Universities Take Different Paths to Putting Classes Online

Some offer courses for free, while others have partnered with companies who handle technical and marketing issues

By Kevin Walker
Posted 2012

Many Options for Placing Courses Online
Many Options for Placing Courses Online

The future of higher education is online. That’s the one thing people seem to agree on, more or less.

Beyond that, things get a little sticky.

There seem to be as many options for putting students into online classes as there are universities that want to do it. Even among the nation’s top schools – including those ranked the best in the country in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings – there is disagreement about the proper way to utilize modern distance-learning technology.

Universities such as Villanova, the University of Arizona, Notre Dame, the University of Florida, Michigan State and California State University have partnered with companies that facilitate the online courses and handle the associated marketing efforts, both online and off.

Other universities, most recently Indiana University, are committing millions of dollars to put classes online themselves and charge tuition.

In the most recent development, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford have partnered with online companies or started their own that offer courses online for free.

“It's pretty clear that big change is coming to the higher education space through digital technology,” Matthew Yglesias , a business writer for Slate, wrote recently.

But in what form?

Implementing Distance Learning

The disparity in opinions among educators about distance learning became apparent in a recent poll conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Elon University in North Carolina.

Of the 1,000 Web experts, researchers and education observers surveyed, 60% agreed with the statement that by 2020 “there will be a mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning” to give students access to real-world experts.

On the same survey, however, some experts worried that some versions of online education lack the face-to-face aspect they feel is important to education, a Pew official told Voice of America.

Still, university officials who responded to Pew offered comments that made it clear something is going to happen, primarily because the cost of a traditional education is increasingly becoming too steep for the average person to afford.

“Without online education,” University of Delaware’s John McNutt said in response to the survey, “only the wealthy will receive an education. The traditional model is too expensive.’

The debate has spilled outside the bounds of theoretical argument, as well. In June, the University of Virginia board of directors fired school President Teresa Sullivan. According to numerous reports, part of the reason for her dismissal is that she wasn’t moving fast enough in getting the university into the online classroom business.

Utilizing Partnerships to Bring Courses Online

One approach that has, in a relatively quiet way, been successful is the partnership forged by many leading universities with companies that are experts at providing online learning platforms and creating the marketing and advertising campaigns needed to promote the classes.

Bisk Education, headquartered in Tampa, Fl., has forged alliances with a number of universities, including Villanova, Norte Dame, Michigan State and Florida Tech University. The company also announced a deal this month to offer degree programs online for the University of South Florida, starting with a master’s degree in health informatics.

The company provides all the technology to put classes online and creates the marketing campaigns associated with the business.

Rather than giving the information away, schools charge tuition. Students, in return, get not only taped lectures but chances to interact on a regular basis with instructors. They can also earn both degrees and certificates.

The arrangement allows for schools to focus on providing education and the partner company to focus on technology, marketing and the business side.

Other companies involved with this type of arrangement include Pearson eCollege, which recently partnered with California State University to provide online classes. Another is EmbanetCompass, headquartered in Orlando, Fl., which has partnerships with about a dozen schools including Vanderbilt, University of Southern California, Case Western Reserve and the University of Arizona.

A New Approach: Massive Open Online Courses

Some universities have taken the path of putting classes online themselves, including developing the technology for distance learning classes and handling all the associated costs. The absence of a partner puts the schools into areas not typically occupied by colleges.

Indiana University, for example, recently announced an investment of $8 million into hiring additional Web designers and technicians to put its class offerings online and to fund an Office of Online Education. The school plans to offer certificate and degree programs, primarily through its Indianapolis and Bloomington campuses.

However, the latest trend in online learning is MOOCs – Massive, Open Online Courses. Typically, a MOOC is a free, taped lecture. The attraction is that some of the top universities in the nation – Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, for example – are the universities putting the courses online.

Many of them have partnered with companies. Coursera, headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., has partnered with 16 universities, including Princeton, Rice, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, John Hopkins and Duke.

Udacity, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., offers courses in science, technology, engineering and math that were developed by a former Stanford professor.

Another venture, edX, is somewhat different because it was formed by the universities involved - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The University of California Berkeley recently joined, and the edX site reports that 120 universities have expressed an interest in joining.

Other universities simply put free courses online themselves. Yale University – the third best university in the nation, based on the U.S. News & World Report college rankings – offers free lectures online in dozens of courses through its Open Yale courses project.

Making Money From MOOCs

A massive amount of media attention has been heaped upon these ventures for two primary reasons: the stature of the schools involved and the fact the courses are free. The business question is: how will these ventures make money?

EdX is giving certificates away for free in the fall of 2012, but will charge a “modest fee” in the future, according to the edX Website. Each certificate will have the name of the university from which it was earned on it, with an “x” added – HarvardX, for example.

Coursera is considering a similar model. A contract between Coursera and the University of Michigan obtained by the Chronicle of Higher Education mentions two money-making options: charging students to get a certificate and charging students for a service that matches them with potential employers.

Whether MOOCs work remains to be seen. They lack the contact with professors offered in the courses facilitated by companies like Bisk and EmbanetCompass, and the dropout rate has been as high as 90% in some cases. Also, Udacity recently dropped a math class over concerns about its quality.

No matter what course universities take, there is no sign that the movement to online will abate anytime soon. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report reported that online enrollment hit an all-time high of 6.1 million students in 2010, adding, “The trend shows no signs of leveling off.”

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