Next Up For Disruption? College

from the this-could-get-interesting dept

One of the reasons we spend so much time talking about the music and news industries, is because the disruption and upheaval happening in those industries right now are likely to impact nearly every industry you can think of in the near future. Understanding the mistakes being made by those in the industries that are further along the disruption curve should (hopefully, though, I'm not entirely optimistic on this) help keep those newer industries from making the same mistakes down the road.

Jake points us to an inkling of how the higher education market is beginning to be disrupted -- and it goes beyond just cheaper textbooks or courses being offered online. By now, online distance learning is well-known and not all that big a deal. But, really, all the old school online university efforts, like University of Phoenix, did was to take the traditional college model and move it online. True disruptive innovation is never about just moving a legacy model to a new medium, but about embracing some aspect of that new medium to offer something in a different way that really wasn't possible prior to that.

The article in Washington Monthly discusses a company called StraighterLine, which offers online college classes, but it totally disrupts the traditional business model of university learning. While the classic model is that you pay per class (or per semester as a fully matriculated student), StraighterLine has a simple model: you pay $99/month and get an all-you-can-eat offering. You go at your own pace -- so if you have lots of time (and can complete the work) you can take multiple classes in that month. In the opening story of the article, a woman completes four full classes in just two months -- for a grand total of $200. Taking those same classes at either local universities or online would have cost thousands, and would have taken much longer to complete. And, it's not as if the StraighterLine courses skimp either. According to the article (and it would be great to hear from anyone who's tried it to see if this is true), they use the same materials found in many college courses.

The reasoning behind all of this will sound familiar to those who read Techdirt on a regular basis:
Even as the cost of educating students fell, tuition rose at nearly three times the rate of inflation. Web-based courses weren't providing the promised price competition--in fact, many traditional universities were charging extra for online classes, tacking a "technology fee" onto their standard (and rising) rates. Rather than trying to overturn the status quo, big, publicly traded companies like Phoenix were profiting from it by cutting costs, charging rates similar to those at traditional universities, and pocketing the difference.

This, Smith explained, was where StraighterLine came in. 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 a 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.
Just like Craigslist. In fact, the article goes on to make that comparison, and highlight how similar the newspaper business and the University business are. It notes that freshman lectures are "higher education's equivalent of the classified section" in that they're insanely profitable and subsidize many other areas of the business.

And, just like Craigslist and newspapers, colleges started pushing back against StraighterLine, worrying about how it would impact them. In fact, it's caused quite a bit of trouble for StraighterLine, causing it to be split off from its original parent company, Smarthinking. Meanwhile, other complaints have made it difficult for StraighterLine to follow through on its partnering strategy to deal with questions concerning accreditation. So, StraighterLine itself may never become a huge success, but it gives you a glimpse of how the world is changing and how the higher education system may be ripe for disruptive innovation as well.
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Filed Under: disruption. college, distance learning
Companies: straighterline


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  1. identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 11 Sep 2009 @ 1:33pm

    E-Learning and Engineering.

    Well, here's my take, posted on Washington Monthly:

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_09/019814.php#1601777

    One point I would make again is that for teenagers, the name of the game is not to get an online degree-- it is to improve the terms of your admission to a bricks-and-mortar university, like doing AP subjects, only more so.

    Here are some fairly detailed ideas about curriculum:

    Geometry dates from ancient antiquity. Algebra dates from the sixteenth century (the 1500's). Analytic geometry dates from the early seventeenth century, the big figure being Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Isaac Newton developed calculus in 1665-66 and launched classical physics at about the same time. Classical physics and second year calculus (calculus of several variables, differential equations, etc.) were substantially complete by about 1800. Modern chemistry, as distinct from Alchemy, was a late-bloomer, starting up only after about 1800. Modern biology got going about 1850, and modern physics about 1900.

    This means that mathematics and science are taught somewhat backwards in the schools. The system is presently organized around catering to people who don't take the full course of study. Mathematics should be taught a lot earlier, getting up to analytic geometry before doing any science. To teach subjects rigorously, one needs to teach them in the order that they were invented, so that the presuppositions are the same. The proper sequence should be:

    1) Geometry, taught by tutorial.

    2) Algebra I & II, taught by tutorial, minus a lot of review material in Algebra II which is presently necessary because the students have been away from the subject for fifteen months. Also reduce the quantity of word problems, as the students will already have been exposed to geometry, and learned to think formally. Word problems are a mistaken exercise in trying to link mathematics to the Language Arts. In science and engineering, equations practically always arise out of formal diagrams, such as an electric circuit diagram. Mathematicians devised Algebra, not to count how many cookies someone might have left after eating a certain number, but to deal with unresolved problems within geometry. Cutting High-School Algebra down to a clean design ought to make it a single-year course, even if taught as a class. By tutorial, it would of course go still faster.

    3) Analytic Geometry and Trigonometry, taught by tutorial. Under tutorial conditions, based on two hours of class a day, plus homework, such as I experienced, taking Geometry in the summer session of a New England prep school in 1973, I believe stages 1-3 would amount to about nine months work. The fact that it takes four years in a conventional high school is a testament to just how bad high school teaching is. This gets you to where Isaac Newton jumped off from in 1665.

    4) AP First-year Calculus and AP Physics with Calculus, both taught by tutorial, taking about nine months, at least as fast as college freshmen get through the material;

    5) College Second-year Calculus (Tutorial) and High School Biology (9th grade);

    6) AP Chemistry, with lab (10th grade).

    Of course, not all students would be able to maintain this pace, but those who could not do so, would in any event lack the mathematical aptitude for science and engineering.

    ----------------------------------

    To: MBraedley (Only works for a subset of degrees, Sep 11th, 2009 @ 7:58am)

    The short answer is that tools are much cheaper than tuition, and if you buy your tools, you get to keep them, and if they are good tools, you will need them to do other things, later on.

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