This Is a Reform Model. The Model Needs Some Work.

StraighterLine, a Baltimore-based company offering $99 a month online college courses through agreements with traditional colleges, looks rather promising.

Earlier this year the Washington Post’s Daniel de Vise wrote that the business is “a serious education company and a force that could disrupt half a millennium of higher-education tradition.”

And as Kevin Carey wrote for this magazine back in October, 2009:

StraighterLine threatens the most profitable piece of a conglomerate business: freshman lectures, higher education’s equivalent of the classified section. If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built. The consequences will be profound.

[Most students] tend to enroll in relatively anonymous two- or four-year public institutions and major in a job-oriented field like business, teaching, nursing, or engineering. They all take the same introductory courses: statistics, accounting, Econ 101. Teaching in those courses is often poor—adjunct-staffed lecture halls can be educational dead zones—but until recently students didn’t have any other choice. Regional public universities and nonelite private colleges are most at risk from the likes of StraighterLine. They could go the way of the local newspaper, fatally shackled to geography, conglomeration, and an expensive labor structure, too dependent on revenues that vanish and never return.

Well, maybe not quite yet. Last week Inside Higher Ed published an article by Serena Golden. And while it looks like StraighterLine is doing a lot of very innovative things, it’s still got a way to go. Golden took Macroeconomics through StraighterLine. It didn’t go so well.

According to Golden, her course essentially consisted of ploughing through one textbook and answering open book and open note questions based on the book.

There are a number of criticisms to level at StraighterLine here, some about course rigor, about the relationship between the text and the “lectures,” (really just superfluous PowerPoint slides), and about the evaluation and recommendations colleges make before they decided to grant credit for StraighterLine courses.

Perhaps the most damming, however, are two specific problems Golden encountered. They’re just an anecdotes, but they’re telling ones.

The first problem has to do with what happens if someone taking a StraigherLine course doesn’t understand the material. StraighterLine offers a tutoring component:

SmarThinking tutoring takes place in a sort of chat session; the interface is a large white browser window into which students can type questions and their tutors can type responses. My questions showed up in large red letters, while my tutor’s replies were in large blue ones. This was helpful for distinguishing between my words and those of my tutor, although the format of the chat session is such that our words often overlapped and became illegible. When one “page” of type is filled up, the chat session opens a new, blank page, and my tutor and I frustrated one another — and wasted time — by inadvertently moving back and forth between pages.

Tutors have no access to the course materials or any of the work that students have done… [and] students cannot simply bring in a few pages of their work by way of example. To ask about a particular graph or illustration, the student must either save the image to his computer and upload it into the chatbox (which, in my experience, sometimes resulted in graphs too small to read), or save it in an online image program and send the tutor a link — all of which requires time and patience.

The second dilemma is that the actual material was often poorly presented. As Golden writes:

Exacerbating the apparent irrelevance of the lesson materials is their sloppiness in both structure and content. Text boxes often appear where they shouldn’t, or don’t say what they should; hovering over the highlighted keyword “depression” on one slide brings up a text box reading only “insert definition.” A table showing supply curve determinants is entitled “Approximate Absolute Thresholds for Various Senses.

Like the other course materials, the practice tests and exams are scattered with typographical errors; more worryingly, they also contain a number of wrong answers.

These problems should strike observers as particularly troublesome.

StraighterLine exists and can be valuable entirely due to the power of technology. Technology is what allows people to earn college degrees at home.

This is what makes some of this stuff so worrisome; so much of the problems are pretty basic. The lectures and practice examinations haven’t been copyedited or checked for factual errors. Tutoring can only take place in huge white boxes. And new boxes open up whenever one fills up the first box. It’s hard to transmit images and other material. Really. And this is at a time when much of the world, though Gmail, already has access to an easy chat function. There’s no excuse for this sort of thing.

In order for innovative education models to work the technology involved in the product has to be really good. That doesn’t mean really sophisticated or state-of-the-art; it just has to work.

College should be challenging. That’s the point. But the hard part of an economics course should be understanding the concepts, not having a conversation or viewing a lecture/ slideshow about the concepts.

It still seems, fundamentally, like a rather promising model. Colleges deliver many concepts to their students using books students read and lectures students attend. StraighterLine offers books and lectures to students online, allowing them to learn on their own. Colleges evaluate and approve the colleges the company offers. Many real colleges, schools like Assumption College, Fort Hayes State University, and the University of Akron, accept courses taken though the company, allowing students to learn academic concepts cheaply and at their own convenience with the backing of (reasonably) respectable schools

Unbundling higher education is a good thing. There’s no reason that learning biochemistry or comparative literature has to have anything at all to do with sororities, basketball, or ownership of a valuable art collection or library.

The trouble is that, at least at this point, it looks like that evaluation and approval part of this new model has broken down.

StraighterLine functions because its courses are accepted by certain real schools. These real schools, in fact, hold a lot of power over what kind of courses the company delivers. If colleges don’t accept the courses, StraighterLine has no incentive to offer them.

StraighterLine exists as a reflection of the demands of students and traditional institutions. The company can improve but it makes no sense for the company to do so on its own. The company only makes money as long as someone values the course delivery.

Not to excuse the company for several rather crucial problems, but frankly, why aren’t the schools that partner with StraighterLine asking more of the company?

Maybe they’re not expecting much for $99 a month, but they shouldn’t be accepting the credits then.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer