Treating Higher Ed's 'Cost Disease' With Supersize Online Courses

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Candace Thille, of Carnegie Mellon U.'s Open Learning Initiative
February 26, 2012

Oh my God, she's trying to replace me with a computer.

That's what some professors think when they hear Candace Thille pitch the online education experiment she directs, the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University.

They're wrong. But what her project does replace is the traditional system of building and delivering introductory college courses.

THE INNOVATOR: Candace Thille, Carnegie Mellon University

THE BIG IDEA: Treat higher education's "cost disease" with team-built online courses used across institutions.

Professors should move away from designing foundational courses in statistics, biology, or other core subjects on the basis of "intuition," she argues. Instead, she wants faculty to work with her team to put out the education equivalent of Super Bowl ads: expensively built online course materials, cheaply available to the masses.

"We're seeing failure rates in these large introductory courses that are not acceptable to anybody," Ms. Thille says. "There has to be a better way to get more students—irrespective of where they start—to be able to successfully complete."

Her approach brings together faculty subject experts, learning researchers, and software engineers to build open online courses grounded in the science of how people learn. The resulting systems provide immediate feedback to students and tailor content to their skills. As students work through online modules outside class, the software builds profiles on them, just as Netflix does for customers. Faculty consult that data to figure out how to spend in-person class time.

When Ms. Thille began this work, in 2002, the idea was to design free online courses that would give independent novices a shot at mastering what students learn in traditional classes. But two things changed. One, her studies found that the online system benefits on-campus students, allowing them to learn better and faster than their peers when the digital environment is combined with some face-to-face instruction.

And two, colleges sank into "fiscal famine," as one chancellor put it. Technological solutions like Ms. Thille's promise one treatment for higher education's "cost disease"—the notion, articulated by William G. Bowen and William J. Baumol, that the expense of labor-heavy endeavors like classroom teaching inevitably rises faster than inflation.

For years, educational-technology innovations led to more costs per student, says Mr. Bowen, president emeritus of Prince­ton University. But today we may have reached a point at which interactive online systems could "change that equation," he argues, by enabling students to learn just as much with less "capital and labor."

"What you've got right now is a powerful intersection between technological change and economics," Mr. Bowen tells The Chronicle.

Ms. Thille is, he adds, "a real evangelist in the best sense of the word."

Nowadays rival universities want to hire her. Venture capitalists want to market her courses. The Obama administration wants her advice. And so many foundations want to support her work that she must turn away some would-be backers.

But the big question is this: Can Ms. Thille get a critical mass of people to buy in to her idea? Can she expand the Online Learning Initiative from a tiny darling of ed-tech evangelists to something that truly changes education?

A Background in Business

Ms. Thille brings an unusual biography to the task. The 53-year-old Californian spent 18 years in the private sector, culminating in a plum job as a partner in a management-consulting company in San Francisco. She earned a master's degree but not a doctorate, a gap she's now plugging by studying toward a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

She has never taught a college course.

Ms. Thille wasn't even sure she'd make it through her own bachelor's program, so precarious were her finances at the time. Her family had plunged from upper middle class to struggling after her father quit his job at the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. But with jobs and scholarships, she managed to earn a degree in sociology from Berkeley.

After college, Ms. Thille followed her fiancé to Pittsburgh. The engagement didn't last, but her connection to the city did. She worked as education coordinator for a rape-crisis center, training police and hospital employees.

She eventually wound up back in California at the consultancy, training executives and helping businesses run meetings effectively. There she took on her first online-learning project: building a hybrid course to teach executives how to mentor subordinates.

Ms. Thille doesn't play up this corporate-heavy résumé as she travels the country making the case for why professors should change how they teach. On a recent Tuesday morning, The Chronicle tagged along as that mission brought Ms. Thille to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was meeting with folks from the university and two nearby community colleges to prepare for the development of a new pre-calculus course.

It's one piece of a quiet but sweeping push to develop, deploy, and test Open Learning Initiative courses at public institutions around the country, led by an alphabet soup of education groups.

The failure rate in such precalculus courses can be so bad that as many as 50 percent of students need to take the class a second time. Ms. Thille and her colleagues hope to improve on that record while developing materials of such quality that they're used by perhaps 100,000 students each year.

Facing Skepticism

But first the collaborators must learn how to build a course as a team. As Ms. Thille fires up her PowerPoint, she faces a dozen or so administrators and professors in Chicago. The faculty members segregate themselves into clusters—community-college people mostly in one group, university folks mostly in another. Some professors are learning about the initiative in detail for the first time. There is little visible excitement as they plunge into the project, eating muffins at uncomfortable desks in a classroom on the sixth floor of the Soviet-looking science-and-engineering building.

By contrast, Ms. Thille whirls with enthusiasm. She describes Online Learning Initiative features like software that mimics human tutors: making comments when students go awry, keeping quiet when they perform well, and answering questions about what to do next. She discusses the "dashboard" that tells professors how well students grasp each learning objective. Throughout, she gives an impression of hyper-competence, like a pupil who sits in the front row and knows the answer to every question.

But her remarks can sometimes veer into a disorienting brew of jargon, giving the impression that she is talking about lab subjects rather than college kids. Once she mentions "dosing" students with a learning activity. And early on in the workshop, she faces a feisty challenge from Chad Taylor, an assistant professor at Harper College. He worries about what happens when students must face free-form questions, which the computer doesn't baby them through.

"I will self-disclose myself as a skeptic of these programs," he says. Software is "very good at prompting the students to go step by step, and 'do this' and 'do that,' and all these bells and whistles with hints. But the problem is, in my classroom they're not prompted step by step."

Around the country, there's more skepticism where that came from, Ms. Thille confides over a dinner of tuna tacos later that day. One chief obstacle is the "not-invented-here problem." Professors are wary of adopting courses they did not create. The Online Learning Initiative's team-based model represents a cultural shift for a professoriate that derives status, and pride, from individual contributions.

Then there's privacy. The beauty of OLI is that developers can improve classes by studying data from thousands of students. But some academics worry that colleges could use that same data to evaluate professors—and fire those whose students fail to measure up.

Ms. Thille tells a personal story that illustrates who could benefit if she prevails. Years ago she adopted a teenager, Cece. The daughter of a drug user who died of AIDS, Cece was 28 days' truant from high school when she went to live with Ms. Thille. She was so undereducated, even the simple fractions of measuring cups eluded her. Her math teacher told Ms. Thille that with 40 kids in class, she needed to focus on the ones who were going to "make it."

Ms. Thille believes that a system like the Open Learning Initiative could have helped Cece. The program offers a nonjudgmental space to try things, get feedback, and try again without feeling "exposed and stupid, which is how she felt in class."

Cece finished high school, then college, and then a master's degree in social work—a journey made possible in part by the doggedness of Ms. Thille, who persisted through her daughter's rants and raves and screams.

That stubbornness bodes well for Ms. Thille's long slog to reform higher education.

Video: Candace Thille leads an overview of Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative.