely for the sake of learning—but isn’t that also the case for face-to-face colleges?  The authors of the study may have a point, but they also may be using the claim to hide a larger issue—that students are finding the courses harder than they thought they would be.  That isn’t news to veteran online teachers—and since policymakers are expecting traditional schools to ramp up completion rates, you can bet this report won’t be met with open arms in Washington.

  •  Another report suggests parents don’t have to worry that their child with a liberal arts degree will spend their entire life living at home.  The American Association of Colleges and Universities joined with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to produce a report suggesting many liberal arts majors in the middle of their careers make more money that those who majored in a professional area, and employment rates are about the same. There is an initial employment and earnings gap at the start, but liberal arts majors catch up…

…and seem to offer employers more as a whole.  The report indicates employers still place a high value on the critical thinking skills that are the essence of a liberal arts education, qualities more professional degrees aren’t teaching.  The report doesn’t guarantee success for anyone, but provides assurance that successful students who follow their passions are likely to do well in the world, regardless of where that passion lies.
  • Finally, Harvard offers great news about snow days.  Despite the insistence of Grinchy policy makers, snow days have no impact on student achievement.  In many cases, this may be due to policymakers adding a couple of extra days of school in regions where winter weather is hazardous, but calling a day off because of bad weather doesn’t hurt students…

…instead, not calling snow days seems to have a negative impact on learning.  If the weather is bad and school’s open, fewer students come to school; that means teachers have to take more time to bring the absent students up to speed on an entire lesson, and that slows the learning process.  While the report doesn’t address this point, this could be due to the strategies teachers have for condensing two lessons into one when there’s a snow day—strategies that don’t work when half the class has had the whole lesson.

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