Accessibility Concerns of Using Prezi in Education

In a previous post, Mea Culpa – Accessibility Concerns of Using External Tools in the LMS, I mentioned the accessibility concerns that come from using many of the popular external tools (Web 2.0 tools, if you will) inside the LMS. I previously posted about the accessibility issues with Slideshare. One tool that has become a darling of the edu crowd is Prezi. For this post, I’m not concentrating on the uses of Prezi within the LMS, but more generally at the a11y concerns with using Prezi in any way in education.

Accessibility of web-based tools in education. This one failed the test.Prezi is almost completely inaccessible to students with disabilities, particularly low-vision and no-vision students (and faculty, of course). Prezi admits as much, and currently don’t seem to have any concrete plans of addressing this shortcoming. In their own words:

Regarding a request for a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) from Prezi; “I’m afraid we don’t currently have a VPAT for Prezi. Prezi is not ADA compliant.Prezi Community Forum, October 8, 2014

” I also did not want to be misleading and say “We’re working on a solution right now” when we clearly are not.” Prezi Community Forum, March 30, 2011

“However, we are working hard to make the Prezi website fully 508 compliant. For example we are experimenting with a nice transcript outline for presentations to let our users get a clue what is inside the presentation.” Prezi Communty Forum, March 5, 2010. Notice that this comment is almost five years old, and they have now enabled the possibility of a transcript, but have made very little progress to date to address the many other accessibility concerns with Prezi. Their actions (lack thereof) are speaking louder than words.

I haven’t used Prezi for a couple of years, until I created a new presentation (and a new account altogether) for use in this post. Similar to the Slideshare presentation from the previous post, I created a sample Prezi presentation about Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Screenshot of one of my old Prezis - you can no longer embed a Prezi  in WordPress.com, such as this site. Click the image to visit the Prezi site.

Screenshot of one of my old Prezis – you can no longer embed a Prezi in WordPress.com, such as this site. This Prezi was created before they added the transcript feature. Click the image to visit the Prezi site.

Here is a partial list of the a11y problems that will be encountered when trying to view a Prezi via assistive technologies:

  • “Text” (in appearance only, apparently) written in a Prezi is not readable by a screen reader program.
  • It’s not possible to add alternate text to any images that you include in your Prezi.
  • You cannot tab through a presentation, which is standard operating procedure for keyboard access. Tabbing through the links on the Prezi will result in completely skipping over the presentation frame.

On the plus side, there have been a few enhancements that help lessen the accessibility issues with using Prezi in education; including:

  • You can now use keyboard shortcuts (instead of only mouse movements) to create a Prezi, although you have to be able to use a mouse to turn them on (off by default).
  • The transcript feature is a minor improvement, however there is no way to edit the transcript, or export it or embed it along with an embedded presentation. You have to enter the text into the Prezi in the order that you want it to appear in the transcript. Anything that you add as an afterthought will be at the end of the transcript, even if it is at the beginning of the presentation. Prezi spokespeople say that the transcript is to “support search engines,” not users with disabilities.
    • If you look at the transcript in my Jekyll Island Prezi, you’ll see that the text is out of order. I would have to re-create the presentation from scratch to get the transcript correct.
  • You can add an audio track to a Prezi, which would enhance accessibility for students without hearing disabilities. You can add audio narration at specific points in your Prezi. The audio files will start when you reach the chosen point in the presentation and stop playing when you move away from that place in the Prezi.

So, maybe you love Prezi and have no plans to stop using it for providing course content to your students. That’s your choice, but I believe you also need to (or should) make another choice; and that choice is to always make an alternative presentation that is equivalent in content and fully accessible to students with disabilities.

Are you interested in some classic examples of things that are incongruous? How about the over 1,000 Prezis that have been created about web accessibility. Here is one particular example, where the suggestions for making web content accessible are quite good, except that you can’t do most of them when working with Prezi itself.

Barry Dahl is solely responsible for the views and opinions contained in this post. No other association with any legal entity is implied or real.

Accessibility Concerns of Using Slideshare inside the LMS

In my previous post, Mea Culpa – Accessibility Concerns of Using External Tools in the LMS, I mentioned the accessibility concerns that come from using many of the popular external tools (Web 2.0 tools, if you will) inside the LMS. One tool that I frequently have recommended over the years is Slideshare. Here’s a video that I put together back in 2007 about using SlideShare inside the LMS (D2L). That was then, this is now.

Accessibility of web-based tools in education. This one failed the test.For a long time there were inherent problems with using PowerPoint slide decks on the web. Sure there were various ways to do it, but none of them were great. That’s not quite true, because there were some great tools, but they weren’t free; which was another aspect of the tools that I shared in my presentations. They needed to be free, and easy to use. Web accessibility was not one of my criteria, but it is now.

When Slideshare came on the scene, I became an early user and started including it in my presentations about using Web-based tools inside the LMS. Here, for example, is an embed of one of my old slide decks (use your imagination and envision this embedded into an online course, instead of this blog):

You can view the Slideshare transcript (opens in new window) at their site, but these slides were not constructed to be accessible. Thus, the transcript is not very useful to the unsighted user. There is a great deal of information in the slides that they would not have access to.

The easy to find, easy to use embed code was one of the reasons why I liked Slideshare. Webbifying the otherwise bulky, clumsy PPT slides was so much better than trying to get native slides to play nicely in the browser. But what about accessibility (a11y), you ask?

You can make PPT slides that conform to most of the a11y standards (or good practices, if you prefer). Wouldn’t it be great if your accessible PPT slides could be uploaded into Slideshare and still be accessible? Sure, that would be great. Sadly, that’s not how it works. At least, it won’t work that way without you planning ahead to make it so and then jumping through a couple of extra hoops.

There are a few a11y issues with using Slideshare:

  • PPT slides are converted into images. There is no way to attach alt text to the slide images in Slideshare. Therefore, you must include all pertinent information in text format for each slide (methods described below).
  • Although a transcript is created by Slideshare, the transcript is not ported over with an embed of the slides in another site, such as in the Content section of the LMS. Students would need to navigate to the original page at the Slideshare site in order to access the transcript, and then they have a lot of other stuff to navigate through before reaching the transcript (thinking from the perspective of a student using a screen reader such as JAWS).
  • The transcript only includes those things that are in text format in the original PPT slides. In other words, if you use images in your PPT slides, there is no information at all about those images in the transcript in Slideshare, unless you describe them in your text.
  • You can embed a YouTube video (should it be captioned? Yes, but many are not) into a Slideshare presentation, however, I cannot see how a student using a screen reader would be able to operate the video controls which are now inside the Slideshare frame.
  • For a few years, Slideshare had an option to add an audio track to narrate your slides. Although I never checked it for a11y, it potentially could have been a boon to students who could listen to the narration. However, Slideshare removed this “Slidecast” feature during early 2014.

I’m cognizant of the move in recent years to more of a “Zen” approach to PPT slides – with heavy emphasis on images and minimal text. This approach is great for live presentations, but not so great if the slides are going to be shared for asynchronous viewing. Zen-type slides will only cause greater issues for sight-impaired students due to the lack of explanatory text. For my work-around examples, I’ll go with heavy imagery in the sample slides.

So, if you’re going to use Slideshare for delivering course content to your online students, how can you do so with an eye on accessibility? Here are a couple of work-arounds.

  • All important information about each slide needs to be made available to students in text form, probably in the Slideshare transcript.
  • Method one is to hide the text behind the images on the slide, with the resulting text appearing in the Slideshare transcript.
  • Method two is to use the Notes field in the PPT program to put all the info needed for full learning. Then convert the PPT into a PDF, with the Notes Pages selected as the saved format. This then puts the Notes into the Slideshare transcript.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve made a simple four-slide presentation using PowerPoint. I have then uploaded two versions of those slides to Slideshare, with the embeds shown below.

Method One. The Slide Title holder is placed on top of the image and formatted for readability for sighted students. The explanatory text is hidden behind the image which will then populate the Slideshare transcript. After embedding the slides into the LMS, I would also copy and paste the transcript from Slideshare into the LMS content page.

Transcript pasted below from Slideshare page:

  • Slide 1. Jekyll Island is off the coast of Georgia; one of the Golden Isles of Georgia
    If you’ve never been to Jekyll Island, you need to put it on your list. Beautiful beaches, wildlife, unique flora, and a great deal of history can be found throughout the island. The Jekyll Island Club was founded in 1886 and was a vacation spot for the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. It is now a luxury resort hotel, and has been beautifully restored. (This is text hidden under the image on slide one.)
  • Slide 2. Majestic “Live” Oak trees are found throughout the 9 mile long island
    The old oak trees on the Island are a sight to see, with Spanish Moss hanging down, often creating a thick canopy. Many of the tree trunks are covered with the beautiful Resurrection Fern. These trees are considered to be “live” oak because they are evergreen; remaining green throughout the winter rather than going dormant and leafless. The Southern Live Oak is the state tree of Georgia. (This is text hidden under the image on slide two.)
  • Slide 3. Driftwood Beach, North End of Jekyll Island
    A special attraction on Jekyll Island is Driftwood Beach, sometimes referred to as the Elephant Graveyard because of the unique formations of the large driftwood pieces scattered along the beach. The trees died over the past 200 years, primarily from beach erosion. There aren’t any real elephant remains there, but the driftwood formations are worth the trip. (This is text hidden under the image on slide three.)
  • Slide 4. Hungry? Try the Low Country Boil
    The shrimp on Jekyll are super fresh and locally caught. Add in potatoes, sausage, corn-on-the-cob, peppers, onions and seasonings; and you’ve got the famous Low Country Boil. Consider eating on the dock at the Rah Bar at the Historic Wharf near the Jekyll Island Club. (This is text hidden under the image on slide four.)

Also, Slideshare seems to be putting the title text AFTER the slide text, which seems weird. I edited the transcript to put the title text in the appropriate spot in the pasted transcript.

Method Two.  The descriptive text is placed into the Notes field in PPT. The Notes View is then saved as a PDF and the PDF is uploaded to Slideshare. Sighted students now have the advantage of seeing the explanatory text, and the transcript provides the same information for sight-impaired students who are using a screen reader program, but keep in mind that unsighted students using a screen reader will not hear any information from the slides & notes in the Slideshare embed. As in method one, the transcript is copied from Slideshare and pasted into the LMS content page so that students don’t have to navigate out of the LMS to the bottom of the Slideshare page.

Transcript pasted below from Slideshare (first slide only)

  • Slide 1. Jekyll Island is off the coast of Georgia; one of the Golden Isles of Georgia
    If you’ve never been to Jekyll Island, you need to put it on your list. Beautiful beaches, wildlife, unique flora, and a great deal of history can be found throughout the island. The Jekyll Island Club was founded in 1886 and was a vacation spot for the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. It is now a luxury resort hotel, and has been beautifully restored. (This is text put into the PPT Notes field on slide one.)

Overall, this is a lot of work to make these slides accessible when using Slideshare. Although I have been a long-time fan of Slideshare, I’d be inclined to dump it altogether for a more accessible presentation program. Sadly, as we’ll see in future posts, there aren’t many choices for that.

NOTE: for this particular tool, I only looked at the perspective of a faculty member using it to provide slide content to a class of students, not looking at the issues with students using the tool themselves for uploading slide shows, which creates different concerns.

Barry Dahl is solely responsible for the views and opinions contained in this post. No other association with any legal entity is implied or real.

Mea Culpa – Accessibility Concerns of Using External Tools in the LMS

Over the past 10 years or so, my most popular conference workshops have been those involving the use of Web 2.0 tools inside the LMS. I’ve always enjoyed those workshops immensely, and it’s fun to see the light bulbs come on as they discover ways that they can engage their students in new and different ways.

Gravity is a lot like accessibility - it's the lawI gave another one of those workshops in November 2014, and it is probably the first time I’ve done so in the last year and a half. The topic has become a bit dated and I usually had different topics to explore instead. As I was making the recent presentation, it struck me how totally different it was now compared to how it used to be. My focus was completely different, and with very good reason.

There were two things that I focused on that never used to be part of the presentation:

1) Due to browser changes, I now focus on the web sites that that don’t create a mixed content issue when embedding content inside the secure (https) learning platform (learn more here), and

2) Due to a change in priorities, I now focus on the web accessibility issues of using external content inside the learning platform. It is this second point that is the focus of this post and a few additional posts to come.

When giving this presentation 5-10 years ago, questions about accessibility would occasionally come up, but not often. Although I don’t specifically remember what my responses were at the time, I do know that they were not adequate. There have always been serious issues related to accessibility for online learning content/activities, but years ago it was easier to blow them off as not being a high priority. These days I consider it to be one of the highest priorities. Yes, I guess I had a revelation about accessibility somewhere along the way.

So here’s the deal. If you are creating course content using an external tool, or if you are having students do required work using an external tool, then it is incumbent upon you to make sure that you are using creative output and/or external tools that are fully accessible to students who have disabilities.

I’m currently wrapping up facilitation of the first offering of the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators (WAMOE). Throughout this MOOC, we’ve focused on creating accessible course content using HTML pages, Word Docs, PPT slideshows, and PDF docs. That’s all well and good – but if you then introduce external tools, you need to make sure that they are accessible too; and many of them are not.

In a series of undetermined length, I’ll examine the accessibility features (or lack thereof) of many of the popular external tools used in eLearning. I’ll probably say it repeatedly, but it’s okay to use a non-accessible tool as long as you make appropriate accommodations for students who are not able to use the tools. For the tools that reduce accessibility, I’ll also give one or more suggestions for a work-around that should be put in place if you really want to use the inaccessible tool.

Scott Walker has been Great for Education – in Minnesota!

This is a follow-up to my post from October 2012, Replacement Teachers Coming Soon to Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, I received lots of pushback on that article from those who “Stand with Walker,” including many who don’t live in Wisconsin and have no idea what is happening here, except for what they are told by bloggers and faux news people.We stand by while Scott Walker ruins Wisconsin

Every time I see another “We Stand with Scott Walker” yard sign, I assume that the home owner hates education and educators. I’m not sure what else to think here in Superior where Scott Walker has started the ball rolling down a hill where the result will be a severe lowering of the quality of public education.

So, what’s happening here in Superior, Wisconsin? Superior is a border town. It takes me 3-4 minutes to be on top of the “high bridge” and into Minnesota. After leaving my house, I could be pulling into the parking lot of a half dozen Minnesota schools within 15 minutes. But I’m not the one doing that. That commute belongs to the excellent teachers and other education employees who have recently taken better jobs on the Minnesota side of the border.

The migration of our best educators from Superior to schools in Minnesota has begun. From one elementary school alone, four excellent educators recently quit their jobs in Superior to take similar, but better, jobs in Minnesota. Why did these educators jump to the other side of the bridge? Because they couldn’t afford not to. They needed to have affordable health insurance for their family, and they no longer had that in the Superior School District.

Good teaching jobs in Minnesota, lousy teaching jobs in WisconsinNote to all school administrators in Duluth, Proctor, Hermantown, Esko, Cloquet, Two Harbors and others; the best Superior teachers are ripe for the plucking since you offer them much better benefits than they now receive in Wisconsin.

The stripping of decent health insurance was a two-step process. Scott Walker didn’t accomplish it completely on his own, but he took care of part one, which was stripping away the collective bargaining rights. I case you missed it, the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 was proposed by Walker, passed by the Wisconsin Legislature, and became law, effective June 29, 2011. At that point, the School District of Superior no longer had to negotiate with their employees over anything except pay raises.

The second step in the process has to be owned by the Superior School Board. They are the ones who took the opportunity provided by Walker to decimate the affordability of the health insurance coverage offered to employees of the school district. One example of the devastating change in employee health insurance is the quadrupling of the annual deductible for family coverage from $1,500 to $6,000.

If ever there was a case study for the importance of public employee unions, Scott Walker’s actions and the resulting fallout would be it. His supporters believe, apparently, that public employees don’t need unions because their employer (the gubment) is always above board and would never screw them over. Those same people like to point to FDR’s statements about how public employees don’t need the protection of unions and collective bargaining. That was in the 30’s and 40’s, and if we still had government leaders like FDR, maybe the public employee unions wouldn’t be necessary. Instead we have politicians like Scott Walker, and there is no doubt that the public employees need protection from the actions of their government employer.

To my friends on the police force and those in the fire halls, he’ll be coming for your collective bargaining rights next. Obviously he hasn’t wanted to do this until after the election, because he’s counting on your votes to get re-elected. As soon as the Wisconsin Governor election is over, Walker will be positioning himself for a run at the White House; and that means finishing the job he started by wiping out all public employee unions in Wisconsin. Do you like your employee benefits? If so, then you’d better protect them, because Scott Walker won’t.

I Stand Against Scott Walker!

I Stand WITH Education and Educators!

Two More Things that Bug me About Quality in e-Learning

Last week I published the first post in this series of undetermined length. Here is post number two. As a recap, bug Number One was the lack of a definition for the term e-Learning Quality. Bug Number Two was the excessive focus on course design and the lack of focus on more important pieces (IMO) of e-Learning Quality. Here are the next two bugs.

Three.

This one goes hand-in-hand with the issue about defining quality. We need to look at quality as a continuum, something along the lines of the graphic below.

Online Learning Quality Continuum

When people use the term “eLearning Quality,” we usually assume they mean high quality or excellent quality, but of course there can also be low quality. In other words, the term “quality” is really not descriptive enough. Just adding the word assurance, such as in a quality assurance program, still doesn’t cut it for me. “I assure you that your quality is really crappy.” How’s that for quality assurance?

We would be better off to talk about Excellence in e-Learning, or my preferred term of Excellence in e-Education. The other thing that the chart illustrates is that most quality standards tend to aim at the large middle section – which is indicative of being good enough, rather than excellent. It’s really not that high a bar. My suggestion is that you stop talking about Quality, and start talking about Excellence.

Four.

Very often a discussion about e-Learning Excellence comes around to a comparison of course completion rates between online courses and F2F courses. That focus on completion rates is seriously misplaced. It’s a classic case of comparing peaches to pears.

Completion rates expectations.

Of course it makes perfect sense to most people when that comparison is made. Those people believe that if online learning results in fewer successful course completions, it must be due to the lower level of quality for those online courses. What other reason could there be? Well, there could be several other reasons. Here are some of those reasons:

1. Demographics differences (Learning House Report pages 27-31)

We know that there is a fair number of students who mix F2F classes with online classes. But we also know that those students who are exclusively engaged in online learning, taken as a group, have some different demographics than those who engage exclusively in F2F learning. In other words, they are not two homogenous groups. Online students work more hours (60% of them work full-time), are more likely to be parents (and especially single parents), and are more likely to be part-time students rather than full-time. In fact, those demographics differences are some of the reasons why students choose an online education path in the first place – because their plates are already pretty full. See also the demographics differences from my former college.

2. Differences in student support

All students need many support services, and the on-campus services are typically better delivered than the comparable online services. Sure, some schools are doing an exemplary job of providing online access to a full range of student services, but many others are not.

Online students expect 24/7 access to these services (L/H page 20), but see a significant performance gap (Noel/Levitz pg. 6) in those services provided by their colleges and universities:

  • Online library and research
  • Technical support
  • Academic advising
  • Career placement

3. Differences in instructor preparation/familiarity

Every term there are lots of faculty members who teach  their  very  first  online class. Sure, there are also some faculty who are teaching their very first F2F course, but not to the same level as the number of noobs for online teaching. And besides, chances are good that the first-time F2F teacher has been sitting in F2F classrooms as a student for 15-20 years before their first attempt at teaching in the same setting. It’s not unfamiliar territory.

At my former college, I tracked the student final course grades in classes that were taught by new online faculty over their first few semesters. This was not part of their evaluation, nor was it used in any significant way with, for, or against the instructor. I was simply curious. What happened to student performance as the instructors became more experienced with online teaching? I doubt that you’ll be surprised that student achievements (as measured by final grades) generally  got better as the instructor gathered experience with the modality. The chart below is based on real data collected about dozens of faculty members who started teaching online courses during my tenure at the college. These three anonymized instructors are representative of the typical data – although there were a few exceptions to this general upward trend. Loosely speaking, I think the data show that instructors see better results from their students as the instructor gains more experience in online teaching. I don’t think that’s surprising, but I do think it’s something that we need to consider about the maturity of online education. We get better at it the longer we do it. At least most of us do.

Student grades with new online instructors

NOTE:  this chart depicts the percentage of students who successfully completed (passed) an online class during the first five terms that an instructor taught that class online. In each case, this was the instructor’s first foray into online teaching.

4. Differences in student familiarity with online learning

Much like newbie faculty members, there are also a new batch of first-time online students each and every term. Every fall term at my former college, about 40% of the online students were first-time online learners. No matter how many years of schooling they had endured, this was their first taste of online learning. That 40% figure remained fairly constant from about 2005 to 2010, when I left the college. Nationally, the rate is probably below that number, and it is probably slowly going down over the years as online learning is less and less of a novelty.  I’d say that a conservative estimate of the overall rate is 25%. In other words, every time a new term starts, at least 25% of the online students are taking their first-ever online class. It’s probably a higher rate, but 25% is high enough to make the following point.

At the beginning of each term, what percentage of students sitting in a traditional F2F classroom are doing so for the very first time?

Effectively zero percent. Let’s allow for the occasional home-schooled student who has never been in a traditional classroom – not ever. It could happen. So, let’s conservatively estimate that about 0.001% of the F2F students are sitting in a F2F classroom for the first time ever.

And yet we expect those two groups to achieve the same level of success in those courses? Doesn’t that sound just a little bit insane?

Comparing completion rates between online and face-to-face

Click to enlarge

Online course completions continue to get better and better, as we figure out how to be more effective online educators and as students learn how to be better online learners. If anything, the e-Learning Atheists (naysayers) should be concerned that the difference in rates is so small, and getting smaller. More about those improving completion rates next time.

Two Things That Bug Me (Today) About Quality in e-Learning

eQuality iconOver the past ten years or so, I’ve been involved in one way or the other in the arena of assessing quality in Online Learning. It was 2004 that I first learned about the work being done by QualityMatters during the first year of their FIPSE grant. As the Dean of Distance Learning at a Minnesota College at the time, I attended the ITC eLearning conference and brought back version one of the QM rubric. At a faculty retreat that spring, the online faculty at my college decided that they wanted to revise the rubric for local considerations, create their own faculty-driven review process, and pursue a voluntary quality review process for online courses at the school.

That process at the college is still going strong now 10 years later, even though I’m long gone. During my time as an independent e-Learning consultant, I received several contracts to work with colleges on their e-Quality initiatives and for accreditation for online programs. I’ve had first-hand experience with many different schools and have examined what they are doing (and what they are NOT doing) with regard to assuring and/or increasing the quality of their online education offerings; including courses, programs, and student services. In other words, I’m neither a noob nor a rube when it comes to e-Learning quality.

As I continue to find new developments in the e-Quality world for my Scoop.it page on such, I continue to be amazed at how little there is that is new in this field. Mostly the same old conversations about the same old issues. Does that mean that we’re done here? I doubt it, but not quite sure what else to make of it. There are several things that continue to bug me about the conversations around e-Quality. In this post I’ll mention the first two things that are bugging me. More posts will follow shortly until I’ve sprayed all the bugs (or just run out of things that bug me).

One.

To the best of my knowledge, we still don’t have a widely accepted definition of what we mean when we use the term e-Quality (my term for e-Learning Quality, Online Course Quality, Distance Ed Quality, etc. etc.) Heck, we can’t even agree on the term that we use when referring to it. The word ‘quality’ itself is not that muddy: “a high level of value or excellence” says the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. But specifically, what do we mean when we refer to quality in an online education setting?

For comparison, let’s consider how quality is defined in a different arena where the concept is applied on a regular basis: manufacturing/business. What does the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 8402:1986) have to say about this? The standard defines quality as “the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bears its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs.”

Another definition from Business Dictionary dot com: “In manufacturing, a measure of excellence or a state of being free from defects, deficiencies, and significant variations, brought about by the strict and consistent adherence to measurable and verifiable standards to achieve uniformity of output that satisfies specific customer or user requirements.”

I’m pretty sure that almost all educators would be uncomfortable  using that sort of language when talking about educational quality. Free from defects, uniformity of output – yikes. So let’s try something like this:

Excellence in e-Education includes high expectations for all parties involved, clearly communicating standards upon which evaluations will be based, gathering and reporting qualitative measurements of student learning achievements, while operating efficiently and providing good value for the costs incurred by all stakeholders.

Two.

The almost-singular focus on course design is seriously misplaced. Some of you are probably familiar with this diagram I developed about 6 or 7 years ago. The three triangles indicate three potential areas of eLearning Quality Trianglesassessing “quality” in online education, specifically at the course level. My mantra during the past has been that there is an unbalanced focus on the lower right triangle  with little, if any, attention being paid to the other two triangles. I have noticed a slight uptick in the attention paid to the quality of instruction and the quality of student learning achievements, but those areas still pale in comparison to the focus on course design. Most people believe that if they have a QM (or QM-like) rubric and process, then they’re answering their critics’ questions about online course quality.

Those of you who’ve heard me speak on this matter know that I consider the course design to be several magnitudes of lesser importance than the other two areas. In fact, if you can provide solid, repeatable evidence that the online students are achieving the intended learning outcomes at a very high level – then I’d be willing to throw out the other two altogether. That’s rarely the case. Let me restate that: if your online students are learning what they are supposed to learn, then I’d rather not dictate certain teaching techniques or course design standards, because what they are doing must be working. It’s nice to have evidence of all three – as long as your use of a design rubric doesn’t become a one-size fits-all approach.

My suggestion is that you focus on gathering evidence for the blue triangle. If that evidence is weak, then look at the other two triangles to identify potential causes (there are other potential causes, of course). If the evidence of success in the blue triangle is strong, don’t worry so much about the other two.

I’m just getting started. Check back soon.

Investing Instead of Spending Your College Money

Money ball - decorativeThe onslaught of press about the value (or lack thereof) of a college education continues unabated. Here’s just a sampling of some of the articles about the cost of and/or value of going to college:

  1. Washington Post (8/27/13) The Tuition is Too Damn High, Part II: Why college is still worth it
  2. Cathy Davidson (8/24/13): Why Does College Cost So Much–And Why Do So Many Pundits Get It Wrong?
  3. Notre Dame Magazine (Summer 2013):  Is College Worth It?
  4. My own post: ROI on Tuition Paid – Another Bunch of Hooey (also More ROI Hooey)
  5. Also mine: Series about the $10,000 bachelor degree (10+ posts  altogether)

There’s many more to choose from, but you get the idea. So let’s say that you have a hypothetical child that is about ready to enter college. She’s a slightly above-average student, but not a star student. She has more personality than you can shake a stick at, but not the greatest amount of ambition to change the world. She’s uncertain about where she wants to go in life (you know, the career thing), and so she’s having a hard time figuring out where she should go to college and what she should major in. The idea of going away to an exotic land with fabulous dorms and climbing walls (sorry, but everyone has to throw that into the equation) is something that she is very interested in. Her parents are not made of money, but they have done some saving for college expenses, just not the kind of money that can afford the out-of-state or private school climbing walls.

The parents are able to pay $5,000 per semester for 4 years, or a total of $40,000. A four-year degree in 4 years is the exception rather than the norm, but that’s the way they’re figuring the finances for now. Pell money will be scarce because their family income is just a little bit too high. Burdening the young lady with mountains of debt doesn’t seem like a good idea to any of them.  State grant money is very uncertain, and so are scholarships (remember, she’s a slightly above-average student without severe financial need).

Although the young lady doesn’t like this idea, she can live at home and attend the local state university in her home town. The cost of tuition per year is about $8,000 and books and supplies will run about another $2,000 – thus, the $10,000 per year that her parents have available would work in this scenario without incurring debt. Living outside of the home, whether in the same town or not adds a significant amount of cost, so let’s assume that the parents are going to strong arm her into living at home, at least for the first couple of years (actually, all 4 years, but they keep that to themselves).

Here’s the $64,000 question (OK, the $40,000 question):

Should they pay for her college, or just invest the money for her retirement?

What if she doesn’t go to college? Maybe on her own she could take a few classes here or there and over time build towards a college degree (or get herself a free, shiny MOOC degree!). Or maybe she gets a job with an employer who is willing to subsidize her higher education (increasingly rare, but they’re still out there). Or maybe she avoids much of the ladder-climbing rat race and works at jobs that don’t require a college degree, makes enough money to live off of, and basically coasts to the finish line where there’s a pot-o-money waiting for her. Or, any one of the hundreds of other ways that this could play out.

Assume Mom and Dad invest $5,000 in her name every six months for four years – the same $40,000 that they would have paid for her college costs. Investing in a mutual fund that mirrors the S&P 500 tends to be a good gamble over the long run.  The long-run here would be a 44-year investment, the first 4 years of which find her parents paying into her “not college” fund, and the next forty years of compounding. The no-longer-young lady would be 62 years old when she is able to get her hands on the investment spoils. Historically, the S&P 500 returns an average annual rate of approximately 10% over 30 years or more. Of course, past results are not necessarily indicative – blah, blah, blah. So, let’s look at a range of outcomes from 7% to 12%.

  • 7% annualized rate of return:  = $701,441*
  • 8% annualized rate of return:  = $1,040,908
  • 9% annualized rate of return:  = $1,539,394
  • 10% annualized rate of return:  = $2,268,974
  • 11% annualized rate of return:  = $3,333,329
  • 12% annualized rate of return:  = $4,881,136

* The $40,000 investment (8 annuity payments of $5K each, every 6 months for 8 periods), then 40 years of growth at 7% without additional payments.

Caveats:

  • These numbers are pre-inflation. In other words, at the 8% return, it’s not the same as having a million dollars today, but whatever a million dollars will be worth 44 years from now.
  • Any mutual fund will have annual expenses and admin fees to pay. Several analysts seem to suggest that 1/2 of 1% (annually) is a good estimate for a long-term mutual fund with minimal activity.
  • Income taxes can always be a thorny issue. The $10,000 annual contribution by the parents should be tax-free since the gifting limit is $13,000 per child, per year. Taxes on investment income will need to be paid at some point. The first $5,000 each year should go into a Roth IRA, which is the Roth contribution limit per year, and also assumes that the young lady will have earned income of at least $5,000 each year during those first four years. Another advantage of a Roth IRA is that no tax on the earnings is due until the earnings are withdrawn – and by then she’ll have the money to pay the taxes with the investment income. The parents need to be able to contribute an additional $5K per year on her behalf in a tax-friendly way. There are options to consider, but even a regular investment account during those first four years will not earn a large amount of taxable income (taxed at her supposedly lower tax rates). Then, starting in year 5 she begins converting the investment account into the Roth IRA account until that transfer is completed.
  • Taking inflation, expenses, and taxes into consideration – you could probably take 25-30% off the accumulated amounts above to see what might happen in today’s dollars.
  • Of course this could go horribly wrong and she would hate you for ruining her life.

Additional thoughts:

  • Expect another post (one of these days) that goes into more depth on this point, but I absolutely do NOT buy the argument that the only way that a person can become properly socialized is to go to college – you know, all the learning that happens outside of the classrooms. Life experience can be gained in many ways – college does not have a corner on that market.
  • Compare this with the analyses about how much more someone will make with a college education than without one. There’s many studies out there, but this one gets to the point in easy to understand terms: The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings (PDF, U.S. Census, 2002). They estimate that a holder of a bachelor’s degree will make $900,000 more than the holder of a high school diploma over their entire working life. YMMV. Compare that number with the amounts that the not-college investment will grow to, and the bachelor’s degree is not such a no-brainer. A more recent analyses (2011) by the Census Bureau indicates that a white female with a bachelor’s degree will earn about $845,000 more during her life than a white female with a high school diploma (for full-time, year-round workers). The one thing we don’t have data on is what that white female (with B.S) will have in a retirement account at the end of her career. It had better be substantial or my argument above still holds.
  • I realize that there’s a difference in the unemployment rate for diploma holders compared to degree holders – but some people (those with lots of personality and a good work ethic) will fare better in finding and keeping those local jobs than others.

Conclusion:

  • I’m not an anti-college guy, I’m a pro-college guy. I spent 17 years as a college faculty member and 10 years as a college administrator. Most of my friends work in education. I still work with educators in my current job. I think college is GREAT!
  • I also think that college is not for everybody. It’s crucial for the professions, it’s helpful in STEM fields, it’s a seal of approval for many jobs and career aspirations. But, it’s not the only way to get ahead. Why not spend 40 years at jobs you enjoy that pay you enough money to get by, then retire with a million dollar nest egg. Then build your own climbing wall.
  • If the young lady really wants to go to college, and if she has a plan for how to start AND finish that adventure, and if she is willing to do it in a manner that doesn’t break the parent’s backs or burden her with debt (add in a few more ifs just for good measure); then she should probably go to college.
  • One question I have is this: how many young people would look at these two options below and choose option B?
    • A) Go to the college of your choice and spend $10,000 per year of your parent’s money (for 4 years) – incurring debt for all other costs that you cannot pay with their contribution.
    • B) Find a job you enjoy without a college degree, and let your college money grow to a million dollars or more for your retirement.

Any hypothetical kids out there want to choose option B? Hypothetically?

(Graphic courtesy of geralt at Pixabay)

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