Undergraduate STEM education must improve–here’s how to do it

STEM fields are essential for the nation’s economic health and global success, but some troubling trends point to the need to monitor undergraduate STEM education with a critical eye, according to a new report.

Undergraduate STEM education plays a central role in building a robust STEM workforce, according to the National Academies of Sciences, which summarizes a committee’s recommendations around bolstering STEM education.

Scientists’ earnings have stagnated since the 1960s, recent science doctorates have had trouble obtaining academic positions, and U.S. science faces increased foreign competition for global research. Those three trends could knock the U.S. out of its dominant position in science. They also could slow economic growth that is fueled by technological innovation, according to the report.

(Next page: Recommendations and indicators to improve undergraduate STEM education)

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How to harness the predictive power of e-learning platforms

With enrollments increasing and costs soaring even more so, both universities and students are looking for a better knowledge experience. They demand a system that keeps students engaged, while preparing them for success both here and now and beyond graduation.

A new kind of platform

Universities want to know: Which of our students will succeed in their coursework, and how can we enhance their opportunity for success? Attendance and performance data (quiz and test scores) give an incomplete picture, at best, as new technologies change the learning experience. Where can universities look for help? The login and download records of a learning management system are a start but are helpless to provide insight after the materials are downloaded.

Enter e-learning platforms, where the bulk of the instruction takes place online. These environments are fully engaged, with developed curricula in multiple modalities, and metrics throughout–metrics tracking not only performance, but activity. And here, all kinds of meaningful data are generated, with predictive power.

Universities are partnering with companies like mine to get access to a whole new suite of tools for tracking and analyzing what happens between the initial login and the final exam.

(Next page: See how e-learning platforms help educators determine student success and more)

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How real-time communications innovations are disrupting higher ed

As more teaching is being done online and more research is being conducted within and between universities, new collaboration platforms are becoming more valuable than ever.

Communications service providers are now bundling networking services and collaboration applications (voice, video, and messaging) to make real-time communicating easier, more powerful, and less expensive. These systems replace legacy “telephone” services with mobile and desktop collaboration platforms and bring students, teachers, academics, and administrators together for the ultimate end result: learning and innovation.

In fact, educational institutions are one of the largest consumers of capacity, with massive data-collection projects and a requirement to support cross-facility academic collaboration, as well as to support students, faculty, and staff with real-time communications applications.

What’s coming next

The most advanced and largest institutions have already migrated the majority of their information management, business applications, data storage and retrieval, and overall “compute” to the cloud. The next big wave is moving real-time communications to the cloud, with massive benefits including cost reduction and expense management, while at the same time delivering more modern, intuitive human interactions and collaboration built from the ground up for the next generation of users–those born with mobile devices in their hands.

(Next page: Why to switch to cloud communications)

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‘Z-degree’ gives students textbooks for free

At Minnesota state colleges, students spend an average of $1,000 a year on textbooks alone.

But in Brainerd, they can earn a two-year degree without paying a penny for books.

Central Lakes College has joined a growing national movement to ditch pricey textbooks in favor of material that can be found online for free.

This semester, it launched one of the state’s first “Z-degrees,” meaning that all the required readings—in this case, for an associate of arts degree—are available at zero cost to students.

“For a lot of students that are living in poverty, every penny counts,” said Martha Kuehn, dean of liberal arts and sciences at Central Lakes, a community and technical college with 6,000 students. “It really makes a big difference for them if we can reduce or eliminate their textbook costs.”

Already, nearly 10 percent of college instructors nationwide say they use free online textbooks in their courses, according to a 2017 report by the Babson Survey Research Group.

But only a few colleges have gone as far as Central Lakes, creating an entire degree program using free material, also known as open educational resources. The University of Northwestern, a small Christian school in St. Paul, is another one; it has offered a Z-degree in its online business program since 2016.

(Next page: Pushback from some causes student frustration)

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This school boasts the top online bachelor’s degree program

Ohio State University–Columbus takes the No. 1 spot among 2018 U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for the first time.

This year’s ranking includes nearly 1,500 online bachelor’s degree programs–up from about 1,300 last year–for bachelor’s degrees, as well as graduate programs in engineering, business, nursing and more.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Best Online MBA Program is Temple University in Pennsylvania. In computer information technology, the University of Southern California remains No. 1 for the sixth year in a row. St. Xavier University in Chicago is the Best Online Nursing Program, while South Carolina’s Clemson University ranks the highest in education. Columbia University in New York moved up two spots to take the No. 1 rank in engineering.

(Next page: Top online bachelor’s degree programs in nursing, IT, and more)

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Why academic assessment is poised for a scientific revolution

In 1906, Englishman J. J. Thompson challenged the scientific community’s understanding of the atom with his “plum pudding” theory. The model ultimately led to scientific evidence of the first subatomic particle, the electron. Thompson and subsequent pioneers of subatomic theory proved a powerful point: changing the unit of measurement can radically alter how we engage with the natural world.

Contrast this scientific revolution with our experience in the dynamic and changing world of higher education. For too long, higher education has relied on 19th-century definitions and measures to solve for 21st-century needs. The yardstick of academic progress—the transcript—has been the instrument to measure all learning that takes place during a student’s journey.

Students, families, and employers have serious doubts about the value of higher education—doubts that may be well-founded. Far too many students are exiting higher learning without the skills employers and society demand. One survey found that 87 percent of recent graduates felt well-prepared for jobs and careers after earning their diplomas, but only half of hiring managers agreed with them.

Is measurement helping to solve that problem—or contributing to it? It’s past time that higher education probes the question of whether we’re using the right definitions—and measures—of student success.

Consider academia’s approach to measurement: Academic transcripts can depict students’ achievements within courses and majors, but they often overlook opportunities to track and validate their growth across courses and fields, where critical interdisciplinary skills are forged. If we are to close looming gaps in our workforce, postsecondary leaders must embrace a shift that measures learning in a more holistic and granular fashion.

5 ways the University of Central Oklahoma is modernizing higher ed
The first step in this shift is embracing a unit of measurement that is both more precise and more comprehensive, as well as being evidence-based. Here’s how we’re already doing that at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO).

1. New measures of learning. At UCO, we have attempted a different approach through a program called the Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR). The program awards badges based on the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ VALUE Rubrics to assess student progress in five different multi-disciplinary areas; the application of skills and competencies happens not just in a single course but across the learning experience.

(Next page: How UCO is transforming higher ed)

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Do women in STEM experience hostile work environments?

Women in STEM jobs are more likely to experience hostile work environments, including discrimination and sexual harassment, according to a new nationally-representative Pew Research Center study.

Research in the study reveals that gender “is perceived as more of an impediment than an advantage to career success.”

Women in three particular groups are more likely to see workplace inequities: women who are employed in STEM settings where men outnumber women, women who work in computer jobs, and women who hold postgraduate degrees.

The findings are particularly troubling as policymakers and the STEM sector raise awareness about the need for more highly-qualified STEM workers, and as women and minorities become more vocal about their underrepresentation and treatment in the technology industry.

(Next page: 8 forms of discrimination women in STEM experience in the workplace)

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Don’t be complacent about data security

Have you ever been awoken by a loud noise in the middle of the night? Your body shifts from resting to alert in an instant. What just happened? Am I safe? Is the house secure? Did I lock the doors? At some point, you either get out of bed to investigate, or assure yourself it was nothing, and you go back to sleep.

We go through a similar shift from sleepy ignorance to total awareness each time a company reports a data breach that has put our personal information at risk. Except in these incidents, we have far less control over what happens next—and far less visibility into both the causes of the breach and the subsequent fixes and safeguards that the company implements to prevent such an event from happening again.

Data security is a major concern for education, even though, much like consumers, we may take it for granted unless there is a problem. But the stakes grow higher every year. As education continues to adopt new technologies to support teaching and learning, more personal data on students and their learning activities is stored online.

Ed tech companies have a clear and direct responsibility to protect that data, and educational institutions are obligated to thoroughly vet a vendor’s security policies and practices prior to adoption. Privacy policies and end-user license agreements are helpful, but limited, as they merely represent how a company intends to use data. Industry-standard certifications like SOC-II are better as they provide some insight into how a company secures information through internal processes and safeguards. But how can you know if the software itself is vulnerable to external threats?

(Next page: How to make sure your data is safe)

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Top 4 bandwidth hogs and ways to combat them

Supporting a network in a higher-ed setting can be a daunting task. With their proclivity for mobile devices, video games, wearable technology, and laptops (just to name a few), higher ed IT users may not realize how their tech choices can impact the network at large.

Generally, users at higher-ed institutions assume they can have bandwidth on-demand—as much as they want whenever they want—and take advantage of that regularly. These attitudes can mean that the university network becomes a traffic jam; difficult to administrate and nearly impossible to run smoothly.

According to the Association for College and University Technology Advancement (ACUTA), bandwidth on college campuses has nearly doubled since 2012 to accommodate, but it still may not be enough. How is an administrator to manage such a large, growing increase in demand? Don’t panic. There are definite trends in technology usage and several “bandwidth hogs” that make up a majority of network traffic in higher ed. Here are the top four, and a few tips for how to manage them.

1. Laptops
Today’s “traditional” college students will usually bring everything they need with them to college, including their laptops. Laptops have become a necessary part of the university classroom; used by students and teachers to connect, take notes, and have their work at their fingertips during class time. The 2016 ACUTA survey found that, as of 2015, laptops have become the top bandwidth-consuming devices on campus (taking over from mobile devices in previous years). Laptops tend to run programs that require more bandwidth (such as video games, virtual-learning tools, multimedia file storage, or streaming services like Netflix). Additionally, students may use laptops for P2P sharing methods, music downloading, and other high-bandwidth activities that are sure to take a bite out of your network.

The laptop is not going away anytime soon, so consider putting a yearly cap on bandwidth allotment per student login. This will encourage students to take some of their higher-bandwidth-hogging activities to alternate locations, such as a local library or coffee shop, freeing up space on your network.

(Next page: More bandwidth hogs and solutions)

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How to fight back against contract cheating

Academic cheating is not new or particularly inventive. There are, all in all, only a few ways to misrepresent your grasp of information.

Of the available options, contracting ghost writers, or paying someone to do another person’s coursework, has long been the most difficult to detect and eradicate because catching it relies at least in part on a sense of teacher intuition—that something about the turned-in work doesn’t quite align. However, if a student starts out using academic pinch hitters or invests in personalizing the material, even teacher intuition can be blunted.

Add to that the reality that, even when it’s suspected, ghost writing is one of the more difficult forms of malfeasance to prove. Unless it’s outright, undebated plagiarism, a charge of “I think this is not your work” can be slippery to make stick.

A recent survey from Turnitin, the company that’s helped thousands of schools detect and deter plagiarism, underscores the points about the prevalence of ghost writing in academic communities, as well its difficulty to substantiate. According to the survey of more than 1,000 higher-education instructors in the U.S. and Canada, nearly one in three (32 percent) suspected a student of turning in work that was done by someone else. Two in three said they may not act on those suspicions due to “insufficient evidence.”

(Next page: Ways to wipe out contract cheating)

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