Higher Education Strategy Associates

Maybe It Is Time to Pay Attention

As I noted yesterday, the strong likelihood is that to whatever extent higher education does move online, it will be dominated by a few strong players associated with strong brand names. The problem is that institutions with strong brand names are the ones least likely to risk those brands by messing around with alternative degree-granting mechanisms. That’s why, to date, all the institutions participating in either EdX or Coursera have been very firm about keeping everything on a non-credit basis.

If you want to get a sense of how ad hoc everything is in this business, take a look at the leaked copy of the contract that Coursera signed with a dozen-odd institutions (including U of T) this past summer. It’s clear that Coursera itself has no solid idea about how it’s going to make money from streaming courses for free; instead, it lists about eight ways that it might make money. Maybe. One day.

(Doesn’t watching people get excited about a business model where revenue is irrelevant make you all gloriously nostalgic for 1999? Almost makes you want to go listen to ‘N Sync. Almost.)

One of the routes to profitability Coursera posits is making money by through invigilation. That’s smart – one of the main barriers to making online higher education a reality is the problem of verifying identity in online courses. You’d think, therefore, that a move by one of these consortia to fix that problem would get a lot more press than it did. And yet the news that Pearson had signed a deal with EdX to provide physical testing centres and identity verification somehow stayed pretty much under the radar. It’s hard to see this as anything but a really big milestone for the industry.

Udacity – a much more downmarket competitor, with no links to any big research university – is trying to compete by making links with similarly down-market traditional institutions. It has struck a deal with Colorado State University to have the latter recognize Udacity’s credits asequivalent to its own. So, by the back-door, Udacity has essentially managed to wrangle credit-granting status. (It’s not completely clear how CSU’s accreditors feel about this; this story may not be as simple as it sounds.) But if you have the choice between EdX and MIT credit or Udacity and CSU credit – which are you going to take?

I’m still a skeptic about online education as a force in undergraduate education – in developed countries, the prestige of traditional education is going to outstrip online for a long time to come. But enough pieces are now falling into place that it’s time to pay more attention to online.

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