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Education was big in Obama’s annual State of the Union address. In fact, he opened the speech by praising the work of teachers and boasting about the graduation rate, now at its highest level in decades. He then went on to discuss several education-related issues, ranging from pre-K to student debt to skills training to broadband access.

SOTU, Obama, Education

Obama chooses corporate support over congressional gridlock

None of it was new really, but the good thing about having a congress that doesn’t pass anything is that you don’t need so many new ideas, just push a little harder on the old ones. For supporters of those ideas, Obama’s continued commitment comes as good news, even if it’s not new news.

For me, two statements in particular stood out.  First, Obama repeated a 2013 pledge to connect 99% of students to broadband internet in the next four years. As an education internet start-up, we obviously liked that news. To accomplish that, the administration plans to work with the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, he said.

Second, Obama mentioned plans for the US Treasury and Education Departments to team up with accounting software company Intuit to better educate students and recent grads on how loan repayments work and what options they have. We’ve written quite a bit about student debt in this blog and are all about young adults getting some help on that front.

I was happy to hear about both of these proposals, but that’s not why they stood out to me. I found them interesting because, in both cases, Obama navigated around Congress by seeking out support from the private sector. In 2013, Congress had its least productive year in recent history. With that in mind, it seems reasonable for Obama to explore other options.

Still, the approach warrants some scrutiny. As appealing as these two ideas are, I do wonder if we are opening up another avenue for corporate sponsorship. If so, does it matter? What would a presidential shout-out in an advertisement-free, State of the Union address be worth?

I don’t mean to be overly critical. I think it’s cool that these companies are helping out and that the administration can move forward on this without adding anything to the deficit and without struggling through Congress. The relationships between corporations and governments are made of powerful stuff, though, and we should be conscious of that power, even when it’s contributing to worthy causes.

You Better Recognize: LinkedIn adds Online Class Completion to Profiles

The internet has opened up avenues for people around the world to learn. Very cool, huh? But wouldn’t it be even cooler if employers actually noticed that you’ve been studying computer science or accounting or ancient Greek mythology in your spare time.

Online education, Linkedin,

LinkedIn agrees to show completed online classes in personal profiles.

Accreditation is a big obstacle to getting that recognition.  Few accredited universities and colleges want to give their stamp of approval to an online program with few measures of the students’ progress. Plus, giving away that stamp of approval too easily, or inexpensively, could damage reputations and revenue.

LinkedIn may have found a middle ground.  In a recent blog post, the company announced an agreement with several online education providers to display successfully completed online courses in user profiles. In other words, if I take a computer science class on Coursera, and I meet all the requirements for completing the class, then I can choose to have that information displayed on my LinkedIn profile.

This opens up a lot of new possibilities on the value of online classes. Accredited universities have been the gate-keepers of education for a very long time. I don’t think this change will mean that a massive open online course (MOOC) is as valuable as an accredited class, but it will be more valuable than nothing. Employers can see that.

The more difficult issue behind online classes, MOOCs especially, is evaluation. Online providers need to manage their brands carefully. If not, the value of a completed class on LinkedIn could become as meaningless as an endorsement for astrophysics from that guy that you used to hang out with in that one bar five years ago. Nice gesture from the guy, of course, but hard to believe NASA will come calling after seeing it.

Most course providers already have some mechanisms in place to make sure that students actually do complete their courses. That’s important because most students don’t finish their courses, especially for large MOOCs. You can check some more detailed information on completion rates here. But many online formats can only do so much to verify that students are doing their work and doing it on their own.

At Rukuku, of course, we think classes should be kept small to allow teachers to properly invest in and evaluate their students. When those students put in the work, they should receive recognition, even if does not come in the form of traditional college credit. LinkedIn took a big step in that direction with its announcement last week.

Back to School: The Adult Version

Parents and policymakers often voice concerns over the educational system for children in the US. Rarely, though, do we hear much about the educational system for adults. In fact, you may read this and wonder, what educational system for adults? According to a report released earlier this week by the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), adults in the US perform significantly weaker than peers in other developed countries across several measures.

Adult Education, OECD

The US needs more options for adult education. Rukuku can help.

One of those measures is literacy. One in six adults in the US have low literacy skills, according to the study, compared to only one in 20 in Japan. Mathematics is another measure. There, one in three adults in the US performs poorly, compared to an average across the countries surveyed of one in five.  And the situation is not improving. Adults today scored at or below the levels of adults in the 1990s.

So what gives? The study offers a few ideas. One, initial schooling was not that strong. In other words, they didn’t learn this stuff the first time around. The good news there is that if we fix the school system for kids, then this factor will eventually correct itself. But there are other reasons, too. Socioeconomic correlation was much stronger in the US than in other countries, meaning poorer adults performed significantly worse than their more well-off peers.

Weaker educational skills mean dimmer job prospects, regardless of actual educational attainment. This was truer in the US than in other countries. It also goes beyond employment woes. Adults with low proficiency scores were four times more likely to have a low level of health than those with high scores. That difference was more than double the average across all countries surveyed.

But the news is not all bad. The US does do a good job of rewarding those with strong skills. Basic educational skills are more well-rewarded in the US, in terms of wages, than almost any other country surveyed. That means that the potential for getting a better job with just a little more studying is significant.

Another piece of good news is that most low-skilled workers in the US are still employed. That offers an avenue to reach these workers. Educational opportunities offered through the work place would benefit both the individual and his or her employer. Well, and society, too and also those of us who follow international test score rankings.

We can help. Rukuku offers lots of great content and course development tools as well as an innovative online environment to help adults looking to improve their academic and other skills. For employers, get in touch with us, too. We can set up easily deliverable educational programs for your employees, which will be great for them and great for your company.