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Seven reasons why the new 2U powered, University of London, $24K online undergraduate degree in data science and business analytics is so fascinating:

#1 - Status

The BS will be conferred by the University of London, in collaboration and with faculty from the London School of Economics. These are brand name, internationally recognized institutions. This will be a high-status degree, with substantial value in the marketplace. 

#2 - Price: 

A price tag of $24K for an undergraduate degree is not all that interesting. There are many options for low-cost degrees from community colleges and other accredited institutions of higher learning. What is interesting is that this is a $24K degree from a high-status institution.

#3 - Cost: 

My sense is that this degree is not cross-subsidized. That the $24K price tag is aligned with costs. (Although this is where some data and scholarship would be useful). To create and run a $24K program, 2U and its university partner are taking the following steps:

  • Converting an existing curriculum to an online program.
  • Moving to a “facilitator” model of instruction, where expensive professors oversee less expensive teaching professionals who concentrate on the educator/student relationship.
  • The expensive professors create the course content as subject matter expertise.  These are expenses that can be amortized over multiple runs of the courses.
  • Shifting to more asynchronous learning (content, discussion boards).  The live online synchronous classes, for 90 minutes every other week, will be facilitated by the less expensive non-faculty educators.
  • Utilizing lower-cost labor from South Africa (through 2U’s GetSmarter division) for instructional design, project management, and media.

#4 - Scale: 

The educational model if of regular faculty as subject matter experts and course owners, and facilitators to work directly with students in discussion boards and assignments and synchronous class sessions.  This model enables the number of students that can enroll in the program to scale with demand. Accommodating more students means hiring more facilitators, not professors. 

#5 - Quality: 

The big question in any low-cost online program is quality. Here, I think that 2U may be on its way to cracking that code. A program like this has some high up-front and fixed costs, in developing the courses and hiring the faculty as subject matter experts and course owners. These costs, however, can be amortized over many cohorts. The variable costs are the course facilitators, student support, and marketing. 

Offering a degree that is in high demand from a high-status institution should lower the student acquisition costs. This leaves resources that can be invested in the course facilitators and student support. As long as the right people are hired to mentor the students, and there is enough of these non-faculty educators, the quality of the learning experience can be high. I’m a bit concerned about 40 student synchronous learning sessions, but that can be pulled off if done well. Combining asynchronous with synchronous learning is the marker of quality in online education, and I’m happy to see this model at this price point.

#6 - Unbundling: 

My hypothesis is that the educational quality of this $24K online undergrad degree will be high. Of course, we will need some independent analysis to confirm or refute that hypothesis once the program gets going. (Who is doing that research?). I think the instructional model is sound. What this degree will not give are all the other things that an undergraduate education provides. The economic value of college is the degree. The human value of college is the experience. Living at home and studying online is not a substitute for going to college.

Furthermore, this online undergraduate degree will work best for only a specific type of learner. The undergrad that will thrive in this program is one who has resources and support. How many 18-year-olds are highly organized and self-motivated enough to navigate an education at a distance? The $24K price tag of this degree demonstrates one model of undergraduate instruction, but I’m not sure that it is a model for undergraduate education.

#7 - Impact: 

All of us worry endlessly about the higher ed cost disease. A high-quality (from a learning perspective) $24K degree from a well-known institution is undoubtedly a positive counter-trend to a regime of ever-rising educational prices. We have a higher ed economy built on scarcity, status, bundling, and ideas about instruction that are not based on learning science. Any alternative to the status quo should be welcome. 2U and the University of London deserve a great deal of credit for trying something new. 

Can we imagine other established institutions designing undergraduate degrees around a dramatically lowered price point? Will the world’s best known universities be willing to optimize for price and access and learning quality, rather than status and exclusivity and tradition? Should more schools be experimenting with models in undergraduate education that differ from what is currently on offer?

This University of London / 2U $24K online undergraduate degree in data science and business analytics is worth our attention. We should be curious about every aspect of this new undergraduate degree.

My ask is that 2U do what is necessary to enable independent scholarship related to this degree. We should think of this new program as an experiment. It is our responsibility to analyze the results.

How would you unpack this news?

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