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April 29, 2020

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: ‘Alt-Ed’ Ventures Could Gain Traction in an Uncertain Fall

You’re reading the latest issue of The Edge, a weekly newsletter by Goldie Blumenstyk. Sign up here to get her insights on the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping higher education.

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

“Alt-Ed” providers could be a vital part of the 2020 “Alt-Fall.”

The 2020 fall semester is still a giant question mark just about everywhere, but one thing is certain: As survey after survey shows, students are challenging the idea of paying full price for a less-than-full experience, even if it’s discounted by scholarships.

One possible result is that students will flock to established online providers. I’m more fascinated by another emerging probability: that a host of entrepreneurial ventures — for-profit and nonprofit — move from the margins of the higher-ed landscape to play a more central role for more students than ever before.

That might not upend the overall status quo, but it could certainly transform some of the would-be disruptors from curiosities to bigger players, while some traditional institutions flounder. It could also open up interesting new strategies for colleges to consider.

Several alternative-education providers have already seen notable spikes in enrollments and inquiries, albeit still mostly for services that are free or low cost. For example:

  • Coursera, a for-profit MOOC provider, granted access to its library of 3,800 college courses to more than a half-million students at 2,800-plus institutions. (Along with 170 university partners, it made those “Coursera for Campus” courses free in mid-March.)
  • The nonprofit, all-online University of the People enrolled 7,000 new students in its latest 10-week term, up from 4,000 the previous term.
  • Modern States, another nonprofit that offers a “freshman year for free” library of online courses, gained 9,000 new users in the three-week period ending April 12, nearly double the number of the previous three-week period.
  • StraighterLine, a company that offers low-cost online general-education courses that students can transfer for credit to 150 partner colleges, saw a 40-percent increase in enrollment of students referred by non-partner colleges.

Now, some of these and other ventures are feeling their way around the terrain of traditional higher ed. They’re testing ideas that could meld their offerings much more directly into colleges’ curricula or co-curricular programs.

Coursera, for instance, has just developed a new digital tool, powered by artificial intelligence, that can comb through thousands of colleges’ online course catalogs in a matter of seconds and identify which courses in its own library most closely align with an institution’s offering. Until the pandemic hit, only a few dozen colleges had even signed up for access to Coursera’s library. When it became free, and thousands of professors came aboard, they still struggled to find relevant material. The new tool, called CourseMatch, makes it easier to identify lectures, assessments, and other elements of an online course that could be integrated into a college’s own — or an entire course to replace one that a college would not be able to develop itself in time for fall. That could accelerate the adoption of Coursera content by colleges, or by students who decide they’d just as soon take the online class via Coursera rather than pay the university’s tuition.

As Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera’s chief executive, said to me, come fall, no matter how colleges proceed, they’ll need “a backbone” of online capability. Coursera is now aiming to be a bigger piece of that.

To what degree it succeeds may depend on cost. Colleges’ free access to the library runs through July 31. After that, will the company resume charging a licensing fee? “Not necessarily,” Maggioncalda said. But even if Coursera is charging colleges about $400 a student for the license, will some cash-strapped colleges decide that’s still a more cost-effective way to offer at least a portion of their curricula online?

Likewise, will high-school graduates facing the prospect of makeshift remote teaching at their colleges of choice decide instead to take a chance on the foundational curriculum of the Minerva Schools at KGI, which was conceived from the get-go as a fully integrated online pedagogical experience? Minerva’s just-launched Visiting Scholars program offers a pathway, along with a promise of automatic admission for students already accepted at certain colleges. Minerva’s $16,000-a-year price tag isn’t nothing. (It’s certainly a lot more than the free courses at U. of the People, where the only costs are $100 per assessment at the end of each course.) Still, that’s lower than the prices many colleges will be charging this fall.

I’ve long been fascinated by Minerva, more for its approach of moving its in-person cohorts of students from city to city each year than for its pedagogy. But with an enrollment of just 600 undergrads, to me it’s been the epitome of an educational curiosity. Now, though, I wonder if that will change.

Ben Nelson, founder of the Minerva Project, the for-profit parent company of the accredited institution, said he’s been fielding more inquiries than usual from colleges interested in using Minerva’s innovative teaching platform. It’s not a plug-and-play product. As Nelson put it, “We’re not just a technology. You have to actually rethink how you’re teaching.” So I don’t expect to suddenly see dozens of colleges adopting the Minerva platform. But even if a few do, that could radically reposition Minerva in the educational firmament.

It’s way too soon to know what ripples Coursera or Minerva will create. But having spoken to Maggioncalda, Nelson, and chief executives at three other “alt-ed” ventures — Shai Reshef at the U. of the People, Burck Smith at StraighterLine, and Abby Falik at Global Citizen Year (Remember her?) — I see good reasons for students to consider their offerings right now. I’m especially intrigued by Falik’s still-developing notions about refashioning the gap year into a “purpose year,” complete with virtual mentoring and transferable credits. Stay tuned as that idea rolls out.

I can also see value in colleges embracing some of these ideas — substituting Coursera for some courses or sending students to programs like StraighterLine or U. of the People for a term instead — even as that might divert their own revenue streams in the short term. Unprecedented times may call for actions that would otherwise seem self-defeating. But they could also be doorways to integrations that ultimately pay benefits.

“Many institutions are hoping to open this fall and some have already announced their intention to do so. It’s not clear how.”

— Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, in a commentary published this week in Forbes on steps college leaders are taking.

Please join me this week for two virtual forums.

“Zoom U.” isn’t a compliment. So what is the new trajectory of online education, and how are technology chiefs and other academic leaders beginning to translate what they learned from their emergency pivot to remote teaching? What might this mean for longer-term efforts in virtual programs? We’ll be tackling these topics and taking your questions in a virtual forum on the future of online education on Thursday, April 30, at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, with a panel of experts who have hands-on experience across the higher-ed landscape.

The conversation will feature Amy Collier, associate provost for digital learning at Middlebury College; Kim Lynch, senior system director for educational innovations at Minnesota State University; and Sharon Pitt, vice president for information technologies at the University of Delaware. Sign up here for the forum on The New Future of Online Programs.

Also, don’t forget about today’s virtual forum on Innovation and Leadership in the Coronavirus Era, which also will include time for Q&A with the panelists. You can catch it live today at 2 p.m. Eastern time, or later on demand.

Final thoughts.

Some communities and states are starting to “open up,” but all of us cool kids are still heeding the science and trying to keep flattening the curve. The outpouring of creativity, humor, and generosity I’ve seen on the internet these past few weeks has made it a lot easier for me to #StayAtHome and lessen the burden on health-care professionals.

One of the more entertaining features — even for this die-hard Washington Nationals fan — has been the 7th-Inning Stretch concerts from Josh Kantor, the regular organist at Fenway Park. Kantor, who works part-time at the Harvard music library, plays requests and some of his own favorites every day at 3 p.m., Eastern time, on this Facebook page. He’s really good. Added bonus: He and his wife (and now producer), the Rev. Mary Jane Eaton, use the folksy concerts (from their living room, not the ballpark) to raise money for Feeding America. Music and charity make for a nice diversion, as I hope you’re all still staying safe, sane, and humane.

Correction (4/29/2020, 5 p.m.): An earlier version of this article referred to a Coursera program as Coursera for College; it is Coursera for Campus. This article has be updated to reflect this correction.

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The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.