We are at an important crossroads in online education. Recently, Harvard and MIT, through their joint venture, edX, have joined the likes of Princeton, Stanford, UPenn, and the University of Michigan by offering free to low-cost online education to the masses.
Why is this important? It is important because it signals that some of the best institutions are serious about online learning. More significantly, these institutions recognize that there is a difference between how they treat their educational content, which they are now willing to freely share, and how they treat the very expensive campus-based experiences that they offer to students who seek and are granted admission each year.
It is important to understand that these institutions are not devaluing their products by sharing this content. On one hand, they are helping to raise the bar for what online education should be by embracing transparency in their methodology. Many organizations, including the Maryland Distance Learning Association (MDLA), among others, have been hard at work at this cause for years, all with the hope that this will result in a deeper pool of talent for institutions from which to learn.
However, it is also important to think about where these institutions believe the added value (i.e., profit) will come as they decouple the education they provide from the on-campus student experience. Although the luster has come off of higher education in the past several years as students find it harder and harder to find post-college employment, this is not necessarily the case at higher-end institutions across the country. These schools are not seeing a lack of demand, because students are willing to pay the high cost for the benefits and connections that come from such a learning environment. With this in mind, if an institution knows that their revenue stream is secure, they are more likely to spin off their content for a myriad of purposes, both altruistic and monetary.
Let’s think for a minute about what costs are involved in providing an online course. From a very high level, these would include the cost of course development, the cost of hosting classes on some type of platform, as well as the cost of instruction (i.e., faculty). For many institutions, these costs are prohibitive. As many in higher education already know, it is easier to get funding to build something tangible, like a building, than it is to get funding for extra servers to support a cache of new course sections.
However, now that some big players are beginning to pool their resources in order to mitigate the cost of hosting and creating content, where does this leave everyone else? Interest in online learning continues to grow, and for many institutions it is now considered a necessity. What is not clear on many campuses is the best way to implement these fledgling programs. Those that go it alone can expect a hard road ahead as they shoulder all of the costs involved. The only way to keep up with the rising costs of maintaining a distance education program is by continuing to grow, which has its own hazards. What obligations will be required of those who align themselves with these major players and join these new consortiums? It is at this point that many will learn the true cost of these “free” classes.
For institutions that already have the infrastructure and resources, such as edX, the logical next is step to begin leasing their content and platform to schools looking to get into online education. Although the new company has not indicated that they will take this route, it may become an appealing possibility. By relying on an economy of scale that comes with using a standard core of classes and robust servers to house the classes themselves, Universities that have the capital stand to make a large profit from this business if they so choose.
Again, this raises some major questions going forward. Although there will always be a level of value in having a University degree, how will the average student react when they see two online courses on the same subject sitting side by side—one of which they are paying a significant sum of money to attend and the other a free course taught by some of the most highly regarded Universities in the world? This is not to suggest that students will all arbitrarily abandon college and begin to self-educate; however, it does provide a compelling alternative for the student who was never “into” college to begin with, or, more pointedly, the student who is going through great financial hardship to make their education a reality.
In many ways, these new consortiums are forcing hard choices onto academic institutions, whether they know it or not. Institutions need to take an objective look at their curricula and their approach to online learning and ask themselves what added value their programs bring to the student. At the same time, they need to begin exploring whether they have the financial wherewithal to make online programs work. Online education will never be a panacea for a University’s financial restraints, although it could help boost enrollment beyond the capacity of bricks-and-mortar classrooms. Nevertheless, decisions need to be made regarding how these courses will reflect the experience the University hopes to provide, or else they risk alienating and losing students overall.
A company like edX provides an opportunity for all of academia- the opportunity to begin thinking about the content separately from the student experience. The edX venture also reminds us that educational content is out there for anyone willing to learn. What does an institution do with the content to set itself apart? If the answer is “not much,” then now is the time to think about whether they will continue to forge ahead on their own or find partners that will allow them to focus on how they wish to shape their educational experience. In the end, this will be what sets them apart from the competition.
It is nice to see more education focused startups in the news and more importantly, it is nice to see them get funded.
This looks like a great tool for Colleges to adopt that would lessen the burden on both science educators teaching online courses, as well as Instructional Designers tasked with building out course content. The trade-off comes with price… How willing are campuses to pass along another $50 cost to students?
The argument is that it is like requiring another textbook… provided students really could afford textbooks as things currently stand. My suggestion… Universities, especially the larger ones, should use their leverage to work out licensing agreements with the company to lower the per student cost. This cost could then either be subsidised by the University using funds that would have gone into developing home-grown content, or possibly folded into a lab fee which would be easier to have picked up by financial aid. In any case, this type of initiative and the money being raised to support it is a great boon for Science Education.
This piqued my interest going back to my time working with Faculty Recruiting. I remember pushing the use of Facebook as a recruiting tool, which was met with interest, but little follow-through. Since we often see Higher Education lag behind other fields in adopting new technologies, I hope that colleges and universities come to embrace these tools to help recruit top talent. This is a trend that needs to be monitored.
For those in Higher Ed who care about Learning Management Systems or just teaching online in general, it seems that Blackboard has always been the thousand pound elephant in the room. Concerns have ranged from Blackboard allegedly holding institutions ransom with their high maintenance costs to the giant company gobbing up much of the competition in the market. Whether or not these are fair concerns is not necessarily the issue, but rather illustrates how they are often the center of the conversation.
On Friday, the company announced it was being sold to a private equity firm and I thought it was important to note two quick takeaways from this announcement:
Again, this is all food for thought, but it would be wise to try to keep closer tabs on the company moving forward, especially if you are currently evaluating your own LMS platform.
I am excited that a company is looking to take the lead in this arena that is mostly populated by confusing and often misleading marketing sites. My only hope is that they can help the average person better understand the differences in accreditation and why these differences may be important when choosing a school.
For-Profit Universities are already feeling the affects of preparing for some of the new regulations in terms of the exorbitant lobbying costs and a restructuring of their recruiting efforts. It will be interesting to see how it affects the bottom line…
“In today’s world, universities need to be held accountable for providing real value for the investment students or their parents make.”
Not necessarily related to education, but very important to the future of books and subsequently the whole book finding/reading experience.
Fantastic Resource!!! Find Your County!!!