The Future of Higher Education Conference (4)

The third panel of the #masonfuture conference was titled “Alternative Frameworks for Educational Delivery” and included Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, Andrew Rosen, Chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., Sally Johnstone, VP of Academic Advancement at Western Governor’s University, and Jeff Offutt and Tyler Cowen, professors here at Mason.

I’m interested to hear how the reps of Kaplan and StraigherLine will respond to the argument that their business model is substantially threatened by the advent of MOOCs. If you could take an economics course from Tyler Cowen or from StraighterLine, which will you choose?

Not knowing much about StraigherLine before today, I was very interested to learn that their courses are “tutor supported” rather than “instructor supported.” In other words, students taking their courses are not being taught by individuals with deep content knowledge, but rather than by “tutors” who are knowledgeable in how to guide students through the online models created by the company. It’s certainly a very cost-efficient model, but what happens if Student X has a question that we might call an example of “critical thinking”? How can one of those tutors, who knows a lot about how to help students complete the models in the curriculum, respond to such a question? Probably not very well.

As Jeff Selingo sort of alluded to during the morning session, here is a crux of the value proposition of higher education. How we make that value proposition clear is going to say a lot about our prospects for success in the future.

Sally Johnstone of Western Governor’s University explained the WGU model of having students advance through a degree based on successfully completing a series of assessments rather than “completing a bunch of courses.” I think this is a very interesting model, but a quick look at their curriculum indicates that all of their degrees are in fields with external accreditation (nursing, business, education, etc.). In the humanities and social sciences (the fields I know best) we have very few of these external accreditations and so implementing such a model would require us to create those assessments ourselves — or found consortia, perhaps around our professional associations — that could create those for us.

In the history business, I suspect such assessments just can’t work for the simple reason that the whole process of developing history assessments has become so politicized (think the “history wars” of the 1990s) or the Florida legislature’s decisions about how history ought to be taught. We can certainly agree on skills, but we’ll never be allowed to agree on content.

Andrew Rosen from Kaplan argued for a very capitalist model around learning outcomes — “We need incentives around learning outcomes.” To what degree, I wonder, will the traditional universities be willing to cooperate with for profits such as Kaplan in an economic model like the one he proposes? Probably very little, because we have paid a lot for the expertise of our faculty. The only reason we’d be willing to license that expertise to a for profit competitor like Kaplan who might then use the results of that expertise against us in the future. I’d say that only if we had the sorts of strongly worded contracts that, say, two technology firms might have if they cross-license their patents.

Jeff Offutt told us about his experiences teaching online, but there wasn’t really much new in what he said, other than that his experience was good, his students are achieving a lot, and that he’s a fan. By contrast, Tyler Cowen’s presentation of MRUniversity┬álaid out how to do what they do in very low tech and simple ways. What is not simple or low tech is developing the Tyler Cowen brand which, as he said, is the result of 10 years of co-blogging with Mason colleague Alex Tabarrok, and many well reviewed publications over the years. As Tyler and Alex are examples of those faculty members with “individual brands” that Jeff Selingo referred to in the morning ┬ásession.

One of the geniuses of the MRUniversity approach is that, as Cowen points out, economists around the world are contributing content, often at the level of a single video or resource, rather than being required to create an entire course as in the Coursera model. This gives MRUniversity much greater reach than Coursera.

A reasonable question is what is the value of MRUniversity to Cowen’s employer (Mason)? Certainly we get visibility out of it, but since Cowen seems to be sticking to his “we’re not charging anyone” for the content, how can Mason capitalize beyond exposure? This is a bigger question for universities in general about how to deal with faculty with strong individual brands who wander or step purposefully into the online educational marketplace?

Now, here’s a meta commentary on the event thus far. It seems to me that one of the messages being delivered today is based on an assumption that the audience in the room ranges from skeptical to hostile to online educational delivery and that the audience needs convincing that online delivery isas good or better than face to face instruction. I think that may be a misperception. Most, but certainly not all, of the faculty I know are not hostile to online education. Many are skeptical, but remember, academics are trained skeptics, so their skepticism is no surprise. Most, but certainly not all, are willing to see many flowers bloom, so long as the students seem to be learning to similar levels in either model.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Higher Education Conference (4)

  1. StraighterLine

    StraighterLine is not threatened by MOOCs. We offer college credit. MOOCs don’t have a business model, and MOOCs don’t give college credit.

    Check out this 80 second clip on what StraighterLine is:

    StraighterLine isn’t for everyone. But it’s a great option for many of the 50-million Americans out there who have partial college credit and want to finish but can’t go to traditional college due to price or time. StraighterLine has flexible courses where students can go as fast or as slow as they want. A traditional college course with a professor requires a lot of commitment is difficult for many students to handle.

    Per your tutor argument, we are about to launch professor guided courses as an addon option to anyone who wants them. So students can choose whether they can help themselves, use the free tutoring, or pay extra to get additional support directly from a professor.

    StraighterLine is also a great way to test drive college so to speak – to see if you’re ready for college you have a low cost commitment of $99 per month to try your first college class at

  2. Pingback: MOOC-induced educational blindness: Demotivation and confusion as intrinsic properties of schooling

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