Partnership with online course company angers faculty

Courtesy the Dallas County Community College District and StraighterLine
Courtesy the Dallas County Community College District and StraighterLine
Courtesy the Dallas County Community College District and StraighterLine
By JAMES HARTLEY
@JamesHartleyETC

 

Eastfield faculty have raised concerns over a new partnership between Dallas County Community College District and StraighterLine, a provider of prepackaged, low-cost online courses that some faculty say do not encourage critical thinking.

Among their concerns are Eastfield’s future accreditation status, the quality of education offered and the fact that faculty were not made aware of the partnership until Sept. 12, three weeks into the fall semester.

“Can you imagine any other college that would enact something so important to education and not include faculty members?” history professor Mike Noble asked. “That’s why we’re so upset.”

The partnership between the DCCCD and StraighterLine is a part of the Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships program.

EQUIP is a Department of Education experiment designed to test non-traditional forms of education, such as self-paced online education, to determine if it is fit to be paired with a traditional classroom learning experience.

Students taking part in the EQUIP program will complete up to 75 percent of their coursework through StraighterLine, then transfer those course credits to a DCCCD school to complete.

StraighterLine will have to adapt their operations to fit into the requirements of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Committee on Colleges, which evaluates and determines accreditation for Eastfield and the rest of the DCCCD and requires online classes to have professor-student interaction.

StraighterLine aims to offer self-paced, entry-level courses using textbook publishers including McGraw Hill, Thinkwell, Rosetta Stone and Smarthinking, Pearson’s tutoring service, to build their classes.

While the company has been recommended by the American Council of Education and has been recognized by the Distance Education Accrediting Council, it has no official academic accreditation.

Because they are not accredited, they partner with colleges that are to ensure credits transfer.

Their accredited partner colleges include State University of New York Empire State College, City University of Seattle and University of Louisiana at Monroe. The University of Louisiana at Monroe is accredited by SACS.

Burck Smith, CEO of StraighterLine, said the company uses textbooks, video lectures and assessments to teach students but will soon be hiring employees qualified to work as professors and interact with students.

“[In most self-paced courses], the student is moving at their own pace and getting help as they need it, as opposed to it being proactively pushed to them,” Smith said.

Noble worries that by association with StraighterLine, Eastfield may lose its SACS accreditation.

“We do not need to get into a situation were SACS, our accreditation board, can really say, ‘No, you’re taking a step backwards,’” Noble said. “We just got off warning five years ago. That took us two years to do. Things were bad, then Dr. [Jean] Conway came in and really righted the ship.”

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Matt Hinckley, president of the Faculty Association, said that as long as Eastfield and the DCCCD keep good records of the program, the results and the response, there would be no reason to worry about accreditation.

Up to 600 students, most from outside Texas and all from outside Dallas County, will be able to enroll in StraighterLine classes with a guarantee that their credits will transfer to a DCCCD campus.

Hinckley said that the Department of Education requires that both the DCCCD and StraighterLine complete reports detailing the results and experiences involved with the program.

The Faculty Association voted Sept. 21 to draft a letter to Chancellor Joe May as well as college president Conway, upper-level administrators, academic deans and the presidents of all DCCCD college faculty associations.

“We believe in rigorous inquiry through research, analysis and critical thinking for decision-making and problem-solving,” the letter reads. “We do not pre-package intellectual development, manufactured by corporations. We cannot manufacture knowledge because it is not a product but a process, and deep learning requires a personalized touch.”

The letter asks why faculty were not included in the decision to partner with StraighterLine and expresses concern that students in Dallas County will opt for the “cheaper,” “less rigorous” classes, compromising the value of an Eastfield degree.

May responded Sept. 26 in a letter to the DCCCD. He said that the district wants to reach more students who would otherwise would not achieve college degrees.

May says that he found it “amazing” that 18 percent of adults in Dallas had started college but never received any degree.

“I recognize that new approaches can cause concern, and I appreciate the issues that have been raised by some individuals,” May wrote. “I am confident that we will work through these concerns and that our district will continue to be viewed as a place for innovative approaches to reach students in new ways, through new methods, to provide them with the skills they need to prepare them for the workforce.”

Smith, CEO of StraighterLine, said there is no reason for concern about the value of the education provided by the EQUIP program.

“What we do in our current model is we have about 105 colleges with whom we have formal, guaranteed credit transfer,” Smith said. “There are another thousand or so that our students have told us award credit for our courses, but we can’t guarantee it there. … Credit acceptance is expanding rapidly, which is also, I think, one of the justifications for [the Department of Education] starting this experimental program.”

Smith said he believes the credits will be more widely transferable when students earn degrees from a DCCCD institution.

However, some faculty believe Eastfield will be devalued through its association with StraighterLine.

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“You’re lumping us in with them,” Noble said. “It’s going to diminish what we do here, and we’re going to be associated with the lowest common denominator. That’s why we’re objecting to this so vehemently. … This is poisoning our district. It’s turning us into something that is nothing different than ITT Tech, than Remington College, than all of these programs that the government is shutting down.”

History professor Liz Nichols said she is worried that the courses won’t provide a quality education because of their format.

“The courses have been created by publishers, so they are canned,” Nichols said. “A lot of them do not promote different levels of learning. It’s very much basic knowledge and rote memorization. You basically read and you take a quiz. We couldn’t find a lot of expectation for writing in all of this.”

Smith said the courses offered by StraighterLine encourage critical thinking through tests and that writing courses, which are graded by StraighterLine employees, require students to develop critical thinking.

“It has all the elements of a difficult college class,” Smith said. “The only difference is there’s not a professor marching a cohort of students through a course in a specific timeframe. … It allows students to move at their own pace, and if they’re confident or motivated, they can do it very quickly. And if they’re less so, then they don’t have to.”

Many Eastfield online courses require writing and interaction between students as well as with the professor. Neither is required with StraighterLine courses.

Noble said this means the classes don’t measure up to those offered at Eastfield.

“It’s graded by computer,” he said. “Now, some people will say ‘Your online courses are like that.’ No, they’re not. I grade their writing assignments. It’s half writing and half multiple choice. These StraighterLine classes do not challenge the students. … I’ll be the first to admit it: If I were in college, if I had an easier alternative that was cheaper and I didn’t have to write, yeah I would have taken it. Is it benefiting me? No.”

StraighterLine charges $99 a month plus a fee averaging $45 per course, according to Smith.

He said that because the courses are self-paced, this system can either give students a cheaper education or could become more costly, depending on how quickly they work and how confident they are.

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Eight traditional, accredited colleges and universities and eight non-traditional online education options were paired up for the experiment, according to the Department of Education. Other accredited institutions chosen for the program include the University of Texas and Northeastern University in Baltimore.

For the DCCCD, books, lab kits, proctoring services and support fees are included, according to the letter from May.

All DCCCD college presidents agreed to send the application to join the EQUIP program in December 2015.

Conway was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Hinckley said he did not know of any attempts to gain faculty input at the college or district level while the invitation to join EQUIP was being considered.

“I wish there had been [attempts], but I’m not aware of any,” Hinckley said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t take place. It’s just that it didn’t involve me.”

Tommy Thompson, president of the Cedar Valley College Faculty Association, said in an email that while former college president Jennifer Wimbish may have known about the partnership agreement, the vice president of instruction at Cedar Valley did not.

Thompson wrote that the faculty did not learn about the partnership until early September.

Cedar Valley started accepting StraighterLine credits this semester. According to a summary provided by the DCCCD, the partnership at Cedar Valley is not related to EQUIP.

According to the summary, there were no transfers to Cedar Valley between Aug. 1 and Aug. 31. Only one potential student contacted the college.

Hinckley said the fear over what this partnership means could have been avoided with better communication.

“My preference would always be for faculty to be involved at the earliest possible stages in any initiative,” Hinckley said. “In large measure because we’re on the ground interacting with students directly, we know in much more detail how proposals will affect our students and will affect our faculty.”

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