Far More Important than Freeing Music Online – Fighting to Allow College Education to Be Offered at $99/Month

Higher education is ready to be re-invented and this re-invention should not be delayed for two decades.

The next generation of online education could be great for students—and “catastrophic” for universities.

StraighterLine is offering online courses in subjects like accounting, statistics, and math. It offers as many courses as you want for a flat rate of $99 a month.

Online study groups were available where she could collaborate with other students via listserv and instant messaging. StraighterLine courses were designed and overseen by professors with PhDs, and she was assigned a course adviser who was available by e-mail. And if Solvig got stuck and needed help, real live tutors were available at any time, day or night, just a mouse click away.

Crucially for Solvig—who needed to get back into the workforce as soon as possible—StraighterLine let students move through courses as quickly or slowly as they chose. Once a course was finished, Solvig could move on to the next one, without paying more. In less than two months, she had finished four complete courses, for less than $200 total. The same courses would have cost her over $2,700 at Northeastern Illinois, $4,200 at Kaplan University, $6,300 at the University of Phoenix, and roughly the gross domestic product of a small Central American nation at an elite private university. They also would have taken two or three times as long to complete.

And if Solvig needed any further proof that her online education was the real deal, she found it when her daughter came home from a local community college one day, complaining about her math course. When Solvig looked at the course materials, she realized that her daughter was using exactly the same learning modules that she was using at StraighterLine, both developed by textbook giant McGraw-Hill. The only difference was that her daughter was paying a lot more for them, and could only take them on the college’s schedule. And while she had a professor, he wasn’t doing much teaching. “He just stands there,” Solvig’s daughter said, while students worked through modules on their own.

The cost of storing and communicating information over the Internet had fallen to almost nothing. Electronic course content in standard introductory classes had become a low-cost commodity. The only expensive thing left in higher education was the labor, the price of hiring a smart, knowledgeable person to help students when only a person would do. And the unique Smarthinking call- center model made that much cheaper, too. By putting these things together, Smith could offer introductory college courses à la carte, at a price that seemed to be missing a digit or two, or three: $99 per month, by subscription. Economics tells us that prices fall to marginal cost in the long run. Burck Smith simply decided to get there first.

The biggest obstacle Smith faced in launching StraighterLine was a process called accreditation. Over time, colleges and universities have built sturdy walls and deep moats around their academic city-states. So Burck Smith devised a clever way under the accreditation wall, brokering deals whereby a handful of accredited traditional and for-profit institutions agreed to become “partner colleges” that would allow students to transfer in StraighterLine courses for credit.

As word of the StraighterLine deal spread around the Fort Hays campus, professors and students began to protest. By early 2009 a Facebook group called “FHSU students against Straighter Line” had sprung up, attracting more than 150 members. Smith had to recruit several new partner colleges to stay afloat.

Smith’s struggle to establish StraighterLine suggests that higher education still has some time before the Internet bomb explodes in its basement. The fuse was only a couple of years long for the music and travel industries; for newspapers it was ten. Colleges may have another decade or two, particularly given their regulatory protections.

If the USA and other countries truly cared about effectively educating the people, increasing the productivity of economy, then legislative efforts would be made to breakdown the barriers to effective and affordable online education. Funding could be provided to help educational institutions to transition to a new world where they are less land/building intensive and where they have less of an undergraduate cash cow. Some inferior institutions would be shutdown.

As seen on this site there is also no need to allow students to be subjected to inferior teachers. There are the online videos of Richard Feynmann explaining physics. There are other videos of highly competent and inspirational MIT teachers explaining various topics.

There is no reason for first year students to get courses from unmotivated teaching assistants who may have only completed an undergraduate in the topic and do not have a firm grasp of the material.


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