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College Courses for $99/month?

2009 September 5

A company called straighterline offers a $99/month subscription to its services: online college courses with no time constraints on course completion.  The company allows you to participate in courses at your leisure, with the ability to finish them as fast as you can take them – one student completed four courses in two months (effectively, for $200, compared to anywhere from $2000 to $10000 over one or two semesters at a brick-and-mortar institution).  Each student is assigned an adviser with a Ph.D. accessible via e-mail, and credits can be transferred to one of four partner colleges.

According to Inside Higher Ed, there were five partner colleges, at least as of March.  I wonder what happened to the fifth.  Currently, this is the list:

Of that list, as you might guess, the biggest problems have occurred at Fort Hays State.  Fort Hays is in most regards a typical public university.  As such, its students have a stronger opinion about the kind of cachet their degree will bring them:

“In the short term, this may save FHSU a small amount of money (although this is debatable). In the long term, this could increase the cost of a degree for current students, lower the quality of education and academic standards at FHSU, lead to unemployment for many passionate educators, and eventually cheapen the value of a degree from FHSU for both current and future alumni,” says the Facebook group created by students that has set off the discussion.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the debate (at least from the perspective of training research in I/O psychology) are the assumptions about the lower quality of online education, despite recent evidence from the Department of Education (as well as my own dissertation) that it is at least comparable and sometimes preferable terms of effectiveness.  Consider this statement by a Fort Hays student:

If Straighter Line fails too many students or make courses too challenging, they run the risk of losing support from the schools that use their service. How do they maintain academic honesty in an entirely virtual class? How do they anticipate the needs of a wide variety of students if their courses are pre-designed and generic? Can anyone actually tell me (with a straight face) that virtual general education classes offer the same quality as face-to-face instruction from passionate educators on the FHSU campus? Why bother being a liberal arts institution if we are going to devalue general education courses?

Many of these concerns mirror those of trainers considering migration to online courses (usually because it’s easier and perceived as less expensive), which is why my interest is piqued.

For more of the debate, check out these articles and discussions:

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Shawna permalink
    September 8, 2009

    Thanks for the heads-up on this new form of online education. Right now, Penn State encourages its older PhD candidates (the ones who should’ve been out of here already) to volunteer to teach its online “WorldCampus” courses. Doing so will theoretically allow the younger PhD candidates (like me) to have the option to teach more literature courses. It also gives these slowpokes financial support longer than the department otherwise could give it.

    But if my own situation comes to this crossing, I’m going to refuse to teach online courses. It cheapens our labor by making it potentially infinitely repeatable. University bureaucrats would be thrilled if they only needed, say, one faculty member for Victorian Studies, one for Modernism, etc, to cover the enter campus’ worth of students. You might call me out for a slippery-slope argument, but where the budget is concerned, hysteria is typically justified.

  2. September 8, 2009

    I don’t know if this model really affects education at that level in most universities or liberal arts colleges. It is really poised as an alternative to the entire brick-and-mortar education system in general. I think a university refusing to teach online courses might only hasten its path to the grave as it is overtaken by younger, more financially competitive institutions.

  3. Shawna permalink
    September 12, 2009

    Hmm…well, big state-affiliated universities may not have “flexible” funding, but the sheer force of the numbers involved is still impressive. In other words, we may have budget problems, but our budget is still huge.

    I think the biggest problem that will face new styles of education will be the inertia of reputation. Brick-and-mortar establishments have the most respect. Technology moves quickly, but human evaluative modes don’t.

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