BY LINDA BAKER
Suddenly, online higher education startups are all the rage.
In the past six months, at least seven such startups have launched or announced funding. And these aren’t just any startups—the majority are spinoffs created by professors or administrators affiliated with some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Founded by Stanford University faculty, Coursera, which has raised more than $16 million in funding, aims to bring top tier classes to the masses—for free. Udacity, another Stanford spinoff, has similar goals. Aiming to bring Harvard quality education to those who can't afford Harvard tuition, the Minerva Project is chaired by former Harvard president (and U.S. Treasury Secretary) Larry Summers. This past spring, Minerva announced that it raised $25 million from Benchmark Capital, the largest seed financing in that firm's history.
Once considered the lowly stepchild of higher ed, online education has been catapulted into the big leagues, with many of the massive open online classes offered by the new startups attracting upwards of 100,000 students. As the buzz grows, many universities, which have historically been reluctant to adopt online learning platforms, seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. Coursera, for example, has already partnered with the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, UC San Francisco, University of Washington, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Virginia.
Will Oregon universities, already facing a slew of education reforms, partner with the new startups? Will the state join the online spinoff craze? Are these private companies a threat to Oregon universities? Or will private sector online solutions help bring an end to an ignominious era in higher ed—an era marked by endless budget cuts and skyrocketing tuition costs?
For a few initial thoughts, I turned to Dave King, associate vice provost for outreach and engagement at Oregon State University, (where 10,000 students take classes online annually), Lisa Templeton, executive director of OSU’s extended campus, and Steve Brown, who sits on the Marylhurst University Board of Trustees and is the former president of KC Distance Learning, the country’s largest middle and high school online learning company. (Brown, on vacation in Italy, responded via email).
OB: What does the surge in the number of pedigreed online education startups mean for Oregon universities?
King: I think it’s fascinating. We’ve been watching the massive online courses develop and I’m really pleased that it has opened the conversation. But the fact that the big guns are stepping up to this is possibly a two-edged sword. If you have 160,000 students in a (Coursera) class and you don’t create a truly engaging and interactive class then we’ll see some backsliding. At OSU, we’ve been working really hard to use quality as our goal: student to student interaction, student to instructor interaction. I don’t know that all of those interactions happen effectively in a 160,000 student class.
There is a potential advantage for us in having major institutions with large samples test some things. We’re watching that very closely. Coursera and others have said upfront they are going to have to embed some level of automated understanding of how students are performing.
OB: Historically, online education has been stigmatized as a lesser form of learning. Will the new startups help mainstream online learning, and how do the classes offered by the startups compare with new university led online initiatives?
Templeton: Online classes still have that stigma with faculty, but it has shifted. Their image of online is outdated. With the new technologies available, it’s really exciting.
King: We have started looking at open courseware, but are looking at it from the other side Instead of a one size fits all, we've been working on open learning modules...in which we deconstruct courses into individual learning objectives, then make learning modules available as open courseware.
We are also investing in online degree programs. Six years ago, we had four full degree programs online. Now we're at 30 degree and certificate programs online with two or three more on the books for the coming year.
Brown: Universities need to be aggressive in exploring different ways online education can impact current models - and not just offer fully online courses. Blended models will ultimately transform higher ed. Oregon universities are largely behind. Smaller, regional and less selective universities need to be most aggressive as they are at most risk.
OB: Will the new startups offer a solution to the budget crises facing higher ed? Will Oregon universities seed a new crop of education startups?
Brown: I believe we will see a surge of new start ups nationally. Unfortunately, Oregon is not well positioned—there is much more activity at the K-12 level.
King: We’re having that conversation about greater efficiencies. The big question is what is the level and ability to monetize the process. The monetization model at this point has to be done as some kind of a spinoff. We are on the doorstep of a brave new world here. In that new world, we’re going to see significant amount of interaction between the public and private sectors.