Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bringing College Costs Down Through Online Courses

The other day I saw an article that says quite a lot about the future of college education, at least in terms of basic courses and courses that can be taught in a structured manner:
This summer, Chad Mason signed up for online general psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This spring, Jonathan Serrano took intro to psychology online at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey.

Though the two undergraduates were separated by more than 600 miles, enrolled in different institutions, and paying different tuitions, they were taking what amounts to the same course. That’s because the course wasn’t produced by either school. Instead, it was a sophisticated package devised by publishing giant Pearson PLC and delivered through a powerful online platform called MyPsychLab....

Creating online courses from scratch is expensive and time-consuming. When universities try to do it themselves, the results can be erratic. Some online classes wind up being not much more than grainy videos of lectures and a collection of PowerPoint slides.

Publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. They’ve been at the game longer, possess vast libraries of content from their textbook divisions, and have invested heavily in creating state-of-the-art course technology.

Faced with these alternatives, schools frequently choose the plug-and-play solution. “We would love to create all of the online content ourselves, but that’s not always economically feasible,” says Lindsey Hamlin, the director of continuing and distance education at South Dakota State University, which uses an array of Pearson products for classes in math, economics, and psychology. “These types of courses are really easy to implement. Yes, they are created by other professors. But the content is really good.”

Companies such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Wiley—the heavies of the college textbook market—have produced bundles that are basically a turnkey solution for basic chemistry or econ 101 and dozens of other classes, most at the introductory level. These courses feature content vetted by experts, slickly produced videos, and a load of interactive tests and quizzes. Some are so advanced that they can simulate a physics experiment, engage a student in a developmental psychology exercise, or even run software that grades an 800-word essay. They provide pretty much the entire course experience, without much interaction with a professor and without the hassle of showing up to class on time—or, for some instructors, the hassle of teaching.

The growing uniformity, though it has its advantages, puts schools in an awkward position. The transaction can reduce colleges’ academic mission to that of middleman, reselling course materials produced elsewhere. If schools are offering the same basic courses with minimal variations, it makes it all the more difficult to sell themselves to prospective students or justify their tuition levels.
This standardization of online courses is probably, on the whole, a good thing. It's difficult for individual professors, or even individual colleges, to muster the same sort of resources and specialization that a textbook company can bring to course development, or to even approach the depth and quality of multimedia components that a textbook company can produce. Textbook companies have to invest in the courses in order to keep their market share, not only against each other but also against open source, collaborative competition.

Meanwhile, high schools and colleges should get on board with allowing students to take these courses for something akin to universal college credit, at the lowest possible cost. Colleges sponsoring the courses should contemplate how to bring the best added value to a packaged online course -- supplemental online and offline collaboration with an instructor to discuss the material in more depth, tutoring, monitoring student progress, and the like. But I think the ultimate goal should be to allow students to complete this type of course at the lowest possible price point, with college education turning toward more complex subjects and classes, interdisciplinary classes, seminars, and other experiences that cannot be so easily reduced to a pre-packaged, online experience.

Yes, that would be an adjustment, one that would affect how colleges finance themselves, and might also affect the amount of time it takes to complete a degree program -- a student could conceivably rack up several semesters of college credit while still in high school, something that is possible for some students with AP and through collaborative programs, but is far from universal. If state colleges and community colleges take the lead -- compelled, if necessary, by state legislatures -- then private colleges will follow.

Given that a typical student living on campus takes one or more online courses, the trend toward online education is unmistakable. At this point, it's also irreversible. Given that states are unwilling to provide the same level of funding they historically provided to public colleges, and the overall rise of tuition courses, embracing online education as a way to bring college costs down -- as much as colleges might protest, and even feel some pain over the transition period -- seems like a no-brainer. Yes, it will be necessary to monitor student progress and intervene when students fall behind. Yes, ideally there will be some components to an online course beyond the prepackaged product. But if colleges aren't adding value, they have little business charging tuition for these courses at all.


  1. "Meanwhile, high schools and colleges should get on board with allowing students to take these courses for something akin to universal college credit, at the lowest possible cost. Colleges sponsoring the courses should contemplate how to bring the best added value to a packaged online course . . . " I agree with everything that you said (possibly a first), but I don't think it will ever happen. The economic incentives to "do the right thing" are either not present (at the High School level) or are running in the opposite direction at the University level (lower costs and require professors to "add value" to education . . . that might interfere with profits and publishing . . . )

    . . . although I suppose you might have a fighting chance at getting a community college onboard with the project.


    1. You say, "I agree with everything that you said (possibly a first)" -- then congratulations -- you've actually thought this issue through.... (possibly a first). ;-)

      [For the uninitiated, this is how CWD and I kid each other.]


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