Learn Faster, Learn Better: What Style Fits You Best?

Posted on May 28, 2013
Would you rather have 20/20 vision, better hearing than a dog or twice the amount of nerve endings in your fingers? The answer could be telling into your learning world. Neil Fleming, an experienced New Zealand teacher, started a system to better suit the preferences of students based on neuro-linguistic programming that is widely used in schools today. Fleming divided learners into three types: visual learners, auditory learners and tactile/kinesthetic learners. That 5th grader who can remember the page numbers of test questions: visual learner. The sophomore who checks out audio books instead of paperbacks: auditory learner. How about the middle schooler who’s boss in a science lab or shop class: tactile all the way. When it comes to your own personal learning style, you might already have a hunch but we’ve designed this quiz to help determine what fits you best. Don’t be surprised if you can relate to pieces of all three; it’s not uncommon to have a mix of preferences. With this knowledge under your belt, you can conquer the world! Well, you might not conquer the world (right away) but you might be able to study for that history exam in record time.

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Everything you Need to Know about Student Loan Interest Rates

Posted on May 22, 2013

In the United States today, more than 66% of students are paying for their education with loans, in full or in part. And with those loans come interest rates, some of which are set to double in July. But do students really understand what that means? Financial aid experts suggest that they don't, but they should.

The interest rate for Stafford loans is set to double in July if nothing is done to stop them. We've been here before: last year, just days before the rates changed, Congress voted to extend low interest rates for another year. But at a cost of $6 billion in lost revenue each year, they've been encouraged not to do it again, allowing rates to jump from 3.4% to 6.8% starting July 1.

This jump isn't exactly a rate double, though. Rather, it's a reset. Barry Simmons, director of university scholarships and financial aid at Virginia Tech, points out that in 2007, student loan interest rates were exactly the same as they'll likely become on July 1: 6.8%. It was only with 2007 legislation that they gradually dropped to the current rate of 3.4%. But, says Simmons, "loan limits were lower by law, so the impact was not as great as it will be. Student borrowers with subsidized loans will pay more interest in repayment."

What happens if Congress allows student loan interest rates to jump back up to 2007 levels? "Unfortunately, not all students understand interest rates and how that impacts loan repayment amounts," says Simmons. "And borrowers sometimes forget that even the subsidized loan begins accruing interest six months after they cease to be a half-time student."

Financial aid consultant Pam Rambo agrees that most new college students don't really take the time to consider the implications of interest rates on loan payback: "The students I work with are high school and college students, and most of them have little immediate interest in interest rates or how loan payback works." Rather, students are more focused on near-term effects, like meeting college costs.

If you're one of these students with limited attention for interest rates, what is it that you don't know? And what exactly will happen if your interest rate doubles?

How Interest Rates Affect Final Payouts

Your interest rate affects not just the size of your monthly student loan payments, but also the total amount you'll have to pay, which also means it may take you longer to repay the loan. "The higher the interest rate, the higher the payment and total amount of debt the student will owe," says Rambo.

For students who borrow the Stafford loan average of $8,230 with a loan term of 10 years, total interest paid at 3.4% would be $1,489, and the cumulative amount paid would be $9,719. But at a rate of 6.8%, that total jumps to $11,365.39, with total interest paid at over $3,000.

A difference like that can have a major impact on your life after college when the student loan bills start rolling in. Rambo warns, "A high interest rate can mean that a student loan payment could keep (someone) from being able to afford to live on their own or purchase a car after graduating from college."

The loans set to double their interest rate, subsidized Stafford Loans, are hardly the problem for most new grads, though. While students stand to pay back thousands more in interest over the life of these federal loans, most loans, including unsubsized Stafford Loans and parent PLUS loans, are already at a rate of 6.8% or higher.

For students who need more money for school than the federal government is willing to lend them, private student loans are available, but they come at a high cost: with Sallie Mae, variable interest rates can be as high as 9.37%, or 11.85% for fixed rates. For an $8,230 loan at 11.85%, the total interest paid reaches $5,854, with cumulative payments at $14,084. That's almost double the original loan amount, and graduates are saddled with this debt for 10 years, or more with deferment, default, or consolidation.

A New Plan for Federal Student Loans

Rather than enacting another delay in the interest rate hike, the White House has a different plan this year, which would make all new student loans variable from year to year.

Variable rates are common among private student loans, and with those loans, rates are reset each year, potentially doubling or tripling over the life of the loan. But variable rates under the proposed federal student loan program would be handled differently, with a rate that varies from year to year for new loans but remains fixed for the life of each loan. That means you may not be able to predict what your interest rate will be before you go to college, or if you take out a new loan while you're in school, but you'll know what you're in for once you've signed on the dotted line.

Variable private student loan rates are typically tied to either LIBOR or prime rates, the rate at which banks can borrow from each other, and the rate that banks offer their best customers, respectively. And they will usually have an added percentage, as well as a cap. Under the new proposal, federal student loans would be offered with a similarly tied rate based on the 10-year treasury yield, plus 3%. As of mid-April 2013, student loans under this arrangement would be 4.72%, higher than the current subsidized Stafford 3.4% but much lower than the future 6.8%.

What This Means For Students and Their Families

Whether interest rates for federally subsidized loans jump to 4.7% or 6.8%, they're still the best choice for education loans. Even though private student loans may reach rates as low as 2.25%, federal subsidized loans offer distinct advantages, including deferment while you're actively in school, income-based repayment, and free insurance that cancels your loan if you're killed or disabled. You may even be able to have your debt forgiven if you meet certain criteria, and unlike some private loans, federal loans do not charge a penalty for repaying early.

Private Loans

When considering private loans, Rambo recommends that students and their families "carefully consider the loans available to them before signing on the dotted line," taking advantage of loan counseling and financial literacy programs available through their school. Rambo also suggests working with financial planners, as well as discussing your options with the credit union or bank where you have an account. In addition to interest rates, she urges students to consider all of the loan aspects, including the repayment period, income sensitive repayment options, and loan cancellation or forgiveness options.

Online students aren't left out of these resources, either, and they may even enjoy smaller loans by saving money on room, board, and travel expenses. "Online students have the same support services available to them as students on campus through the campus financial aid office. Students who attend classes online should establish a relationship with financial aid staff at their college," recommends Rambo.

Loan Consolidation

If you find that after graduation, or even years down the road, you're having trouble making your student loan payments, you can choose to consolidate them. The advantage is that you'll have a single monthly payment rather than multiple ones, and that monthly payment may be lower if you choose to extend the repayment term. But that means you'll pay more in interest over time, and you'll be paying on the loan for a longer period, as well. And you may lose out on other advantages of maintaining your original loan.

Federal loan consolidation uses a weighted average to determine your consolidated interest rate, meaning that a loan portfolio with $8,000 at 3.4% and $10,000 at 6.8% will have an interest rate of 5.375% on the balance, offering no interest savings. By tying them together, you also miss out on the opportunity to aggressively pay down the higher interest rate debt first.

Simmons says, "Consolidation may not alwasys lower interest rates, and could even increase the amount of interest paid in total." Rambo agrees that student loan consolidation may be a risky proposition. "Students can lower interest rates through student loan consolidation programs, but some of the protections and rights that students enjoy with their existing loans could be lost when they consolidate," she says.

Loans as a Last Resort

Of course, the best student loan is the one you don't have to take at all. Rambo recommends that students exhaust all other options before considering loans, including applying for scholarships, setting aside savings, considering college cost, and going to school locally or online to avoid room and board fees.

We don't yet know what the future holds for federal student loans. But we do know one thing for sure. Student loans are a big decision that's likely to follow you around for at least 10 years. Before you take the plunge with a new student loan, consider this: You aren't just borrowing for an education. You're changing the course of your life, thousands of dollars at a time.

The Youtopian Ideal: Using Badges to Transform Learning

Posted on May 14, 2013

Check in on Foursquare, get a badge. Complete your Civil War essay, get a badge? Is this real? With edtech startup Youtopia, it's already happening. And it's building student engagement and interest in a tech-savvy, fun to use way.

The Power of Student Engagement

When students participate in activities at school, they build a sense of belonging. By being active, they're building both knowledge and relationships, but it's not enough. Students don't just need to belong and participate; they need to be engaged and invested in learning.

Student engagement happens when learners emotionally invest in their studies. Instead of going through the motions for grades, they're motivated to learn because they truly want to do so. Motivated, engaged students are excited about what education has to offer, and students who are positively engaged in learning are more likely to be successful. Higher student engagement is linked to higher grades and re-enrollment, making it an essential resource for learning.

Despite the importance of student engagement in education — especially higher education, where students are more likely to drop out — it's tough to maintain. A 2012 Gallup poll of K-12 students indicates that student engagement declines over time and hits a low in high school, with only four out of 10 students engaged.

Professors are pushing back against this decline by bringing in new tools including Twitter backchannels and mobile apps that can be used in the classroom to increase participation and motivation. They're even using adaptive learning systems to give students valuable real-time educational feedback.

But it's Youtopia, an educational startup that supports classroom management and student engagement, that's taken an interesting approach to mixing learning and game-playing. The app/service offers valuable tools for student engagement, bringing gamification to learning in a way that motivates learners to do their best, and it's growing in K-12 and higher education.

Rewards for Any Activity

Youtopia's tools allow professors to set goals and track any student activity, from completing a multi-part assignment to just getting to their seats on time. As they work toward goals, students are rewarded with badges to signify their achievements. This "allows teachers to plug in and gamify their course's rubric," according to Youtopia cofounder Simeon Schnapper.

Professors using Youtopia build a set of activities for students to perform, and students are awarded for completing activities with points and badges that acknowledge their hard work. "As students complete activities, they earn points on their path to mastery," explains Schnapper. Activities can be tracked using any type of metric, including hours of volunteering, pages read, or problems solved, encouraging students to see their progress and keep going, even when faced with long-term goals.

Youtopia also encourages collaboration with group goals and badges. For one project, the A/V Storytellers, students have the opportunity to earn a Collaborator badge by achieving tasks like creating a supportive environment, maximizing group performance, and showing respect for others. Instructors confirm these achievements and award points.

Motivation Beyond Grades

Class participation in Youtopia's system is completely transparent, spurring motivation and encouraging participation. Students can not only see what their classmates have done, but also find out where they rank among their peers. This, Schnapper says, "naturally spurs them to work harder with a little dose of healthy competition." Students can even share their badges with social media integration.

Youtopia supports a system of positive feedback for students, which motivates and encourages students to continue doing a great job. Feedback is most effective when delivered to an individual quickly and in reference to a specific action or behavior. By awarding badges or providing instructor comments on individual activities, professors can share positive feedback that resonates with students. And in Youtopia's system, the task of remembering to support each student with feedback is streamlined with management reports.

Trading Grades for Badges

Why badges? They just work. They're a staple of social networking and gaming, and even in more serious settings like scouting or the military. They represent achievement, rather than winning or losing. And they encourage students to develop competencies in very specific measures.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes in the potential of badges: "Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate — as well as document and display — their skills. Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings."

With badges like the ones earned through Youtopia, students can earn recognition for, and show off, what they've done. What students learn in school may not have a clear connection to what they'll do after graduation. But with badges, students can highlight their skills in a way that colleges and employers can understand.

Student Engagement in Action

Service learning is a great resource for building student engagement. With service learning opportunities, students are able to challenge themselves as they apply their education to real-life situations and see how their schoolwork is significant and valuable to others. Youtopia's system is designed to encourage these learning projects, giving students positive reinforcement and encouragement every step of the way.

Youtopia shared an example of Mr. Johnson, the head of service learning and an English Teacher at a prominent charter school in Chicago, who is using Youtopia to track service-learning curriculum. In Johnson's class, students are able to see real-time results and find out where they are on the pathway to completion in their service projects, and they can reflect on their experience with reports on what was meaningful to them. This gives students a chance to connect their learning projects to real life, not just in achievement, but in what their coursework has done for them personally.

Badges can be used to support positive learning practices as well. Ms. Hart, a Connecticut high school history teacher, uses Youtopia to reinforce essay research and writing tasks. In Youtopia, Hart maps out the steps required to write a research paper with badges for technical and experiential skills. A student who turns in all of their drafts, complete with bibliography and proper citations, gets points for each individual accomplishment as well as a badge for the overall project.

Student accomplishments can also be exported in a Youtopia Resume that highlights statistics like service hours, dollars raised, and activities and badges they've earned. This resume can be used to supplement college applications, and even find a place in noncognitive measurement that place value not just grades and numbers, but achievements and perseverance.

Tips for Using Badges in the Classroom

Experts see a future full of badges in higher education. What can you do to make them a part of your courses?

  • Award badges for positive actions, no matter how small. Badges can be awarded for showing completion of tasks, mastery of skills, or even just showing up to class. Professor Rey Junco suggests that teachers can encourage lecture engagement by awarding badges to students for class time check-ins with challenge questions. Other small badge ideas: those for posting on Twitter, commenting on the course blog, or offering peer review.
  • Scaffold learning with badges. Guide students through the steps of learning by allowing them to earn badges as they go along.
  • Encourage soft skills.: Achievement of 21st century skills like collaboration and problem-solving are difficult to quantify with a letter grade. With badges, you can show students what mastery of these skills should look like, and reward them when they've achieved levels of proficiency.
  • Make badges an incentive for letter grades. While badges haven't replaced grades just yet, they can be used in conjunction with the traditional grading scale. In professor Alex Halavais's courses, students earn letter grades by collecting an equivalent number of badges.
  • Search for badges within your field. Badges from Disney-Pixar, NASA, NOAA, and YALSA are available, and there are plenty more where they came from: Mozilla's Open Badges project supports 30 different badges so far. In addition to classroom-created badges, badges in this project can be added to a student's digital resume.
  • Keep it positive. Badges are inherently positive. They're fun, even cute, and they point out what a student has accomplished. Alternatively, grades (and especially low grades) can be negative, highlighting what a student has not been able to achieve. Maintain badges as a positive force, using them to reward students for commendable educational activities.

Achievements Unlocked

Badges, motivation, and engagement are all great, but do they work? Youtopia's clients believe so. "We've gotten positive feedback from teachers across the country telling us that their students are more focused and engaged when they know their positive actions are being observed and acknowledged," says Schnapper. "We're looking to connect with that same community in higher education to see how Youtopia can optimize how teachers and students teach and learn in the university setting."

Tools like Youtopia represent the next generation in student assessment, engagement, and growth. Students thrive on feedback and competition, this app greatly encourages that. And now, when students earn a Foursquare badge for checking out that new Indian place around the corner, they can earn a classroom badge for cultural diversity, too.

Is Apple Still a Game Changer in Education?

Posted on April 30, 2013


The words "Apple" and "innovation" often go hand in hand, but the tech giant has been less dominant in education than it has been in other areas. While the iPad has continued to change the way many classrooms function, Apple's once-leading online education platform, iTunes U, is now left out of most discussions about online learning and OpenCourseWare.

In the 1970s, when mainframe computers had a monopoly on academic research, Apple started donating Apple 1 computers to schools. This allowed more students than ever to use computers and led to the rise of computer instruction and technological developments in education.

Today, though, the field is so varied that Apple has had a harder time making the waves in education it once did. Google and Apple have been in an innovation arms race, and small companies that specialize in ed tech are popping up every day. Without a singular focus on education, and faced with trying to keep up with (or ahead of) Google across the board, can Apple still be a game changer in education? Or will schoolchildren someday be saying "Apple who?"

Apple's Bright Spots

One of the biggest things to come out of Apple in the last few years is the iPad. It has opened up the new world of tablets, giving people more convenience than a laptop and more ease of accessibility than a mobile phone. It has also changed the possibilities found in the classroom. In a one-year period in 2012, Apple sold 3 million iPads directly into education in the United States. Worldwide, that number is 8 million, and it will likely keep growing as prices of older versions of the tablet fall, making it more affordable for schools.

Many schools across the nation have implemented one-to-one programs where each student is provided with an iPad to use for their schoolwork. At Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, Calif., where one of the first one-to-one pilot programs in the country was created in 2010, administrators were looking for a way to incorporate technology into the curriculum and learning methods. "We weren't necessarily sold on the idea of laptops," Mark Silver, head of Hillbrook, said in a promotional video. "It involved a lot of equipment; it needed a lot of support. And, at least the models we had seen, seemed to be kind of working. So we were kind of in a holding pattern, and along came the iPad. We saw an opportunity."

Hillbrook Director of Technology Don Orth — who is now an Apple Distinguished Educator — said the open-faced concept of iPads made them great tools for collaboration. There's no physical barrier between students and their peers or teachers like there is with a laptop. Hillbrook, an Apple Distinguished School, now provides an iPad for each of its students in the 5th through 8th grades and shared iPads for 1st through 4th grades.

Students can download apps for each class, create presentations, and access information from anywhere. Apps are available for almost anything — studying with flashcards, taking notes that won't get thrown out with the day's love notes, and helping students keep track of assignments when their brains are filled with more important things, like lunchtime and new crushes.

"Students who struggle with organization have been helped by having their work and resources all in one place," Orth says. "It's a one-stop shop for a lot of their assignments and notes, and there are no crumpled-up things in the bottom of their backpacks."

Teachers can design textbooks for the iPad, make learning more engaging, and get feedback from students on curriculum development. While teachers help struggling students, other students can be independently learning or practicing on their iPads. Orth says that in this way, it had really decentralized the classroom. Students rely less on the teacher to deliver the materials, and can instead research independently or watch demonstrations on the iPad.

Language teachers can give students the tools to improve verb conjugation, pronunciation, culture lessons, and more. History teachers can incorporate current events; English teachers can develop writing skills with brainstorming apps and videos of them annotating a student's essay live.

These programs have not only changed the way lessons can be taught. They have eliminated the need for computer labs at schools where bulky machines are only used for research and word processing. Students can do it all through their iPad.

While many other tablets have been introduced by competitors since the iPad was first brought to market, the iPad is still one of the best, if not the best, for ease of accessibility, engagement, and resources available. Apple's wide range of other products also makes it easy to create a streamlined network. Hillbrook uses Apple TVs in the classrooms, allowing students to instantly show their work on the iPad to the class without having to plug into the TV.

Schools are starting one-to-one programs in droves, sharing ideas for how the iPad can revolutionize the classroom. There are dozens of conferences across the country on iPads in education, including Hillbrook's own conference series coming up. It's no longer just the most innovative educators that have access to the technology; schools and teachers can share the best practices for integrating iPads into their curriculum.

Funding, though, is still keeping iPads from dominating the education sector. At $400 or more apiece, low- and middle-income schools can't afford to implement one-to-one programs. Just supplying 100 students with the device would cost a school $40,000. Grants are available for many districts, but there aren't enough to make it feasible for the majority of schools in the country. This entry cost into the world of the iPad's benefits may be slowing its growth in the education market, though some schools continue to find room in their budget for the technology.

The iPad, the variety of apps, and even the vast wealth of knowledge available through podcasts on iTunes have kept Apple in the education game. With Apple's purported watch on the horizon, it's yet to be seen if another Apple product can have a huge impact on learning like the iPad is having.

Falling Behind

The talk in the edtech world recently has largely revolved around massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their providers, like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. But not that many years ago, Apple's iTunes U was stirring things up in the online education world. While the service has been growing its audience, its pace is slower than necessary to keep it competitive in the rapidly growing online education sector.

Launched in 2007, iTunes U allows professors to build lecture-based courses. It bills itself as the world's largest online catalog of free educational content, including files from top schools, libraries, and museums. Apple recently announced that its content had been downloaded more than 1 billion times.

Universities can create their own page on iTunes U and post lectures and resources from professors and other content. Many prominent schools have pages, including Stanford University, Harvard University, MIT, and UC Berkeley.

Ohio State University uses iTunes U, with 16 public courses available currently. One course has been particularly successful: Ohio State chemistry lecturer Dr. Matthew Stoltzfus, or Dr. Fus as he is often called, has a complete General Chemistry course available on iTunes U that has built more than 108,000 subscribers since it was posted in May 2012.

Stoltzfus has had incredible success with his course, praising Apple's marketing, ability to get his content out globally, and analytics to help continue to improve. Using analytics on uploaded content, teachers can see which of their files are being downloaded the most, making it easier to know which subjects to invest further time into. For Stoltzfus, this is part of the process of bettering the quality of his content, an attitude that carries over into his opinion of iTunes U and all edtech. "We just have to keep continually improving. It's not one and done. There will be several iterations," he says. "If we keep that mindset, we'll continue to make progress."

And there is certainly progress to be made with iTunes U. While other online course providers have user-friendly interfaces, interactive content, and ways for users to test themselves, iTunes U has fallen behind. To access content, users of course need the iTunes program, and the most useful interface is only available through the iTunes U app, which you need an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch to download. This leaves people without these products to download and use the video or audio files without some of the more exciting features of the app, such as being able to take notes within the app.

And of course, accessing these features means shelling out anywhere from $199 to $929 to buy a device if you don't already have one. For many online students or lifelong learners, this can make online courses that are the same on tablets as they are desktops much more attractive or even the only option.

While Stoltzfus offers a complete course that can be used to gain new knowledge, many of the materials on iTunes U aren't full courses. In fact, that's part of what Stoltzfus thinks has made his course so popular; there just aren't many full chemistry courses available on iTunes U. Much of what is on iTunes U is supplementary content, making it most useful for students who are already enrolled in a course elsewhere. Those who want to take a full course have to look elsewhere for the most options.

They also have to look at other providers if they want to test or practice their skills. With no assessment tool, iTunes U content is often no more engaging than a YouTube video (and less accessible).

Copyright scrubbing is also a huge deterrent for creating innovative, engaging content. Professors who create courses can't use any visual aids that they don't own, or they risk being sued by the publisher. If a professor records class lectures in which he uses images or figures from a textbook, he has to go through those videos and edit out the copyrighted material before iTunes U will accept it. This is a time-consuming and often expensive process; instead of facing this tedious task, many professors, like Stoltzfus, choose a very basic format for their content.

"The critique from a pedagogical perspective is that I'm just making video of a lecture with notes," he says. "For me it's best because I don't have to worry about violating copyrights and it's the quickest way to get it done."

For students looking for the best online learning experience, though, the lack of features could be a turn-off.

Who Else Is in The Game?

Google and Apple are archnemeses in the tech game, and in the education sector, Google may actually have the advantage. While iPads had a head start in the marketplace and were picked up in many schools because of it, Google tablets are less cost-prohibitive. Google's Nexus 7 tablet sells for $199 and may go down in price in July when a new version is rumored to come out. That's compared to more than $300 for the lowest-priced iPad Mini. For low-income schools, affordable tablets and other devices (like the Chromebook) can be game-changers as increased student engagement can potentially combat high dropout rates, according to several different studies.

Apple's closed system of proprietary software and hardware, which makes it hard to use Apple products with non-Apple products, may also be holding it behind Google. Google's Chrome OS and Android OS can be used to operate devices created by several different companies, allowing Google to benefit as those companies compete. Companies like Acer and Samsung build a Chromebox, a compact desktop computer that runs on Chrome, and the newest Acer version is rumored to be hitting the stores at $99 apiece. The ability to get the price so far below that of Apple's products puts it well within the $250 to $300 price range that many teachers say they look for in digital technology.

In terms of online education, Apple's barely showing up. MOOC providers like Coursera, edX, and Udacity are offering high-quality, complete courses for free while iTunes U is growing slowly and works better as supplementary material than an actual course for the most part. Though it may work well for students enrolled at the schools with their own pages, it's not an attractive option for the lifelong and DIY learners. MOOCs are working out some kinks with credit and cheating, but iTunes U has a long way to go with its platform to get to the point of useful, fully engaging content for the online learner.

How Teachers Can Succeed

When Starting a Tablet Program

  • Think about what works for your situation. Jumping into a one-to-one program without doing your research can lead to a lot of headaches and maybe even failure. Consider different brands of tablets, apply for grants, and think about how your tablets will work with your other technology. If you can afford Apple products across the board, they could be worth it just for the ease in connecting them all, but if you can only afford the iPads, you may need extra support to get everything to work together.
  • Start a student support group. Orth says that having a group of students become your iPad gurus can help in numerous ways. Not only does it empower those students, but it relieves the tech department and teachers. These trained students can work with their peers and help them troubleshoot their problems. Technology staff are then free to take on the more serious issues, and teachers can focus on instructing.
  • Educate parents. "The biggest mistake is keeping parents in the dark," Orth says. Parents need to be educated on how the program works and how they can monitor their students. With concerns over screen time and privacy, it's important to show parents that iPads can be used as tools in education without being harmful or distracting. With the right knowledge, they can help keep students engaged at home.

When Starting an iTunes U Course

  • Figure out your time investment. Stoltzfus put his entire course on iTunes U at once, a process that he says was very time-consuming. If you have tighter time constraints and don't know how long uploading content will take, prioritize. "It doesn't have to be the entire course up at once," Stoltzfus says. "First tackle the toughest learning objectives, and then work your way down." Understanding things like copyright scrubbing — which requires educators to remove all copyrighted material from videos and lectures that they don't have permission to post — can also help you create content that fits your time commitment.
  • Think about full courses. Though you don't have to put up a full course all in one go, providing a course rather than just supplementary content can contribute greatly to your success. It makes the content more attractive to DIY learners.
  • Add unique content. If you have the expertise, why not add some upper-level content? Stoltzfus says there is plenty of content on iTunes U for the freshman level, but not much for upper-level learners. If he adds another class, he'd think about adding inorganic chemistry material because there simply isn't much out there. While this kind of content may reach a more specialized audience, its uniqueness can lead to a very engaged research community.

Staying Alive

While Apple is making strides and certainly has a following among some students and schools, the company isn't having the impact on education that it had in the past. The iPad's head start in the market has given it an edge in changing the potential of the classroom, but other, more cost-efficient tablets are gaining ground in many school districts that can't afford to buy only Apple products. Cost is again an issue with iTunes U and what devices are compatible with the app, keeping Apple straggling behind in the online education sector, a sector that's going to be increasingly important in the years to come. We'll have to wait and see if Apple can come with anything as revolutionary as its Apple 1 again.

The At-Risk Students' Guide to Finishing an Online Degree, Part 2

Posted on April 17, 2013


In the first part, we laid out some of the risks facing online students with heavy time demands from work and family. This time, we're looking at a related group of at-risk online learners: those with financial constraints. Although working students may be short on time, their paycheck can help them avoid some of the pitfalls that face students struggling with the economics of education.

While college attendance has gone for both affluent college students and their poorer counterparts, the gap between them in completing bachelor's degrees has increased from a 31% difference in 1972 to 45% in 2012. In the bottom 25% of incomes for the U.S., fewer than a third even enroll in a four-year college, and less than half of those go on to graduate.

However, the good news is that low-income students are high achievers at a rate much higher than was previously thought. The Brookings Institution recently published findings from data on millions of American students that the rate of high-achieving, high-income students only outnumber high-achieving, low-income students two to one (a rate 8-15 times higher than some college admissions offices had estimated).

So the data proves what low-income students hopefully already knew: they can achieve great heights in their education. It just takes the right approach.

Risk 1: You don't have adequate access to necessary equipment.

It's easy for those with ample access to high-speed Internet — including college professors and administrators — to forget that not all Americans enjoy the same luxury. According to the Economics and Statistics Administration, an estimated 100 million citizens cannot access the Internet from home. And the lower the income level for the household, the lower the rate of both computer and broadband use. While a quarter of households at incomes $25,000-$50,000 have no computer, that number jumps to almost half of households (46%) with incomes below $25,000.

How you can overcome it:

  • Use it where you find it: The most common places students without home Internet access get online are at their jobs, their school, public libraries, or a friend's house. Many college campuses offer free wifi for students, so if you have your own Internet-equipped device you don't have to be tied to a computer lab. Sites like Wi-Fi-Freespot are good resources for finding businesses like Panera Bread and McDonald's that offer free wifi to customers.
  • Take advantage of discounts: Students in low-income households may not be aware that they qualify for discounts on things like broadband Internet service. For example, Comcast provides a plan called Internet Essentials where families with children who are eligible for reduced-price lunches at school can receive Internet at home for $9.95 a month. (But just 100,000 of the 2.3 million eligible families have signed up). There's even a new startup called FreedomPop that allows users in certain areas to get broadband access for free (with data limits), or for as little as $10 a month.

Tools to use:

  • Tablets: Many people from poorer households site the high initial cost of buying a computer as a barrier to getting broadband Internet access at home. One way to cut the cost is to purchase a comparatively inexpensive netbook or tablet that would allow you to access Blackboard, watch lectures, take notes, and keep track of assignments. Google's Nexus 7 sports a fast processor, vivid 7-inch display, and easy connectivity with other Google products like Gmail and Drive. At $200, it costs about 10% of a Macbook Pro.
  • Netbooks: You may find you need the full range of computing features a laptop provides, like a built-in keyboard. If that is the case, you still have some cheap options. On the low end of the computing power and price scale, there are Chromebooks starting at $199. Netbooks represent a nice middle ground, giving you solid computing ability for $300-$400. Keep an eye on sites like Microcenter.com or Tiger Direct for deals on refurbished laptops, or check the sales at local electronics stores like Fry's.

Risk 2: Your family doesn't support you.

In about 80% of cases, being a low-income college student means also being a first-generation college student, and the risks of this group are well-documented. As of late 2010, the rate that low-income first-gens left college in six years without a degree was an astounding 89%. Financial troubles are frequently part of the problem, but for many, they drop out or fail out because they simply weren't prepared, and because they did not get the moral support of their friends and family.

Parents who did not go to college themselves can be misunderstanding and even critical when their children choose to pursue a degree. Even those who are supportive usually cannot offer any advice on selecting a major, managing time and finances, or other skills critical to success in college. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, students who self-identify as low-income often report feelings of not belonging in school and an intention of dropping out before graduation.

How you can overcome it:

  • Lean on others: Even more than other students, first-gen and low-income students need to seek out their online academic advisors or go see them in person on campus. A good counselor will be able to answer your questions about counseling services, special programs for first-gen students, mentor and tutoring services, and financial aid.
    As we said in Part 1, making connections with other online learners is crucial to staying motivated. It will also have the added benefit of giving you a sense of belonging that may be lacking as a first-gen student. So taking part in class discussions and attending on-campus events to meet your fellow learners is highly advisable.
  • Take the wheel: Joel P. Spiess, academic advisor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said he also emphasizes the importance of each student being his or her own advocate. "I often remind students that they are in the driver's seat when it comes to their education," he said, "and they are the ones to decided when to hit the gas, when to slow things down, and when to turn and change directions. For so many students, this is a big adjustment from high school, where much of their education was dictated for them."
  • Brush up on your study skills: There's no shame in admitting you need help preparing to be a college student; earning your degree online will be every bit as difficult, if not more so, than earning it on a traditional campus. Many first-gen students begin their classes without understanding how to maximize their study time or how to interact online with professors. Somewhere on their websites, most schools include a section of study tips, often tying it into student orientation. Be sure to read them over thoroughly.

Tools to use:

  • Mentors: While college counselors are a good place to start, they're often overloaded with a high volume of students. So before even settling on an online college, you might want to inquire as to whether it offers a mentoring program of some kind, like the student mentoring program at Western Governors University. At WGU, the student mentor works with the enrollment counselor to develop a "personalized degree plan." Such a system is an excellent way to set yourself up to complete a degree.
  • Online resources: Some schools offer special programs for first-generation students to help them get acclimated and succeed, so be sure to ask your advisor about them. But even if yours doesn't, you're already online — use the Web. Online resources from other schools' programs like MIT's First Generation Project or .orgs like First in the Family offer some helpful resources. The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies also features useful info for adult and distance learners on its site, as does the Illinois Online Network.

Risk 3: The stress of dealing with finances causes your grades to drop and/or your graduation to be postponed.

According to a 2012 survey by Inceptia, a branch of the National Student Loan Program, the stress of finances has negatively affected one-third of college students. An additional 20% said finances had created a need to reduce their course load to deal with the problem. The researchers were convinced of a direct link between financial stress — whether the worry over college borrowing, the need to repay loans, or the pressure to find a job after graduation — and academic performance.

Rather than drop out, some students even take the reverse route. Spiess said has had numerous students tell him they want to stay in school as long as possible so they can delay the start of payments on their loans. He said this "avoidance mentality" is common among students who don't understand the nature of financial aid, particularly loans.

How you can overcome it:

  • Get a scholarship or loan: Hopefully you weren't under the false impression that online students can't get scholarships. With all the grants and scholarships at individual universities, plus private scholarships, there is money to be had. There are even scholarships strictly for first-generation students, like the Mercedes-Benz "Drive Your Future" scholarship and the Coca-Cola Foundation First Generation Scholarships. The low-interest federal Stafford loan is also available to online students.
  • Get a job: We don't mean to imply you don't already have a job, or that you're sitting around with all kinds of free time. This is mainly for students who want to make a little extra cash when they have time, close to where they live, doing something they already know how to do or that can also be done while studying. Thanks to the Web, it's never been easier to find these jobs.
    Although only currently available in nine cities, Taskrabbit is a fast-growing network of people that need a task like furniture assembly or pet sitting completed, and the "task rabbits" who sign up for work. Fiverr works in a similar manner and includes hundreds of small jobs that don't even require moving away from your computer. If you want to sell your services as a tutor, Thumbtack is another good option.

Tools to use:

  • Financial aid counselor: Spiess says this is the appointment he encourages his students to make "first and foremost," because in a school as big as UWM, it's not possible for an academic advisor to stay up-to-date on all the intricacies of financial assistance. A financial aid advisor can tell you what scholarships are available to you as an online student and guide you through the process of dealing with your loans after you graduate, even if such exit counseling is not required by law. Spiess said the information they give you may seem overwhelming or irrelevant to you now, but he urges students to power through all the same.
  • Mint.com: Getting your finances under control now is the smartest way to give yourself the confidence that you can live within your means once you graduate. A good, free financial planning program like Mint can help you track where you're spending too much, set goals for saving, and receive mobile alerts when you're in danger of going over budget.

It's not just online students who are feeling the sting of economic troubles; the student debt didn't get to $1 trillion on distance learners alone. Across the country, college students and graduates of all kinds are dealing with high unemployment and underemployment. If there is a silver lining to facing these financial concerns, it's that you won't be as unprepared for life in this economy as many of your fellow graduates from brick-and-mortar campuses will be. Consider this time your financial training period, just another lesson to be learned.