Friday, December 17, 2010

Kudos to Inside Higher Ed

by Andrew Gillen

Serena Golden has a loooong piece in IHE about her experience taking an online course through StraighterLine. StraighterLine comes off as neither a miracle cure nor as a diploma mill. While I would have liked to see a few things done differently, overall, the approach was just right - focusing on her direct experience while asking the obvious follow-up questions to the obvious players involved.

If you can’t read the whole piece, here is the 21 word version, courtesy of the founder of StraighterLine, Burck Smith:
“We’re not in the business of making the best courses. We are in the business of making the best value courses.”

1 comment:

Glen S. McGhee said...

The "quality-risk shifting" model in higher ed proposed by StraighterLine is new and innovative -- but so was bundling subprime loans in with mortgages.

And we saw how that worked out. It didn't.

As never before education quality is an issue -- heavily dependent on a school's prestige and status, and accreditation. What Smith's model does is have the schools vouch for the quality of his courses. This is what Fort Hays was doing, even though HLC/NCA had no knowledge of the practice.

The main reason that Smith's plan works is that he is exploiting a little known loop-hole in the system of higher ed QA/QI, which delegates the authority for course approval to the schools. This is why, for example, you will find on-line course quality all over the map, high and low, even at 4 yr schools. There is no consistency. There is no oversight, other than that provided by the schools themselves. Accreditor involvement in this area, if any, is largely symbolic, and they simply don't have the resources to follow-up on problems. In fact, they appear to becoming more lax in this regard, instead of more stringent.

Smith's protest, that he is unable to have his courses accredited, is accurate, and valid.

The Secretary of Education, and NACIQI, need to establish a mechanism for evaluating free standing courses that are not part of an institution, on the basis of their own merits. StraighterLine is certainly "innovation" in higher education, a very rare thing indeed.

But here's the catch: once independent courses can be accredited, then those same standards could be turned back on the public and private schools that have *bundled* their on-line courses, good and bad. And the schools that are already accredited would not stand for this level of scrutiny, not ever.

If anything, we owe Smith (and IHE) a lot for opening up the debate on education quality. What no one, not any of the so-called higher ed experts, has looked at is the unit of analysis for quality at the level of the classroom course. Until now, the level of review has always been conducted at the level of the individual institution, the school itself. In this regard, Smith's proposals move the debate on education quality in an entirely new direction -- one which the established structures will resist.

My guess is that StraighterLine will marginally succeed, and that the quality-risk shifting model will work for some schools, but not for others.