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For profit philanthropic education – too good to be true?

A reflective post by Leah de Wijze, Co-Director, Naturalelearing Limited.

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I have just had my first experience with for profit, free education. Stuck at home in Wellington over the recent holiday season, with the rain lashing at the windows and trees threatening to fall over in gale force winds, I spent a good part of the break browsing online for a free course in an area that interested me. It was a case of ‘try it before you buy it’.  

This is how I stumbled upon a new player in the market place, the World Education University. In brief, they offer full degrees that are completely free to students. They have over 50,000 students and hundreds of courses available, across a wide range of disciplines including the liberal arts. Whilst they are not accredited, they are working towards that and have partnered with Excelsior College as a first move in this direction. They manage to offer a free model through a combination of seed funding and the use of advertisements that are displayed on the course pages. They are also up front about being able to give student details (within limits) to advertisers so that yours truly can get pestered with annoying emails. It appears that there will soon be some freemium services too.

If this tickles your curiosity, you can read a little more about their model in the two blog posts below. The first has a predictably negative bias and the second a predictably positive bias. 

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/17/world-education-unive...

http://gettingsmart.com/2012/12/world-education-university-disrupts...

I enrolled in a couple of courses and found the experience…interesting. Whilst the blog articles are technically correct in referring WEU courses as MOOCs, they don’t feel like MOOCs at all. Certainly one does not get the sense of thousands of students participating. They were quite similar to courses I’ve taken before at accredited tertiary institutions right here in New Zealand.

What WEU has done (and I wonder if there is anything else similar out there?) seems to represent a significant shift. Founder and CEO, Curtis Pickering, has stated that he has always wanted to offer free education to those who couldn’t afford it. Whilst he originally investigated a not for profit model, he found this too cumbersome and too dependent on sponsors.

The first thing I noticed when I went through the enrolment process, is that it is far closer to what you would need to do at a regular, fee paying, accredited institution. Unlike a MOOC course, you need to provide a lot more detail than just a name and email address. And this isn’t for the benefit of advertisers alone. You are asked to provide educational details in order to determine whether you meet the pre-requisites for entry. This is also, ostensibly, so that if they ever do achieve accreditation, they can turn your results into something meaningful for cross crediting at other institutions.

WEU offers two entry options. The first is entry for ‘enrichment’ only where, as far as I could tell, you won’t ever be able to achieve accreditation but the entry requirements are lower. The second is a regular enrolment where you may be able to become accredited in the future. I chose the first option and didn’t provide any real details although I’m sure they can tell from my ISP address that I don’t reside in Aruba.

When I started the course, I found that I was able to filter out the ads quite easily. I haven’t yet received anything in my gmail account for companies advertising their products but perhaps they’ve just been picked up as spam. Interestingly, the forum posts are automatically sent to the Promotions Tab area of my inbox. So, to date, I’ve been relatively unbothered by the marketing side of it although this could just be because they’re still relatively new.

The actual landing page is evocative of a standard tertiary institution albeit a bit funkier. The website talks about adaptive technology. I was surprised to find that Moodle is used as the LMS. It’s only adaptive insofar as progress tracking is used and the use of the Lesson Module at times forces you to take a certain pathway through the course. The most adaptive use of the technology I saw was right at the beginning. Before starting, students are compelled to do a psychometric test to check their learning style. This I found to be of little educative value but when I did the compulsory Orientation course (delivered as an Articulate Storyline presentation) it became obvious that the choice of slides presented depended on the choices made in the initial survey. Thereafter, I found no evidence of the learning being tailored to my particular learning style.

I enrolled in two different courses and whilst both followed a fairly similar format, they were definitely of varying quality. They were certainly no worse than some equivalent courses I’ve paid to do in the past. They have the feel of having been constructed by educators and are not simply a collection of links to public websites. This is where it is quite different to a MOOC. It’s more than just curated links. There are useful, seminal resources that the student can use.

Too often I find in free courses that a connective learning approach is pushed for self-serving purposes (i.e. let the students do all the work).

The courses were open enrolment with a notable absence of group work activities. I feel that this is the most sensible approach in this type of offering. Whilst there were tutors assigned to the courses who could be contacted, I didn’t see any tutor presence at all. There was some communication between students - often months after the original posts had been made. Unlike MOOCs which offer multiple methods of communication, using blogs, twitter, facebook etc – the forums were the only place (other than Moodle messaging) that interaction could take place. This made it seem less like a MOOC where you might have hundreds of messages that could be read, and more like a contained, regular sized course even though that might not have been the case. 

There were written assignments too that one could submit. I did not do these so don’t know if students are provided with any valuable feedback from the tutor in this regard. Whilst the assignments were well thought out and educationally sound in my opinion, the automated tests (Moodle quizzes) I completed were not of a particularly high standard. Sad to say though, they were not too much worse than many I’ve seen in a fully paid course.

I don’t consider myself easily taken in by gimmicks but I do confess that when I was offered reward points to complete an activity which I could redeem at their online shop, I eagerly went along with it.

Personally, I found the experience preferable to doing a MOOC and considering it was free, well worth it. It served its purpose. However, if I decide to pursue my interest in this field of study any further, I would definitely need to pay for it in order to have any chance of being recognised in the field. The gettingsmart.com blog asks this question:

“With the eruption of free universities and MOOCs, will accreditation still be the marker of skill and knowledge that employers are looking for?”

I think that the answer to that is ‘yes’, snobbery is as timeless as…well, as education!

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Comment by Xin Lee on January 22, 2014 at 16:22

Hello Hazel

In response to your questions: 

 In your experience (either personal, or of working with students / offering professional development), have you experienced similar reactions when learning has been paid for? Do you feel that the whole notion of paying for learning is in some ways empowering? And, as humans, do you reckon we have a more positive response in terms of value, when we feel we have contributed something to the ‘exchange’?


The short answer to this is that if I had paid for the courses, I would certainly have completed the assignments, which I didn't bother to do in this instance because I simply wanted the information and the learning. In fact, I did the formative, but not the summative, activities. 

Yes, I believe we do value what we pay for more, the question is what 'payment' actually means.

In NZ, for instance, I've noticed that school children don't value their (largely) free education whereas once they get to tertiary level and have to pay, they value it more. All I think this means though, is that they've forgotten how important taxation is, for example, to education and that they do pay indirectly via taxes. If you believe in the premise that most people want to contribute to society, than everyone is contributing towards and paying for schooling in some way.

It could be through working and paying tax, or through looking after children who will eventually pay tax, or performing some other community activity that helps to hold everything together and make this a functioning society. Of course, this is also just about being young and not really realising what is important yet :-) 

The WEU model actually uses quite a clever psychological trick to overcome the non-payment issue from the students' point of view. They have a 'give back' pledge where students have to committ to giving back through doing voluntary work in the field in which they are learning and declare what this is. Of course, there isn't really any way to enforce it but I can see this blossoming in to some sort of partnership between the WEU and charity organisations which will make people feel like joining the WEU is morally speaking, a good thing to do whilst at the same time making the founders very rich indeed.

It's a very clever marketing model but to get back to your question/s, from the student's point of view I don't think that free education is psychologically damaging if they are able to pay in kind (as in the give back model) or if they realise the connection between the community contribution, immediate or long term, and the free education. 

Students will be well aware that a degree from somewhere like the WEU is not going to be considered as valuable in the market place as an expensive degree from Oxford University, for example. Students who have that option are not going to go to the WEU probably. What WEU offers is hope to those who may otherwise be desperate and hope can help people achieve amazing things, maybe even get them into Oxford one day if that is their dream.

Comment by Xin Lee on January 22, 2014 at 16:21

Hello Hazel

In response to your questions: 

 In your experience (either personal, or of working with students / offering professional development), have you experienced similar reactions when learning has been paid for? Do you feel that the whole notion of paying for learning is in some ways empowering? And, as humans, do you reckon we have a more positive response in terms of value, when we feel we have contributed something to the ‘exchange’?


The short answer to this is that if I had paid for the courses, I would certainly have completed the assignments, which I didn't bother to do in this instance because I simply wanted the information and the learning. In fact, I did the formative, but not the summative, activities. 

Yes, I believe we do value what we pay for more, the question is what 'payment' actually means.

In NZ, for instance, I've noticed that school children don't value their (largely) free education whereas once they get to tertiary level and have to pay, they value it more. All I think this means though, is that they've forgotten how important taxation is, for example, to education and that they do pay indirectly via taxes. If you believe in the premise that most people want to contribute to society, than everyone is contributing towards and paying for schooling in some way.

It could be through working and paying tax, or through looking after children who will eventually pay tax, or performing some other community activity that helps to hold everything together and make this a functioning society. Of course, this is also just about being young and not really realising what is important yet :-) 

The WEU model actually uses quite a clever psychological trick to overcome the non-payment issue from the students' point of view. They have a 'give back' pledge where students have to committ to giving back through doing voluntary work in the field in which they are learning and declare what this is. Of course, there isn't really any way to enforce it but I can see this blossoming in to some sort of partnership between the WEU and charity organisations which will make people feel like joining the WEU is morally speaking, a good thing to do whilst at the same time making the founders very rich indeed.

It's a very clever marketing model but to get back to your question/s, from the student's point of view I don't think that free education is psychologically damaging if they are able to pay in kind (as in the give back model) or if they realise the connection between the community contribution, immediate or long term, and the free education. 

Students will be well aware that a degree from somewhere like the WEU is not going to be considered as valuable in the market place as an expensive degree from Oxford University, for example. Students who have that option are not going to go to the WEU probably. What WEU offers is hope to those who may otherwise be desperate and hope can help people achieve amazing things, maybe even get them into Oxford one day if that is their dream.

Comment by Hazel Owen on January 22, 2014 at 14:08

This is super, post - thank you. There is certainly a great deal of continuing interest in MOOcs, and growing interest in a variety of alternative models for offering learning experiences, as well as badges, and different ways of acknowledging competency. While, in the past, I have dipped in (and out!) of MOOCs, I haven't had any experience in using the model of learning that you discuss here. So, it was really great to do so 'vicariously' via your experience.

Something that did come to mind while reading your post was the whole notion of ‘value’, which is quite a complex issue as it is often shaped but context, beliefs, biases and culture. There is some research that indicates that when we pay for something, we value it more. Ben Goldacre in this post covers three such studies, and summarises one study as follows:

A paper currently in press for the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes addresses this issue explicitly. Participants were given a quiz on American history, with the opportunity to win cash rewards for correct answers (since we’re all simple experimental animals deep down), and the option to get advice for each question. The ‘advice’ was simply another student’s answers, perfectly likely to be wrong, and a reasonable model for self-appointed experts: it was from no great authority, and the experimenters were quite clear about this.

The participants were either offered the advice for free, or they were offered the opportunity to buy it. They were offered either option at various times, and it was made absolutely clear that the advice was of exactly the same quality, whether it was free or not. Participants were significantly more likely to follow advice they had paid for – and change their answers in line with it – compared with advice they received for free. (Goldacre, 2008, source)

You mention in your post that the for profit model you explored does not require the user to pay, but rather relies on a “combination of seed funding and the use of advertisements that are displayed on the course pages”.  You also observed that some “equivalent courses…[you’ve] paid to do in the past” did not measure up particularly well to the  World Education University for profit free courses you trialled - although, in part your experience will, of course, be informed by your ID and eLearning expertise, which shapes your expectations.

So, I wonder if the WEU model, while ethically sound, is psychologically sound (and I acknowledge that I am writing from a privileged position where I can choose to pay for my learning). Do we need to consider a ‘pay what you feel you can afford’ contribution model?

I’m a very strong advocate of Creative Commons, openness, and co-construction, so the ethos of ‘free’ education sits well with me. However, some research does tend to indicate that a student-pays model may actually help make the learning experience seem more valuable. I’d be really interested in your thoughts. In your experience (either personal, or of working with students / offering professional development), have you experienced similar reactions when learning has been paid for? Do you feel that the whole notion of paying for learning is in some ways empowering? And, as humans, do you reckon we have a more positive response in terms of value, when we feel we have contributed something to the ‘exchange’?

 

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