Where does Kaplan rank?

During a couple of days as Singapore’s lone classical liberal last week, I took a particular interest in education advertising. A major theme is rankings, with results of student surveys used where the conventional prestige measures are unavailable.

On advertisement in the Straits Times particularly caught my eye. It advertised Monash University degrees, noting that Monash is ranked 47th in the Times Higher Education Supplement and is a member of the ‘prestigious Group of Eight universities’.

But the courses advertised aren’t taught by Monash. People wanting to find out more had to go to the website of Kaplan Singapore, part of the big US for-profit Kaplan University.

And where does Kaplan rank? It’s not 47th in the THES. It’s not in the Group of Eight. It isn’t in the major rankings at all.

Though this raises yet more questions about the consumer information value of rankings in teaching markets, this teaching outsourcing could be a positive development overall.

There is a potential conflict of interest in the same institution both teaching and assessing, since there is an incentive to soft mark to ensure that students continue. I’m not sure how Monash’s deal with Kaplan works, but it is possible that this conflict is minimised by outsourcing teaching (or Kaplan outscourcing assessment, depending on how you look at it).

Disaggregation of the industry may also bring the benefits of specialisation, with different institutions building skills and reputation in course development, teaching and assessment.

32 thoughts on “Where does Kaplan rank?

  1. “I’m not sure how Monash’s deal with Kaplan works”
    .
    Looking at what even decent universities are willing to do for money (such as the recent UNE-MIT fiasco — hopefully at least someone will get sacked at MIT. If not, it shows you how well the model works for those that think of it) I’d hate to know.
    .
    This is the new trend incidentally — it’s certainly not just Monash. Since opening entire campuses seems to be a bit of a loser (e.g., Monash, UNSW), now the Aus universities start acting as QA officers for smaller providers for a cut of the income under the belief that the smaller provider takes the risk (obviously reputations excluded). Excluding this latter problem, it’s quite a good deal since you end up doing a smallish amount of work for a cut of the income, and you don’t need your own physical infrastructure, which is big problem now that most Australian universities are packed to bits and have buildings that are falling to pieces. You can also charge what you want.

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  2. Andrew in theory maybe ok if the same course material is taught and then the exams are sent to central processing and marked without knowing if they came from Singapore or Clayton or Caulfield. But we all know that almost certainly isn’t the case.

    Reading the course description it sounds ok, in that its taught by lecturers who fly-in for the purpose. However those may not be the same one’s who teach it locally in Melbourne. This is because Uni’s have to specifically hire people who will do this amount of travel, since many experienced academics often aren’t interested in spending 3 x 2 week blocks away from home. I know several stories from within institutions where they hire Indians to go and teach the courses in India because the existing staff never signed on for extended OS absences.

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  3. “Reading the course description it sounds ok, in that its taught by lecturers who fly-in for the purpose.”
    .
    This is not how it generally works (that was basically an old model). I think it has become far more common to find local staff to do most of the teaching (like what you appear to have seen) — or indeed the provider finds the staff, and your overseas staff only have to fly in to accredit the course once or twice a year. So it’s basically selling the brand-name of the university and a few QA trips for a cut of the revenue. The main downside is that if something goes wrong, you smear your name a bit. I also imagine that, depending on the agreement, if the local provider went broke, the Aus university might also have to take some responsibility (or maybe the Aus government would — if this happens, you are essentially getting free insurance from the government, in which case it’s hard to lose).

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  4. I’m not sure how the conflict of interest is minimised.

    If Monash is outsourcing teaching to Kaplan, then Monash still has an interest in the students continuing (since they’re still Monash students) – it’s not really any different in structure to Monash paying individual lecturers for teaching.

    If Kaplan is outsourcing assessment to Monash, then Monash’s incentive to soft-mark is to continue to be hired by Kaplan – Kaplan couldn’t help but be less enthusiastic about assessors that both make them look bad and drive away students.

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  5. I’ve done a Kaplan course and many others so I can compare,they seem to do a reasonable job.

    If you open up education, this is what you get.

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  6. If you’re going to disaggregate and have some institutions that teach but don’t assess and accredit and others which assess and accredit students they haven’t taught then why not go a step further.
    .
    Instead of insisting that a customer pays for your teaching services or those of a provider you approve, why not offer assessment services to people who are self-taught or who hire a private tutor?
    .
    My guess is that most institutions aren’t so confident about their assessment methods that they’d be prepared to rely on them alone.
    .
    It’s difficult to know what value students place on teaching when it’s bundled with assessment and the award of a qualification.

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  7. Don – Charles Murray has made a similar suggestion. I’m not sure what the rules are with some of the professional admission tests, but it may be possible to sit them without a formal prior course.

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  8. There are some professional accreditations that allow you to just write exams. But the examination process tends to be very rigorous and has a pass mark higher than 50 percent (with pass rates much lower than 50 percent). That is one model and a model that should work well where a body knowledge is a pre-requisite for professional practice in a narrowly defined profession. I imagine, however, that many academics would argue that university learning is more than just passing exams. Students only have to know half of what is asked and there are strict rules as to how and when students can be examined.

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  9. I think it is ridiculous for all of us to speculate the arrangements between Monash and Kaplan and give comments on it without further details. How about finding out the details on their partnership first?

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  10. Interesting indeed. I have just done some checking and found that the courses in Singapore is 100% conducted by Monash – by Monash teaching staff. Kaplan is only an agent to assist in the administrative and logistical stuff. Is my understanding similar to yours?

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  11. Sinclair – You say “many academics would argue that university learning is more than just passing exams.”
    .
    Some educators make a distinction between deep and shallow learning. Learning is deep when students have understood the material, have integrated it into their existing knowledge and can apply it in a real world context.
    .
    If you’re suggesting that a university education should be about deep learning rather than memorising facts and formulae and applying them in a mechanical way, then I’d agree with your “many academics.”
    .
    But I’m not convinced that Australian universities always manage to achieve this with their current practices. How does a combination of lectures and a some overcrowded tutorial sessions with a grad student ensure that students learn?
    .
    Why isn’t it possible for students to opt out of the standard teaching regime, pay for one-on-one tutoring and undergo a really rigorous assessment — perhaps an oral examination where they have to explain their answers and convince the examiner that they’ve done more than learned by rote?
    .
    The answer is that this approach is incompatible with mass education. And mass education is mostly about passing exams.

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  12. Don – I Agree with your first three paragraphs.

    I also agree that universities don’t always succeed in achieving their objectives. This is true for all organisations and universities are not unique in that regard.

    Where I disagree is in your assumption that all university learning occurs in the lecture theatre or tutorial room. If everything that an individual learns at university comes from a classroom and memorised examinations, then shallow learning has occured. Universities provide an environment where individuals can mix with other individuals of similar talent and interests, debate in the canteen, read materials in the library (they don’t just contain textbooks) and so on. (See Oakeshott on this argument).

    There is no reason why individuals cannot opt out if they wish – but that is not a university education. Many people do opt out. It is quite possible to read a textbook at home in your own time.

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  13. “The answer is that this approach is incompatible with mass education. And mass education is mostly about passing exams.”
    .
    No it isn’t. The most benefit the students I teach get out of it in terms of academic learning is from doing the assessment tasks. Many go from being unable to write a decent paragraph to being quite literate, and the application of quantitative skills helps them learn-to-learn too. It’s quite impressive, despite the cynicism and doom and gloom of some of my colleagues and indeed others that have no idea of what goes on (“young people today…”).
    .
    If I deleted the exams and added an extra assessment task instead (which I’d like to do in my subjects), they’d learn even more (I think they learn very little from exams) — it’s just that people higher up have an exam fixation, and I’m essentially forced to do it (I’d also have to find the money to get an extra piece of assessment corrected).

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  14. “Universities provide an environment where individuals can mix with other individuals of similar talent and interests, debate in the canteen, read materials in the library”

    Can is the operative word. But how many do? Especially nowadays, when lectures and lecture notes can all be easily accessed on university intranets, and all the material that students need to do their assignments is available online.

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  15. Conrad – for my Honours and Masters students I have moved to assignment only assessment. It’s much better than exams and you don’t have to read handwriting anymore – that skill I think has deteriorated in the last 10 years IMHO. The higher-up authorities like the idea because you can spin some story about deeper learning and self-expression that is unconstained by the artifical environment of an examination blah, blah, blah. But at the lower levels, your point is exactly right.

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  16. Sinclair, you should set them 24 hour take home exams. Properly designed, they really separate the men from the boys – the optimal combination of time pressure and opportunity to display understanding not rote memorisation.

    No handwriting issues either.

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  17. I have done that in the past – but some students complain about computer access and the speed at which they can type. I’ve also done a system where I had out x questions at the beginning of semester and say that two of those questions will come up in the exam and 2 exam questions will be new. And if the students have prepared a typed answer to the initial questions they can submit those in the exam (open book) and then use the additional time on the two new questions.

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  18. I agree with Conrad about the educational value of assessment tasks. And this brings us back to my first question — why insist on packaging lectures and tutorials with assessment?
    .
    But I guess that the answer to that is implied in Conrad’s comment. The distinction between good teaching and effective assessment is artificial.
    .
    The argument is that a take-home essay is a teaching tool and an assessment method. And you could make the same claim about well run tutorials — a teacher can get a good idea about how much a student understands by what they say during a class.
    .
    Some teachers criticise exams on the grounds that they’re poor teaching tools. By the time you find out that the student doesn’t understand the material, it’s too late to do anything about it.
    .
    If this is right, does it mean that good teaching/assessment depends on interaction between teachers and students (and to an extent, between students and students)?
    .
    And what does that imply for staff/student ratios and the number of contact hours?

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  19. Sinclair – If I knew what I thought, I wouldn’t bother having the conversation 🙂
    .
    You mentioned Oakeshott earlier. I like his essay “The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind” – particularly the bit where he says that a conversation “is not a contest where a winner gets a prize”.
    .
    It’s interesting to think of education as an initiation into the art of conversation.

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  20. Ending off with rhetorical questions doesn’t progress the conversation. I haven’t read the ‘voice of poetry’ essay, but you are the second person to recommend it, so I shall at some stage.

    Oakeshott’s voice of liberal education is very good.

    Interaction between staff and students and students and students is vital. But it can be something silly like asking questions in class. So, for example, I don’t take questions after class and tell the students that after the lecture I will not answer questions. They need to ask the questions in class so that the rest of the class can benefit from the question and the answer. Furthermore I always tell the students its better to be wrong in class than wrong in the assessment.

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  21. I’m guessing that some students are embarrassed to ask ‘stupid’ questions in front of the whole class.
    .
    My mum used to teach cooking at TAFE. The courses were usually hands-on — she’d cook and the students would cook.
    .
    Apparently some of the best opportunities for learning were when things went wrong. If a sauce didn’t thicken, a souffle didn’t rise or a hollandaise separated, you had an opportunity to explain why.
    .
    Understanding why things went wrong, helped students understand what needed to happen for them to go right.
    .
    After the course, shallow learners could follow a recipe if they had exactly the right ingredients and equipment. But deeper learners could improvise. They knew the function of each ingredient and process and could substitute and adapt. They could learn from their mistakes (eg they could adapt to differences between ovens).
    .
    If it’s embarrassment that stops students asking useful questions in class, are there ways of making the process less painful (but without allowing them to ask their questions in private)?

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  22. Sure, but better for your class mates to think you’re stupid for asking a ‘stupid question’ (of course there are never stupid questions – that’s the party line anyway) than for them to know you’re stupid when you fail. Of course the students are helping by asking questions because that’s how the lecturer discovers what they know and what they understand of what you’re saying.

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  23. “Sure, but …”
    .
    So you’re saying there’s a division of responsibility here. It’s the students’ responsibility to disclose what they don’t understand and it’s your responsibility to answer their questions and steer them in the right direction.
    .
    BUT, it’s not your responsibility to worry about how students feel. If they’re embarrassed about looking stupid then they just need to get over it (or put up with lower marks).
    .
    Have I got this right?

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  24. There is a knowledge problem – if the students do not disclose how am I to know their difficulty? There are x possibilities that I can determine and y uncertainties that students can experience. If x > y then no problem, if y > x then I need to be alerted to the difficulty. but by and large the view that students need to speak up is correct. They are the consumer and without consumer feed back producers cannot fine tune the product. Students are paying good money and by not contributing to class are under-consuming. they are certainly not getting the full benefit of being in a classroom.

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  25. Don – I should also add I teach honours and masters students, so we’re not talking about the ‘overwhelmed by the uni experience’ that first years might get.

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  26. Surely at some point students should take responsibility for their own learning – and that includes knowing when to seek help. Asking questions is part of seeking help. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect uni students to be able to do this. Most of them, after all, are adults.

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  27. Sinclair – I’m struggling with the idea of students as ‘consumers’. It seems to me that learning is a kind of production — the production of human capital (a product that is inseparable from the learner).
    .
    Teachers help learners transform themselves, but they can’t do it for them. It’s like working out at a gym — the trainer can show you how to do the exercises, but unless you do them yourself you won’t get any fitter or stronger.
    .
    If you hire a personal trainer at the gym you’re wasting your money if hide injuries or pretend you’ve trained to failure when you just can’t be bothered lifting the weights another time.
    .
    It seems to me that the same principle applies at uni . The teacher is there to help you do the work. When I was an undergrad, I did a lot more work for some teachers than others. I’m not sure exactly why but I know it wasn’t just the course content.
    .
    So I agree with Cathy. But I’m still wondering whether there are techniques teachers can use that make it more likely that students will take responsibility.

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  28. I’m struggling with the idea of students as ‘consumers’.

    Students are the clients – they pay the money. There is some joint production to be sure, but that is not unique to education.

    When I was an undergrad, I did a lot more work for some teachers than others.

    .
    Interesting idea. But I put it to you that you never did any work ‘for the teachers’ but always worked for yourself. Your learning is not an externality.

    So I agree with Cathy

    The question is, does Cathy agree with you.

    I’m still wondering whether there are techniques teachers can use that make it more likely that students will take responsibility.

    There is. At the limit it’s called failure in the final assessment. But of course, we’re trying to avoid that. So clear objectives, clear exposition, clear incentive to ask questions and contribute to class discussion and assessment (also in-term assessment) are all part of the mechanism that lead to student learning. To that I would add, controvesially, fees.

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  29. If we’re going to have up-front fees for students perhaps we could also create a remuneration model for teachers that creates stronger incentives for delivering value to ‘customers’.
    .
    For example, why not offer students a choice of teachers for core courses and charge according to quality.
    .
    Students could choose between a more expensive course with a high teacher/student ratio and a dynamic teacher or a cheaper course with overcrowded lectures and a jaded old prof who’d rather be working on her latest book.
    .
    Teachers could receive a share of the revenue they bring in for the university.
    .
    Would customers pay extra for higher quality? Or do they just tolerate tuition in order to get the product they really want — the qualification?

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  30. If we’re going to have up-front fees for students perhaps we could also create a remuneration model for teachers that creates stronger incentives for delivering value to ‘customers’.

    Adam Smith wrote on this 200 years ago.

    As for the rest, I don’t know if that is a viable business model in Australia. It does seem to be viable in the US.

    Part of the problem in Australia was identified by Conrad some time ago (paraphrasing from memory) ‘Australians are too cheap to pay for their own education and too jealous to let anyone else pay for their own education’.

    Teachers could receive a share of the revenue they bring in for the university.

    Some of my colleagues made an offer like this to the VC in the mid 1990s (along the lines of spinning off the school and forming a labour hire firm that paid a royalty to the university and provided teaching services into the uni) and the VC just laughed.

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