Competition in higher education

When undergraduate students at Southern Methodist University peruse their course catalogs this fall, several listings may strike them as odd.

First, the courses will be taught entirely online—an option that Southern Methodist has never before offered to undergraduates.

Second, the courses will be taught by professors at other universities—including Emory University, the University of Notre Dame, and Washington University in St. Louis, among others.

Southern Methodist, along with Baylor University and Temple University, plans to announce on Tuesday that it will allow undergraduate students to take online courses from other colleges for credit.

The courses, offered through the online-education company 2U, will come from a consortium of colleges participating in 2U’s Semester Online program, which is focused on undergraduate education at selective institutions.

Southern Methodist, Baylor, and Temple will be “affiliates” of the program, meaning they will not produce courses but will list certain courses developed by other members of the consortium and will grant “elective credit”—that is, general-education credit—to students who pass.

Participating in the 2U consortium as an affiliate will allow Southern Methodist to see how well online courses work for its students without committing resources to building its own, said Stephanie Dupaul, associate vice president for enrollment management at the university.

Here is more, via Phil Hill.

In California, however, plans for for-credit MOOCs in public universities have been put on hold.


Interesting. One wonders if there is a mechanism that will allow the cost savings that could result from these sorts of arrangements to be passed on to the student. Or will it simple be more revenue captured by the administration and spent on all the bells and whistles that schools use to compete against one another.

I don't know why we'd expect any other outcome. It's a way to cut academic salaries while boosting school revenues, meaning you can pay your administrative staff more.

Will students get a discount on their tuition?

I still say MOOCs are just another passing fad ...

MOOC, wasn't he that big guy on the frat rugby squad who never said anything?


Also, assuming for arguments sake that this does work, how are these “affiliates” of the program" going to differentiate their educational product from the other universities? Isn't this doomed to failure either way.

I thought it would be the quality of the professor.

Well .... I am still not convinced about the educational quality. I recently learned of an online course where students are required to submit a 1-2 page answer to discussion points posted by the instructor. It is worth 10 points and it is presumably a substitute for contributions to in-class discussions. It takes less than an hour to do.

Enterprising student has learned to farm out the weekly discussion for $10.

Ten points is more than the distance between a B and an A.

Creating scalable high-quality assessments with adequately stringent grading is still a major hurdle to workable MOOCs in many fields.

It's funny to me that one of the biggest complaints about college is that for some classes, especially introductory classes, a professor gives lectures to 100 students, but the majority of a student's interactions in those classes are with TAs (in office hours and discussion sections), and yet the future of college education is all classes being taught lecture style and all student interactions be with TAs, over long distances. The only purposes college will serve will be for research and amateur football and basketball.

One professor is experimenting with the idea of not telling students the correct answers when they get something wrong. That'd require having to write new questions, I guess.

"Thank you for calling office hours, your Problem Sets are very important to me..."

I have my doubts about on-line instruction. I say this as someone who regularly consults on-line resources in my work. I've learned a tremendous amount on-line while getting paid to do other work. My skepticism arises from my experience learning on-line. Most people not in STEM fields are not good at self-paced learning. An on-line course teaching PERL will work fine. An on-line course teaching psychology will be a disaster.

The bigger problem is that colleges cannot allow their service turn into a commodity. If that happens then the price drops to a cost plus model. If people figure out they are teaching the same stuff at Yale as at Central Connecticut State, then the game is up. Everyone will know college admissions departments are just elaborate IQ tests and there is little value added from elite universities.

George, based on my experience I think I agree w/ you to a degree. My first online class was a recent Coursera course from Rice programming video games in Python - excellent course imho - and I'm currently taking a Berklee songwriting class that I'm learning a lot from. But my guess is that if I had to take a class that I was not interested in I'd let it fall to the wayside.

I think online classes will be GREAT for things people are interested in learning - but not so great if the student doesn't care so much about it. Whether this is good or bad I don't know. I love the opportunities to learn new things so far, but I doubt I'm the target market.

Everytime I think about public education in California, I think about the following study quoted by Tyler (from a post from April 28, 2012):

"A report on administrative growth by the UCLA Faculty Association estimated that UC would have $800 million more each year if senior management had grown at the same rate as the rest of the university since 1997, instead of four times faster. What could we do with $800 million? That is the total amount of the state funding cuts for 2008-09 and 2009-10, and four times the savings of the employee furloughs. Consider this: UC revenue from student fees has tripled in the last eight years. The ratio of state general fund revenue to student fee revenue in 1997 was 3.6:1. Last year it was 1.9:1. If we used that $800 million to reduce student fees, the ratio would go back to the 1997 value. To put another way, it could pay the educational fees for 100,000 resident undergraduates."

Of course sharply rising costs is probably endemic to academia in general and not just California's institutions.

Note that the SMU courses are *not* MOOCs; they are limited to 20 students and are going to be operated synchronously (webcams), not asynchronously. And someone is paying 2U $4200 per student; it's not clear whether that comes out of the existing student tuition or will be a surcharge to it. So any conflation of this with MOOCs is a clear--and unforced--error.

What happens when 70% of the students fail or don't complete the course? Do they get credits anyway? Judging by how things go in college these days, they probably do.

For those online skeptics, let's do an experiment.

Let's take a random selection of students who signed up for an inperson class, say, Psych or Econ 101.

Put half of the randomly selected students in the lecture hall; and put the other half in front of a big screen with the same lecture a block away. Let's also give those students, but not the students who saw the live program, the option to replay a lecture.

Any significantly different outcomes? Any bets?

You're on ... $1,000,000.00 ... Most students pass their live courses, while most students just drop out of their online courses, so pay up!

Different mix of students. The SMU students are resident students. MOOCs are not resident students, generally. I bet resident students will do just as well with online as offline, assuming TA sections and quizes are available to both. Experiment.

Bill, that is a good point, and I think your experiment should definitely be tested, but if so, the degree of difficulty in both the in-person course and the online course needs to be equalized ... under those conditions, you would very likely win your bet

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