EdX hoped to make a splash in the higher education world this week when it announced students could earn undergraduate college credit by completing two new programs offered on its platform.
The three-course sequences, called MicroBachelors, will cost students between $500 and $1,500 and take around six months to finish. The online education provider hopes to add more programs, but it is starting with an information technology program developed by Western Governors University and a computer science program from New York University.
The self-paced courses are designed to attract adults who don't have a degree or the time to attend a traditional institution, a market that could include roughly 36 million students who left college without finishing a credential. EdX founder and CEO Anant Agarwal told Education Dive that he hopes the programs will be "transformative in the undergraduate space."
It's the nonprofit's biggest step yet into the market. But past efforts by EdX and other education providers to make undergraduate education widely available online have at times failed to produce the desired results and revealed how difficult it can be to change the status quo in higher ed.
Yet market pressures — including rising tuition prices, diminishing public confidence in the traditional higher ed system and looming enrollment declines — are creating fertile ground for more experimentation with the way online undergraduate education is priced and delivered.
"We're at an interesting time where degree pathways are breaking down," said Joshua Pierce, CEO of Acadeum, a four-year-old company formerly known as the College Consortium that helps colleges form networks to share online courses.
When online education is used to lower the cost and time spent on a degree, he added, "that's the value equation to students."
Finding success with scale
Outlier.org, a New York-based startup that offers general education courses on its online platform for $400 each, also had big news this week.
The company launched in August with the help of the University of Pittsburgh, which agreed to give credits to students who completed its first two offerings — introductory courses in calculus and psychology — during a semester-long pilot.
On Tuesday, Outlier announced the results: Students who completed the classes earned a C grade or higher at rates similar to U of Pittsburgh students in the equivalent campus-based general education courses.
The company intentionally started with small class sizes so it could more easily gather feedback and improve its courses. About 60 students between the two classes made up the first cohort, said Ann Cudd, the university's provost and senior vice chancellor. Outlier declined to share how many completed and passed the course.
Aaron Rasmussen, Outlier's founder and CEO, said he sees promising early results.
"We're really invested in cracking the code, not only in how to get students enrolled in these MOOC courses, but how to get larger and larger percentages of them through successfully."
Marni Baker Stein
Provost and chief academic officer, Western Governors University
"The reason this is so exciting is because it's a scalable class," he said in an interview with Education Dive. "When you look at other attempts at making a scalable model, you generally see a lot of students coming in and very, very few being successful."
Similar early efforts haven't lived up to the hype that tends to follow new online education initiatives.
Take Arizona State University's Global Freshman Academy. Launched in 2015, it allowed students to earn credit — enough to cover their freshman year — for general education courses offered on EdX's platform. Yet three years later, just 2% of students who signed up for a course had completed one with at least a C grade and even fewer had earned credit from Arizona State, EducationNext reported.
Those results highlight the same problems that have plagued MOOCs since they arrived a decade ago with the promise of making college-level education more widely accessible. While sign-ups for such courses are usually high, completion rates can be low.
Marni Baker Stein, Western Governors University's provost and chief academic officer, told Education Dive that helping to change that trend is a goal of its partnership with EdX on the MicroBachelors program.
"We're really invested in cracking the code, not only in how to get students enrolled in these MOOC courses, but how to get larger and larger percentages of them through successfully," she said.
For Outlier, the early results have brought other wins. The company recently nabbed $11.7 million in a Series A funding round led by GSV Ventures, and the U of Pittsburgh agreed to continue awarding credit for the experiment through at least the summer term.
The company also plans to work with the university to create additional introductory courses, though Rasmussen declined to say what topics they would cover. Outlier is also open to working with other colleges that would offer its courses to their students for credit, he said.
For the university, the partnership allows it to take part in an experiment that could expand access to higher ed and even help it recruit new students. In the meantime, though, the institution gets paid for each student who takes an Outlier course. Cudd declined to disclose how much the university is paid per student.
While making money off the programs is not the university's primary goal for the partnership, it doesn't want to lose money, Cudd said, noting the experiment requires the university to put up some administrative costs. "If this were to scale enormously, that would be significant revenue."
The university is not encouraging its students to take Outlier.org classes because it would be an additional fee on top of the tuition they already pay, she said.
Mixing two business models
Several other companies have been trying to use the kind of scale possible online to make undergraduate education more affordable and accessible — for colleges and their students.
One organization approaching the issue from the institutions' perspective is Acadeum, which helps colleges form networks for sharing courses. The company's services are used by some 300 colleges, many of which are small liberal arts institutions where tight budgets limit some general education courses, such as calculus, to being offered once a year, said Pierce, Acadeum's CEO. "They're struggling with this issue of being sub-scale," he added.
Joining a course-sharing network lets these institutions offer students the classes they need to graduate on time or improve their grades — even if they aren't available on their campus — and bring in additional revenue.
"These are courses these teaching institutions are already running," Pierce said. "They're just basically saying, 'I'll teach my students, and I'll add in a couple of yours (and) make a little bit of extra money."
Outlier, meanwhile, isn't the first company to develop general education courses for which students can receive college credit. StraighterLine is a 10-year-old company that offers such courses to students online in exchange for $59 per class along with a $99 monthly subscription.
"The early adopters of just about anything in this space tend to be the adult-serving online colleges, whether that's new pricing strategies, partnerships (or) pricing models."
Many of the roughly 130 institutions that have agreed to award credit for the classes — including Western Governors and Capella universities — focus on nontraditional students. The company says it enrolled around 33,000 students in the last year.
"The early adopters of just about anything in this space tend to be the adult-serving online colleges, whether that's new pricing strategies, partnerships (or) pricing models," StraighterLine CEO Burck Smith said in an interview with Education Dive.
However, gaining wider acceptance in higher ed will be critical to the success of efforts such as Outlier's and EdX's, which rely on being able to reach scale.
Colleges with strong brands may be hesitant to join course-sharing networks out of a fear that they will harm their reputations, said Phil Hill, an ed tech consultant with the firm MindWires Consulting, in an interview with Education Dive.
But working with established institutions can lend credibility to alternative education providers. Outlier's Rasmussen told Education Dive last year that having U of Pittsburgh as a partner will help it build its own reputation and increase the chance other colleges accept the credits. And EdX is known to offer courses developed by selective institutions, such as Harvard University and New York University.
However, big universities may not want to risk losing the revenue they receive for large lecture classes, which often subsidize smaller courses. There's also the long-running fear that alternative education providers will, or are at least trying to, replace traditional higher ed institutions.
But so far, that's not what's happening, Smith said.
"You're seeing a mixing of the two business models, (and) traditional institutions integrate with nontraditional providers to be able to provide the best of both worlds to students."