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Is Online Learning One Answer to Higher Ed Remediation?

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne Senior Fellow Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Eric Wearne
Senior Fellow
Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Colleges around the country, including Emory, are constantly experimenting with online learning.  New formats and offerings appear somewhere every semester.  Many colleges already partner with the private company Coursera to offer fully online courses (though not for normal credits).

Last week San Jose State University reached an agreement with another private online learning company, Udacity, to offer Udacity courses, with the aid of live San Jose State classroom instructors, for San Jose State credit in some remedial and introductory courses.   While disruptive to the normal way of conducting classes, this arrangement might represent a compromise skeptics can accept.  All three of the groups involved in this deal stand to benefit in some way: San Jose State, Udacity, and the students.

San Jose State benefits by acquiring a high-quality distance education program geared toward struggling students, without the cost of developing it in-house.  This is a sort of “protean” model which may help San Jose State navigate the increasing turmoil of online learning.  And San Jose State is just the kind of school that could have a lot to lose with that growth: a non-elite school that is also not as inexpensive as two-year alternatives.  (At least, San Jose State as an institution would benefit in this way; the school would probably require fewer faculty in the long run under this model).

Udacity gets a foot in the door.  Formal credentialing is one of, if not the major impediment to the exponential growth of online learning.  By offering Udacity content with the recognized, accredited San Jose State stamp of approval, Udacity gains some practical and pedagogical credibility.  This could make Udacity as a business sustainable in a way free content plus non-accredited certificates and job search functions do not.  Some authors suspect that this model is the way online learning, despite as-yet-unresolved pedagogical and privacy concerns, will eventually settle in – not with online learning as a fad, nor with the total collapse of higher education as we know it, but with a contractor-client relationship.

Students gain new course options.  San Jose State students can now take courses designed by elite-level faculty, and take them on their own time.  These courses might crowd out fully live versions of courses San Jose State would otherwise offer.  Unlike much of the K12 landscape, San Jose State students can decide whether they accept that tradeoff or not.  If so, they simply have another option.  If they don’t like the tradeoff, they have the option to attend another college.

Does this arrangement have implications for K12? Certainly.  High school versions of Udacity could emerge and offer credits accepted by school systems, without standing on their own.  In fact, this is already happening.  The Georgia Virtual School is an existing example of this, and it is the kind of arrangement envisioned by Georgia’s Online Clearinghouse Act.  Many models have yet to be designed or explored, but public-private partnerships could be a fruitful next step in the growth of online learning systems.

(Eric Wearne is an Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.) 

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