Friday, May 8, 2009

Supportive Article from NCAT

More articles about StraighterLine's impact on higher education. This one is from the National Center for Academic Transformation. For your reading convenience, the article is re-printed below:

Please Confuse Me with the Facts

A colleague of mine recently told me about her participation in a statewide gathering of K-12 and higher education faculty and administrators. At one point, the topic of “data-driven decision-making” arose.

For those of you who are not familiar with data-driven decision-making, here’s how a recent RAND Corporation occasional paper describes it: “In recent years, the education community has witnessed increased interest in data-driven decision making (DDDM)—making it a mantra of educators from the central office, to the school, to the classroom. DDDM in education refers to teachers, principals, and administrators systematically collecting and analyzing various types of data . . . to guide a range of decisions to help improve the success of students and schools. Achievement test data, in particular, play a prominent role in federal and state accountability policies. Implicit in these policies and others is a belief that data are important sources of information to guide improvement at all levels of the education system and to hold individuals and groups accountable.”

My colleague was puzzled by this topic as well as by all of the discussion surrounding it. At one point, she hesitantly raised her hand and asked, “Excuse me, but what other kind of decision-making is there?”

To say that higher education is most decidedly not data-driven might be the understatement of the century. This is never more apparent than when our community is confronted with something new.

I have recently been drawn into a debate--most notably on the Inside Higher Education (IHE) web site--about the virtues of a new higher education entity called StraighterLine. StraighterLine is a new, online option for earning college credit for general education courses. A division of SMARTHINKING, the experienced and highly successful online tutoring service, StraighterLine combines online, individualized tutoring services with commercially available course content to create a set of general education courses. Students purchase these courses directly from StraighterLine and may earn credit by transfer to one of StraighterLine’s partner academic institutions or to a college of the student’s choice.

Why is NCAT involved? It started when Burck Smith, SMARTHINKING’s CEO, posted the following to the IHE web site: “StraighterLine courses were designed using the principles of the National Center for Academic Transformation's course redesign model. These principles--that the student engage with the content rather than being lectured to, have 24/7 academic assistance, and use alternative staffing strategies to run the course--have demonstrated significant cost reductions and student outcome improvements.”

Burck’s point got re-stated by the editor of Inside Higher Education, Scott Jaschik. “Smith cites leading education thinkers to explain his approach to education at StraighterLine, and in particular notes the work of Carol Twigg at the National Center for Academic Transformation, which argues--just as Smith says his company does--that courses need to be redesigned and that higher education should not assume that the traditional professor model is the best way to promote learning.”

Burck then went on to say, “The NCAT model and the SMARTHINKING service have both shown proven improvements in student outcomes. I will also note that the NCAT model and the StraighterLine model only really works with high-enrollment, relatively standard, general education courses.”

While there are a number of inaccuracies in each of these statements, perhaps the most important one is that there is no such thing as an NCAT “model.” NCAT does not have a model nor do we advocate one. In fact, we have identified six models that have emerged from the course redesigns invented by pioneering faculty and staff across the United States. Even within those six models, there are many variations in the ways in which the model is applied, depending on the particular circumstances of particular institutions. We identify practices that show increases in student learning and reductions in instructional cost and share those practices with the educational community. We hope that the number of redesign models will continue to increase.

So, while we do not have a “model,” StraighterLine does. And the model is both simple and compelling.

What is StraighterLine’s Model?

StraighterLine’s model has three primary components:

  • Tutoring - online tutoring and writing assistance provided by SMARTHINKING to students at colleges and universities. By providing tutoring online and to many institutions, SMARTHINKING improves service and provides 24/7 assistance that wouldn't otherwise be available. SMARTHINKING has hundreds of institutional clients.
  • Partnerships – a growing list of institutions who have agreed to award credit for successful completion of the courses. Current partners include three for-profit institutions; Charter Oaks State College, a nontraditional college for adult students; and, Fort Hays State University (FHSU), a traditional institution of 10,000 students in Kansas.

Currently, StraighterLine offers ten general education courses: Introductory Algebra, College Algebra, Precalculus, Developmental Writing, English Composition I and II, Economics I and II, and Accounting I and II. More courses are in the pipeline.

Students can start any time they like, set their own schedules and work at their own pace.

What do these courses cost? $399 each.

Affordable, accessible, flexible, high-quality courses with on-demand assistance. What’s not to like?

One would think that in a time of rising college costs, slashed budgets, laid-off faculty, furloughs, course enrollment caps, community colleges bulging at the seams, and so on, StraighterLine would be welcomed with open arms. You may be surprised to know that this is not the case. The higher education community, as illustrated by the discussion on the IHE web site, appears to be horrified by this new alternative to traditional higher education. One blogger on another site described the phenomenon as “a straighterline to higher education hell.”

Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts

Many of the objections to StraighterLine that have been raised are easy to dismiss and reflect a lack of knowledge (data-driven decision-making!) in higher education.

  • Courses offered via distance learning cannot be as good as those offered face-to-face.

Posting: “Can anyone actually tell me (with a straight face) that virtual general education classes offer the same quality as face-to-face instruction from passionate educators on the FHSU campus?”

Distance learning is now accepted practice in higher education since just about every institution in the country offers fully online courses. This debate is over.

  • Institutions should not transfer credit from non-accredited sources.

Posting: “Is this an ‘end-run’ around accreditation?”

Awarding credit for work done elsewhere is common and accepted in higher education since, again, just about every institution in the country allows students to bring credit to the college in a myriad of ways. This debate was resolved many years ago. Colleges routinely award credit for AP, CLEP, ACE, dual enrollment, life-skills assessment, or credit transfer from other colleges. There are also many third-party companies and programs, both for-profit and non-profit, that provide programs for which universities offer credit under their own names: Gatlin Education, Bisk Education's University Alliance, Ed2Go, Regis' New Ventures, the Institute for Professional Development, to name a few. Agreements with these entities are acknowledged by regional accreditors.

  • You get what you pay for.

Posting: “If the courses Burck Smith provides are not as good as courses taught by a qualified teacher in a classroom (as I and many of the other respondents to this article likely assume), then Mr. Smith provides a lesser product at a lesser price. You get, in other words, what you pay for, and caveat emptor applies.”

See my comments under distance learning.

  • Colleges should not out-source.

Posting: “The outsourcing of course content, grading and teaching of required gen ed courses calls into question serious issues of academic integrity and professional ethics.”

See my comments under transferring credit.

What does NCAT Think?

Even though I took exception to Burck’s characterization of NCAT’s planning methodology as a “model,” we do have a lot in common.

(I wasn’t too crazy about his implication that NCAT thinks full-time faculty members are not essential to ensuring high quality in higher education-–we believe they most certainly are. The issue is how their oversight is carried out in practice.)

There is no question that there is a need to reduce the cost of higher education-–that issue is unarguable-–and it is clear that StraighterLine is doing this. Because StraighterLine courses are relatively inexpensive, they provide a good option for many students. There is a clear benefit to both students and the taxpayer.

Some think that StraighterLine must do a better job in improving higher education’s dismal record with basic and remedial courses. Jaschik writes, “The theory behind StraighterLine is that many colleges have poor track records at teaching general education courses. If StraighterLine can do a better job, and selected colleges like Fort Hays grant credit, those colleges may be attractive places for the StraighterLine students to transfer to finish their degrees.”

It seems to me that alternate providers do not need to do a better job than traditional higher education; they just need to do an equivalent job. Many of our redesign projects at well-known universities have been motivated by increasing the cost-effectiveness of established high quality courses. The Virginia Tech (math), LSU (math) and Arizona State (graduate early childhood education) projects all wanted to maintain the quality of their traditional versions of the course while reducing the cost of offering them. If StraighterLine can offer courses at less cost and with more flexibility for students, they would seem to be a welcome addition to the higher education community.

So it seems to me that the only question that needs to be answered is, is the quality of StraighterLine courses as good as those offered at traditional campuses or perhaps even better?

The Need for Due Diligence (Please Confuse Me with the Facts)

Institutions considering awarding credit for StraighterLine courses need to know that the courses are equivalent in rigor to those offered at their particular college or university. They need to ascertain whether the course requires student work comparable to that at their institution--not to the university in the sky where all courses meet the Platonic ideal of the perfect course. They need to have enough information about the course to form an educated judgment about its quality and to accept the course as transfer credit. They need to do due diligence.

Posting: “I have personally seen and reviewed StraighterLine’s offerings and would stake my reputation on both their quality and rigor. I would have no hesitation to put them side-by-side in comparison with any course developed by any institution, anywhere. No, I did not "drink the Kool-Aid." I took the time to investigate both sides of the issue.”

Here are the facts

  • The course objectives are available on the StraighterLine website.
  • The learning materials are available on the StraighterLine web site.
  • The learning activities are available on the StraighterLine web site.
  • The course assessments, which match the course objectives, are available on the StraighterLine web site.
  • The grading criteria are available on the StraighterLine web site.
  • The point distributions that make up the final grade are available on the StraighterLine web site.

Look at them. If they meet your standards, you should consider accepting the courses as transfer credit. You should consider recommending them to your students who cannot get into the same courses on your campus. You should consider whether the quality offered by SL is better and more consistent than what you are currently offering and, if so, consider outsourcing these particular courses to StraighterLine. If they do not meet your standards, you should not do any of the above. The choice is yours. Larry Gould, provost at Fort Hays State University, took the time to look at the facts and concluded, “What is it about StraighterLine courses that provides me with a higher level of confidence about judging quality relative to, say, credentialed transfer credit from a community college or ACE? It’s simple. I know more about StraighterLine content, design, syllabi, instructors, etc. StraighterLine courses are more open and consistent than the credits that many colleges are already accepting under existing credit-transfer regimes.”


Students today want and demand flexibility in their educational pursuits. This flexibility includes the ability to participate anywhere at any time. Working students who cannot attend a class at 9:00 am, business people whose responsibilities take them on the road too often to consistently attend an on-campus course, servicemen and women who are never stationed at one location long enough to complete a degree, traditional-age students who need to make up a course for one reason or another—the list goes on and on.

StraighterLine courses are self-paced in that students can begin at any time and complete a course at their own pace. StraighterLine offers two payment options for students: one course at $399 or continuous enrollment at $99 per month. Thus, able students can complete a course for $99. Each course comes with up to ten hours of one-on-one live interaction with a qualified SMARTHINKING tutor (90% have a masters degree or Ph.D.) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A student struggling in college algebra at 2:00 am can get live help within three minutes. In addition, each student is assigned a course advisor who works proactively to move them through the course.

Posting: "My Comp I course changed my life."

That’s great – I’m sure it did. But what about all of the students who failed Comp I? I can assure the reader that the latter outnumber the former. What about the students who failed to get timely feedback on their submissions? What about students who are not required to complete enough writing assignments to improve their skills due to large class size and/or instructor unwillingness to grade papers beyond a certain number? Students in StraighterLine’s English Composition I course submit eight essay drafts and six graded essays and receive personalized feedback typically within 24 hours.

And what do these courses cost? Somewhere between $99 and $399 each. Please confuse me with the facts.

--Carol A. Twigg

Friday, April 10, 2009

More Controversy...

A follow-on article to the StraighterLine controversy was published by Inside Higher Ed today. Once you get past the sensationalism, the article is very complimentary toward the StraighterLine courses and model. I hope this leads regional accreditors and others to compare our courses and prices to existing online general education courses at institutions that they already accredit. On the other hand, the implication that this is somehow outside the lines of legitimate accreditation could diminish schools' willingness to work with us. We'll see. Lastly, I can't help noting that the first two comments (there are 3 as I write this) seem like they were written without having read the article. Our courses meet all the requirements listed and our faculty aren't questionable. These commenters clearly read the headline and then drew their own conclusions. Here's are two other thoughtful posts about StraighterLine's impact on college composition classes by Doug Robinson:

1) Response to the follow-on Article
2) Response to the original article.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The iPod of Higher Ed?

National Controversy

As I expected, StraighterLine hit the national radar and has created quite a bit of controversy. Earlier this week, Inside Higher Ed ran an article about a controversy at Fort Hays State University, one of StraighterLine’s partner schools. The controversy was precipitated by a couple of students creating an anti-StraighterLine Facebook page and a critical article in the student newspaper. This article was followed by a rebuttal from FHSU’s provost. All of this was picked up by Inside Higher Ed and a lively debate ensued in the comments below the article. In turn, this spawned supporting blog posts like these:

  • Tony Seuss’ blog that extols the virtues of SL.
  • Michael Rizzo, a professor of economics at Rochester State University, identifies the hypocrisy of the claim that colleges always have control over their own credits.
  • A blog called Educated Quest has this to say.
  • Though it does not directly mention StraighterLine, Kevin Carey wrote a very relevant opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed comparing higher education to the newspaper business.

It spawned a critical post, like this:

  • A blog from Kairos in the writing community suggesting that this is a threat to higher education

For me, the opposition to StraighterLine boils down to the fact that StraighterLine is new, for-profit, and explicit about cost savings to the student. As I will discuss below, none of the elements that comprise StraighterLine are unprecedented in higher education.

Quality Courses?

Despite the fact that most, if not all, of the anti-StraighterLine contingent have not seen the courses, they suggest that these courses cannot be quality courses because they are not expensive enough, do not conform to an ideal educational model, are delivered at a distance, are not managed by people with appropriate credentials or are driven by a profit motive. It should also be noted that two days after this article, the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), a nationally recognized accrediting agency, stated that StraighterLine courses meet or exceed all of their standards for online education. Further, StraighterLine’s partner colleges are regionally accredited, and the regional accreditors leave it to the institution to determine what they will award credit for.

First, courses need not be expensive to be high quality. This is the “fine wine” fallacy. To check, go the National Center for Academic Transformation and look at some of the Course Redesign projects. Usually, cost per student for general education courses at these well known universities are between $100 and $200 before Redesign. After Redesign, they are frequently even less.

Second, courses need not conform to the single professor and small group model to be better than what most students are getting today. This is the “Platonic Form” fallacy. Detractors compare StraighterLine to a terrific educational model that is also expensive, difficult to scale and is unavailable to most students. The appropriate comparison, and one which I welcome, is a comparison to other colleges’ online general education courses.

Third, some have said that these courses can’t be good because they are delivered at a distance. While I think that comparing the efficacy of face to face and distance education courses is a fair question – particularly if one were to include the prices charged for each – it is not an indictment of StraighterLine alone. It would be an indictment of the accepted practice of the thousands of colleges that provide online courses, StraighterLine among them.

Fourth, others have claimed that StraighterLine’s credentials aren’t sufficient. Despite my believe that the level of credentials and student success are only loosely correlated, SMARTHINKING’s tutoring services and StraighterLine’s courses are overseen by people with PhD’s and Master’s degrees in their appropriate subjects. All have significant teaching experience. Further, our team has authored numerous academic publications. Our credentials are as good, or better, than many colleges’ professors.

Fifth, others have claimed that StraighterLine is particularly susceptible to cutting corners, having relaxed academic standards, and letting students cheat because we are a for-profit company. StraighterLine has exactly the same propensity to do this as any other entity – not-for-profit, public or for-profit. If our standards are lax, we lose our partners and our business. Conversely, grade inflation, inconsistent courses, extremely low retention rates, and unchecked tuition inflation argues against the sanctity of the non-profit sector.

Lastly, all of the elements of the StraighterLine model, except for a couple of StraighterLine innovations, are already common across higher education. Colleges routinely accept credits from third party sources like the AP, CLEP, credit transfer, ACE credits, dual enrollment, and life-skills credit awards. Colleges routinely outsource whole courses and curricula to third parties like Bisk Education, Gatlin Education, Ed2Go, Higher Ed Holdings, Regis’ New Ventures and the Institute for Professional Development. The NCAT’s Course Redesign model explicitly states that colleges should redesign courses using 1) more interaction with content and less with a lecturer 2) on-demand academic assistance, and 3) alternative labor strategies where non-subject related course and student management duties are handled by lower-salaried people. The difference is that none of these pieces have been put together into a single model and offered directly to students.

Why is StraighterLine like the iPod?

While StraighterLine doesn’t have anything close to the ubiquity, the revenue or the “cool” factor of the iPod, its evolution is similar. The genius of the iPod business model is that it was revolutionary, but all of its elements were already available and established. The iPod created a complete system that allowed consumers to “rip” songs off of CD’s, organize them coherently using online song databases, transfer them easily to a portable memory unit, search and play them easily with a compelling user interface. Then Apple, in its only major innovation, added the $1 download model to further increase revenue. All of these elements were introduced at once by Apple in a coherent system.

Except for the $1 download, all of these elements were relatively well developed in isolation before Apple put them all together. Programs to rip songs off of CD’s and put them on the computer existed, but organizing songs was sometimes hard. Online song tracking databases existed for organizing a song library, but typically didn’t integrate with “ripping” programs. Portable MP3 players existed, but the user interface and transfer programs were difficult. Apple put it all together into a single, usable system.

StraighterLine, while not at Apple’s scale, does the same thing. Colleges already accept 3rd party credits, though most of the 3rd party credit providers aren’t explicitly consumer focused. Colleges already use Course Redesign models for general education courses, but the savings from these models are absorbed into the university rather than being passed on to the student. Therefore, there is little pressure on colleges from students to do more course redesign. Colleges routinely outsource curricula and staffing of academic programs to 3rd parties, but usually not for general education courses and not to a company that also has a consumer model. StraighterLine adds a couple of additional innovations that colleges are not equipped to offer, namely the inclusion of on-demand, online tutoring as the primary instructional model and a subscription pricing model for courses. StraighterLine puts all of these pieces together to create a new general education course model where the quality of courses are as good or better than comparable courses, the dramatic savings are passed to the student, courses scheduling is extremely flexible for the student, and the cost of failure for students is extremely low.

Interestingly, the iPod music system was created by a computer maker which, at the time, was incongruous, but in retrospect makes perfect sense. StraighterLine is being offered by an online tutoring company which, because of the tendency to associate courses with content development, seems incongruous. However, digital content for general education courses and distance education software are essentially commodities. The SMARTHINKING labor model is what changes the equation. Also, the iPod’s success was enabled by limited buy-in of part of the industry that it eventually transformed. Select music companies needed to approve limited digital rights management and had to allow the $1 music downloads. The rest of the industry followed. Similarly, StraighterLine’s partner colleges see the possibility of driving additional enrollments by partnering with StraighterLine. Maybe the rest of the industry will follow.

StraighterLine’s Innovations

StraighterLine’s $99 per month subscription model is a true innovation in higher education (this model was first suggested by Ryan Busch, StraighterLine’s Director, during StraighterLine’s development phase). This is made possible by SMARTHINKING’s labor model. By having tremendous staffing volume in general education subjects, SMARTHINKING can provide very high service levels at any time of the day or night in any of the subjects that it supports. No single university or even most university systems have the demand to offer similar service levels. Note that the innovation in the labor model is not that it’s online, it’s that it is at scale. Though I do not think the implications of StraighterLine’s subscription model and SMARTHINKING’s labor model are fully recognized, I think they will be. The two largest implications are:

  • Reduce the Cost of Failure: So far, 82% of StraighterLine students have either successfully passed the courses or are in process. Of the 18% that did not pass, 80% (or 14% of the total) enrolled in the subscription model and dropped out after the first month. So, for those that succeed, they are provided an incentive to finish quickly and the cost of labor and infrastructure provision more closely matches the price of the course. Even more interesting, those that fail are only out $99! If a student enrolled in a typical college and then failed out in the first semester, he or she would have thousands of dollars of debt and no degree with which to earn more to pay back the debt. The likelihood of this student returning to the system is very low. Why can’t a traditional university do this? In a traditional model, a university projects X students to start on a given date and hires Y faculty to teach them. To secure Y in advance, the university has to make semester or annual commitments to faculty and therefore requires full payment from students even if they fail. Personally, I think the cost of failure is one of the greatest and most overlooked failings of higher education today.
  • Enable Unmatched Scheduling Flexibility for Students --Because SMARTHINKING’s online tutoring service has such a high volume of staffing, any new enrollments do not affect our staffing patterns at the margin. Therefore, any number of students (within reason) can start any StraighterLine course immediately. Further, they can take as long as they want to finish the course AND have a higher level of academic and course support than they would get in a traditional setting. There is nothing to prohibit a school or an individual to impose its own required schedule on the course, just that the schedule could be anything.
  • Establish Service Levels as a Course Quality Benchmark – It has always amazed me that we have customer service levels in every element of our lives, but not as a quality benchmark for courses. Service levels make a difference in all other aspects of our lives ranging from our buying decisions to perceptions of the companies that serve us (think about your frustration with the service levels of the local cable company!). I suspect that service levels have never been a benchmark because universities have never been able to actually monitor and enforce service levels. StraighterLine changes that. A student taking a math class can get live help from a Masters or PhD level instructor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week within 3 minutes. A student taking a composition course has roughly five graded assignments and seven optional submissions to our online writing, submissions will be returned in an average of 18 hours. Compare this to infrequent professor office hours, long-return times for e-mailed questions and week-long or more waits for essay feedback and returned grades.
  • Enable Unlimited Help for a Student – In a traditional course format, the amount of assistance that a student receives is not limited by the amount of help that the student needs, but by how much time the faculty member has to give. With commuter students, commuter faculty, adjunct faculty and high enrollment courses, the amount of time available is frequently very small. With StraighterLine, each course comes with up to 10 hours of 1-1 instruction. Students can buy more if they need it, effectively creating an unlimited amount of help. Opponents will argue that unlimited help isn’t free to the student. True, but unlimited help cannot be provided to anyone in any model unless the amount of help is somehow rationed and priced. When that happens, those that need more help can get it, even if they have to pay for it.


While it is far too early to compare the success of StraighterLine with the success of the iPod, the systems thinking behind their mutual development is similar. In the Kairos blog, it was said that some of the comments on this blog might simply be braggadocio similar to claims made 10 years ago during the first wave of online universities. It’s entirely possible. We do seem to hear the same themes at key-note speeches today that we heard a decade ago. However, innovation, cost-reduction, and quality improvement are not impossible in higher education. I hope that Kevin Carey’s insightful opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education proves accurate.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Winning the Thought Leaders

In SMARTHINKING's early days, I used to compare us to a well-respected art film -- we had won the art festivals, but we needed to show the box-office returns. Basically, the thought leaders and innovators of higher education agreed that SMARTHINKING was a great idea. However, we had to figure out a way to translate their approval into local sales. Fortunately, we did manage to show the returns for our online tutoring service.

Today, we are in the same situation for our new product, StraighterLine. We officially launched this about 2 months ago. Since then we have had rave reviews. Clayton Christensen, noted Harvard business school professor and expert on innovation called StraighterLine "disruptive." Richard Vedder, a former member of the Spellings Commission and noted expert on college cost and affordability, published an insightful blog post about our approach to academic labor. Tony Seuss a well-respected blogger and community college professor in Georgia published praise of the business model. For StraigtherLine, this is a terrific introduction to the national spotlight. Before you can win the popular press, you need to win the approval of the experts. We seem to have convinced the experts. Now, we need to convince individual students and schools.

While one would suspect that colleges might be very resistant to enrolling their students in someone else's developmental and general education courses, there seem to be a number of factors at work that could change that. First, state budgets are in woeful shape. This translates to budget cuts for colleges. These budget cuts are coming in a time of recession which usually causes enrollments to increase which means that colleges have to serve more students than ever before. With more students and less resources, StraighterLine is a powerful option to fulfill general and developmental education delivery. Second, the Gates Foundation just announced a signficant committment to community colleges. They are focusing on exactly the things that SMARTHINKING and StraighterLine have been built to support -- increasing student success, serving developmental students, and lowering costs. SMARTHINKING and StraighterLine are some of the few truly innovative approaches to these problems.

So, stay tuned as we try to take StraighterLine to a theater near you!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is Higher Education for Students or for Professors?

The Chronicle of Higher Ed just reported on StraighterLine’s launch. Titled “Who Needs a Professor?”, the article takes a mildly peeved attitude toward the new product. In this article and in the comments and blogs that it has spawned, it seems the benefits to the student are being roundly ignored. Perhaps this should be expected from a publication that serves professors, however StraigtherLine’s benefits to students, the ones actually paying for college, are profound. Here are the primary ones:

1) Affordability – The media is filled with laments about the rising cost of college. Well, StraighterLine is a way to dramatically reduce the price of the first year to year and a half of college. At $399 per course (just imagine if the government subsidies that support public colleges were applied to this price), this is dramatically lower than most 4 year colleges, private colleges and for-profit schools. It is even lower than many in-state community college tuitions. The next natural question is what do you get for $399?

2) Support – Students in StraighterLine courses get up to 10 hours of 1 on 1 instruction. This is more 1 on 1 instruction than is provided in most other online or face to face courses. Further, this is instruction on-demand. By using SMARTHINKING’s tutors, StraighterLine students get access to an instructor with a master’s degree or PhD within minutes. In a typical course, office hours are often provided limited, inconvenient or provided upon request, if there are office hours at all. Lastly, every SMARTHINKING tutor is screened, trained, and continually evaluated. Colleges typically do not offer their own professors and adjuncts this level of pedagogical development. So, students get more instructional support that is more convenient, more immediate, and more consistent.

3) Flexibility – Students in StraigtherLine courses can start a course within 24 hours of deciding to enroll and they can complete anytime within 6 months. In a traditional course, students are confined to the start and stop dates determined by the school and typically have to wait to start after deciding to enroll.

In addition, it would be helpful to compare the StraighterLine courses with the construction of many (maybe most?) freshman and sophomore general education courses in both online and face to face formats. Given that these courses are frequently taught by adjuncts or teaching assistants, with little or no training, with little or no availability to students beyond the lecture, and students are being charged 2 and 3 times what StraighterLine charges, it seems to me that StraighterLine courses are a welcome option for students seeking to reduce their cost of education.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


On May 15th, SMARTHINKING launched a new product called StraighterLine. In many ways, this is the product that SMARTHINKING has been building toward for 9 years. While this may seem hyperbolic, I think this product has the potential to transform the cost structure of higher education. Here’s what it is, why SMARTHINKING is the one to bring it to market, and why it has so much potential.

StraighterLine provides general education courses – the ones that everyone takes in the first or second year of college – that are more affordable, better supported, and more flexible than most other online courses. Regionally accredited partner colleges agree to award credit to students that successfully pass these courses. Each course is $399 (without a government subsidy), comes with up to 10 hours of live one-on- one SMARTHINKING instruction, and can be started and stopped at the student’s convenience. McGraw-Hill (one of the world’s largest textbook publishers) provides the course content and Blackboard (the world’s largest Learning Management System provider) provides the course infrastructure. By inserting MH’s content into Bb’s LMS and integrating with SMARTHINKING’s online tutoring services, we have a course that is better than most of what is out there today. Partner colleges work with us because students taking StraighterLine courses will need to complete their degree somewhere. This becomes a lead generation engine for our partners colleges.

Offering online courses may seem a little far afield for an online tutoring provider like SMARTHINKING. However, when you take a closer look at the course ingredients, you realize that all of the course elements are, more-or-less, commodities except for the labor. For instance, college algebra course content is readily available. There are dozens of LMS providers. However, there are very few companies that can provide on-demand instruction. For the provision of online general education courses with on-demand instruction, SMARTHINKING is the only company that has the industry credibility to do this.

As I mentioned earlier, I think StraighterLine has the potential to transform higher education. I believe this because StraighterLine overcomes the three largest barriers to cost reduction in education. These barriers are
1) The deployment of an alternative academic labor model
2) The creation of a legitimate course provider outside of the traditional accreditation model
3) The delivery of cost reduction benefits to students (instead of to the institutions)

As I’ve noted in other posts, technology has the potential to dramatically reduce the cost and increase the quality of education. However, evidence to date points to the opposite. What technology should be able to do, in theory, is to reduce the price of content production and distribution to close to zero, the cost of software to close to zero, and the cost of communication to close to zero. In theory, the cost of course should only be the amount of academic labor consumed during the course. However, such a radical pricing model has never been tried because there has never been a labor model that could be implemented like this, and colleges are accredited at the degree level, rather than the course level. Enter StraighterLine

The StraighterLine model incorporates SMARTHINKING’s tutoring as instruction, thereby offering an instructional model that provides greater availability, better service levels, more consistency, and greater record keeping. Further, the amount of instruction is limited by how much the student wants or needs, rather than by how much the professor is willing to give.
The StraighterLine model only provides general education courses. By working with partner colleges, StraighterLine can carve out these high enrollment courses. The courses that are the best candidates for standardization and commoditization at volume. In this way, students that successfully pass StraighterLine courses can receive real college credit at a fraction of the cost of traditional college courses. If students buy these courses like we hope, then the cost savings will pass to them, thereby reducing the cost of higher education.

If all goes well, in 3 years or so, StraighterLine will be a primary provider of general education courses. Students will contemplate coming to StraighterLine first, and then continuing their coursework at a college of their choice.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Breaking Radio Silence

It's been a loooong time since I last posted. Why? Well, I said most of what I wanted to say in my first posts. Now, however, SMARTHINKING is about to launch a new product that warrants another posting explosion. We plan to launch a new product called StraighterLine in May.