The walled garden of higher education just took a volley from one dangerous cannon. It’s a cannon that might not knock the wall down this time, but there will certainly be successors that could. What I’m talking about is a place called StraighterLine.com. The short of it is that for $99 a month, you can take as many classes from them as you can handle, and they have guaranteed transfer credits with a number of universities. They are moving ahead full steam into a market that traditional higher education is only barely touching, and touching in a far less cost effective manner. They only offer a few courses, but plan to expand, and it’s likely a matter of time before they (or someone else) begin attacking more specialized areas instead of just the gen ed components.
I credit the Washington Monthly for the first article I’ve seen on the company (institute? school? BTW, that article is long, but I recommend reading the whole thing.). The idea of online schools and degrees is, of course, nothing new. After all, Kaplan and the University of Phoenix have been parlaying the online degree game for years with success. Others are entering the game every year, some more legitimate than others. The goal is first, make money, and two, provide an alternative form of education that better fits the technology and tools we have available to us today (then three, make more money). They focus on their goal from the ground up, as opposed to us, who play catch up from our brick and mortar offices. Often times, in web offices we’re asked to help slap together a system a school buys, or provide support or integration. Naturally, we have MOUNTAINS of resources to do this with (or not), so the ultimate effectiveness of online programs at traditional institutions can vary quite widely. From the article:
“…[Burck] Smith envisions a world where [students] can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price.”
I’ve been rather vocal in some circles that the traditional brick and mortar education system is in danger, not just from online schools, but trade schools, and industries where specialized certifications mean more than any degree we can offer (classic example is a BS in Computer Sciences vs. a CCIE for someone interested in networking). Imagine being able to assemble your core classes (and someday beyond) from the institutes that can best serve you, right from your home and for the best cost available. This new model is one of the bigger changes I’ve seen, and it’s the kind that really stopped me in my tracks and forced me to start doing more research on them. It’s the exact kind of groundwork that is laying the path for others, and spells a major paradigm shift in what it means to have “higher education.” The article aptly describes the fact that colleges are in as much financial trouble as many other industries, and it’s coupled with the problem that change within institutions occurs much more slowly than the technology that we need to use and teach about. To make matters worse, a company like StraighterLine.com is stepping in offering cheap, cost effective classes, while the online course universities offer are typically the same cost as normal classes, and sometimes cost more with the added fees that may be associated. Then add in annual tuition hikes that have no end in sight. Simply put, higher ed is thinking backwards and not addressing the true problem - an antiquated business model. They continue with a rather poignant line:
“Like Craigslist, StraighterLine threatens the most profitable piece of a conglomerate business: freshman lectures, higher education’s equivalent of the classified section. If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built. The consequences will be profound.”
The idea is that large lecture classes taught by a graduate assistant or adjunct professor are highly profitable for a school, and help to fund all the other less cost effective programs. Newspapers made tons of money from advertising and classifieds, until it became easier, cheaper, and more broadly reaching to do it online. Now, they’re feeling the impact in harsh ways. Higher ed could be in the crosshairs for a similar reason. Antiquated business models are pinching industries across the board, some are adapting, some aren’t. Another good example is the service that Hulu.com is offering (for free no less) vs. the traditional cable subscription model. Or not to mention the mess that is digital music distribution, or the open textbook movement, or e-book standards. The business lesson of the day is “evolve or die.”
Now, there’s one big obstacle here - you can’t get a degree from them. In reality, StraighterLine.com isn’t accredited at all. But, that’s the genius of it. They are working on the side with REAL colleges and universities to accept credits from them, making them into an actual commodity for the students that they can take elsewhere. I personally thought this was genius, and was sitting here wondering what their market penetration was until I read their first case listing. Fort Hays State University. In Kansas. It just so happens I work for Pittsburg State University. In Kansas. This drove the point home like a stake through the heart of a vampire. This is a school in our state, right on our level that has got the jump on us at something that could be paving the way to a totally changed landscape, and it REALLY gets you thinking. And what if, WHAT IF, someone like the University of Phoenix stepped up and offered a similar service? The ARE accredited. What if they decided to attack that base demographic aggressively offering a similar model. Not only would they pick up students from your school, they set themselves up for keeping them in the long run and offering them the same commodity at a cheaper price.
Interestingly, social media exposes the risks involved in such an endeavor. Fort Hays is actually considering ending their agreement with them just because of the pushback they’ve seen around campus. People who attend the brick and mortar institutes see it as a risk on the road to cheapening the quality of their education and the way they are viewed after they’ve graduated. Ultimately, I see that as just a growing pain of such a system. The Provost at Fort Hays ultimately had sound logic, that by accepting the transfer credits, it’s basically lead generation for out of state students that are worth substantially more to the school than in state students. When you’re running the risk of losing money from both the state and to people like StraighterLine, and you’re beginning to have trouble funding teachers to teach some of your basic classes, why not team up in a way that can benefit everyone. For Fort Hays, their anti-SL Facebook group only had 150 members, not all students. And the pushback from the teachers is almost moot, because the teachers aren’t the commodity, the students are. If only 150 out of 10,000 students complain about something, I might actually call that a big win. Remember, you’re more likely to hear from the people against it than the people for it.
That’s the rub. It’s about change. The landscape is changing, and it’s happening more quickly, and with effects that are slowly becoming more obvious in their long term. Schools need to be ready to address this, and need to understand that the demand for online courses is going up, not down. What happens if someone develops a model that builds on something like the open coursework movements at MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley? Eventually that wall holding back a company like StraighterLine is going to crumble. They won’t be seen as cheapening education, they’ll be seen as valuing it exactly right in an environment where traditional schools just keep charging more for the same (inconvenient) service. And then there’s the REAL worry: eventually, some day, a company that may be StraighterLine, or it may be someone else is going to GET accreditation. That cannon volley is going to break the wall. When that wall yields, the landscape is going to begin changing in ways that we aren’t even predicting yet. It’s going to happen. I’m not sure that this particular company will be the one to get it done, but they definitely exposed a chink in the enemy’s armor.
I want to end by sharing a SlideShare from one David Wiley Ph.D. of Brigham Young University talking about the evolution of higher ed, why we are in danger, and the future of opening ourselves up to new systems and ideas: