Online Learning, Upscale (and Scaled Up)
John Katzman has never aimed low. The first company he founded, the Princeton Review, went head on at the standardized testing industry and its assertion that the SAT and other exams couldn’t be “coached.” Hundreds of thousands of students (and hundreds of millions of dollars) later, Katzman and Princeton Review have proved otherwise.
Katzman is set to unveil a new endeavor, and its not-so-modest ambitions are simply these: to merge the best of what for-profit and high-end nonprofit higher education have to offer; to show academically exclusive colleges that they can succeed, and dramatically increase their “scale,” online; and, oh yes, to change the face of teacher education.
In the coming years, Katzman and his new company, 2Tor, aim to become the online platform for some of the most successful graduate, professional and other programs at leading universities in the United States. Under this model, 2Tor will provide both the technological platform and the student services so that programs that are now highly selective (and often serve comparatively few students) can be delivered much more widely. Katzman, who foresees an investment of $15 million, from his own pocket and private investors, to finance the company, envisions creating such partnerships with one university's M.B.A. program and, say, another's psychology program. A high-prestige bachelor's degree is in his sights, too.)
2Tor is starting in a field with which Katzman is familiar, and where the need is great: teacher education. On Monday, 2Tor will announce that it is teaming up with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education to create an online version of its master of arts in teaching, called MAT@USC. Within a decade, in Katzman's grand vision, the online version of USC’s program -- which now produces about 150 students a year -- could produce 5,000 or more, helping not just California but many states meet the desperate demand for teachers in high-need (urban, rural, low-income) schools.
But it is not just about volume, say Katzman and Karen Symms Gallagher, the Rossier school’s dean. There is no shortage of teacher education schools, nor even of teacher prep programs offered online. But at a time when higher education institutions are facing significant pressure to increase the number of students they educate, and to be more innovative in how they do so, most of that growth and much of that innovation has been relegated, Katzman notes, to large for-profit providers (notably the mammoth University of Phoenix Online), niche for-profit institutions (Capella and Walden Universities) and ambitious but less prestigious nonprofit institutions, like Nova Southeastern University and the University of Maryland University College.
"Right now you have these very discrete worlds: the selective nonprofits where you've got good smart students, strong faculty and curriculum, and good research, but are very bounded; and the for-profits, where neither the students nor the faculty are extraordinary, the curriculum is workaday, and the research is nonexistent, but they're large and growing fast, particularly online," says Katzman. "We want to bridge that gap: to be scalable and large, but also selective with a real emphasis on quality. It's about partnering with great nonprofit research universities to use their smarts and brand and reputation and faculty, and combine it with the methods and techniques of the for-profits that are online."
Questions abound. It is certainly true that highly selective colleges and universities, in general, are not very well represented or aggressively engaged in online education. But there are certainly no shortage of institutions operating online, and as many as 50 offer online programs that produce certified teachers, says Richard Garrett of Eduventures, a research company that closely monitors both the distance learning and teacher education markets. (Many, undoubtedly, are priced at far less than the $40,000 that USC will charge for its 13-month degree.)
There may be relatively small numbers of institutions that have enough cachet to break through that clutter, Garrett and others say, and 2Tor's success may well depend on such as-yet undetermined things as the quality of its technology and its perceived value.
"I'm personally a little skeptical of the notion of simply taking a brand-name institution and scaling it up because there’s a certain amount of money behind it," says Garrett. "Their sense is obviously that this is something special, but there really needs to be some substance there. The platform needs to be above and beyond Blackboard and its peers, and they have to make it affordable. They'll have to be pretty special to break through in these high-demand fields."
Katzman and his team at 2Tor (which includes several former colleagues from the Princeton Review as well as former executives at Hooked on Phonics and other education companies) clearly believe they are building something special. For Katzman, who built a reputation as a maverick by building the Princeton Review from scratch upon graduation from Princeton University in 1981 and departed as the company's CEO in 2006 (he remained chairman of its board through last week), the big-picture goal was to build a "great online university," one characterized not just by size but by high quality as well.
Apart from a few early (and mostly failed) experiments in which highly selective universities sought to expand onto the Internet -- see AllLearn, Fathom, and UNext -- relatively few have gone into true online education in a meaningful way. (There are obvious exceptions -- Penn State University's World Campus, eCornell, and Stanford Online -- but many online programs have mostly noncredit offerings.) That's partly because most exclusive institutions see little need to go online for one of the major reasons that colleges turn to distance education -- out of the hope it will be financially lucrative. But it's also partly because, in some ways, broadening access to their educations can be seen as working against what makes them "elite" in the first place: limited access to the education they provide.
"Part of the value of a 'brand' is exclusivity," says Kevin Carey, education and policy director at Education Sector and a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, who notes that he does not support this view, but sees it reflected in the perceptions of some college officials. "Not just anyone can get that degree, so the very thing that is seen as making it valuable makes it hard to take advantage of what the Internet offers. If you reach too many customers, it arguably lowers the value."
At a time when (Charles Murray aside) most policy makers agree that the United States needs to significantly increase the number of college-educated Americans, Katzman sees the question of what makes an institution "elite" a little differently. "To us, the notion of 'elite' should just mean great students and great faculty," and a great environment in which those groups interact, he says. "This notion of scarcity -- 'what makes a school great is that we reject so many students' -- doesn't make much sense. Apple sells a lot of iPods, but it is still the elite music device, even though a lot of people have them. Apple could say, we're only going to make a handful of them, and bid up the price, but why?"
By more or less forgoing online education, the most selective (and often wealthiest) institutions have left the distance education playing field overwhelmingly to for-profit colleges and less-selective public and private institutions. The vision that Katzman and his colleagues had, he says, was to try to bridge the gap between the "little jewels" and the behemoths.
"Could you build a Whole Foods?" Katzman says, referring to the high-end supermarket. "A Starbucks? Something scalable, but high-quality?"
It readily became clear to Katzman that creating such an institution out of whole cloth would be next to impossible. It's not that the technology isn't available -- "the tools that have evolved to teach online are so much more powerful than they were even three years ago," he says -- or that a terrific curriculum couldn't be shaped. But "building a university from scratch, finding great faculty, attracting great students, is a very long road," he says. "The great brands in higher education are 100 years old, mostly 200 years old."
That led him to the more practical notion of teaming up with existing "brand name" colleges for individual programs. "The key is finding high quality places," he says. But which ones?
USC Enters the Picture
Not too long ago, officials at the University of Southern California's education school approached Katzman about endowing a chair in educational entrepreneurship. Katzman laughed out loud, he admits, about the idea of a chair in "entrepreneurship" housed at an education school, given the reputation of teacher training academies as innovation backwaters.
But Gallagher, who has sought to remake the Rossier school since becoming dean at USC in 2000, ultimately sold Katzman on her vision of an innovative education school, noting among other things that she had eliminated both its Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs, refashioned the Ed.D. and re-established a tiny Ph.D. program, and wiped out the college's undergraduate teacher education program in favor of its master's program. "We're not afraid as a faculty to make decisions that are innovative, that we think can solve specific problems, even if no one else is doing them," Gallagher says. One of those "problems," she notes, is the "sense of urgency about coming up with innovative solutions to the shortage of teachers in high-need schools."
The chair that Katzman and his wife, Alicia Ernst, funded at USC naturally led Katzman and Gallagher to discuss his ideas for partners for 2Tor. Teacher education was logical terrain for Katzman, given his background and interest in schools he developed at Princeton Review, the widespread criticism of many existing teacher education programs, and the dearth of talented teachers in high-need areas.
"It's a funny situation: In our society, lots of good doctors are coming out of good med schools, and lots of talented lawyers are coming out of quality law schools," Katzman says. "But a huge majority of teachers come out of mediocre schools of education. One of my questions for elite education schools is, why are you so small? If you really want to change the profession, you need to really get into the game and produce a lot of teachers."
The discussion resonated for Gallagher and Rossier, too. Urban education has historically been the education college's focus, given its Los Angeles locale. And Rossier and other colleges at USC, at the urging of Provost Chrysostomos L. Max Nikias, have been looking for ways to move their programs online, says Gallagher.
Under the arrangement to take USC's existing 13-month master of arts in teaching program online (financial terms for which were not disclosed, but involve a revenue split between USC and 2Tor), the university will be "completely responsible for what the curriculum is, who delivers it, who gets into the program and who gets out," says Gallagher. (All of the faculty, including teaching assistants, will be the university's; it will eventually have to hire significantly more.) 2Tor will provide the Moodle-based (but heavily customized) technological platform and support; all student services; and, all-important in teacher education, establishing the relationships with the school districts where the teacher candidates will train under the aegis of master-teacher mentors, wherever that may be.
With the help of 2Tor's Ronni Ephraim, a former deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, USC and 2Tor are adapting the current MAT curriculum to function online, and there are ways, Gallagher says, that the online framework created by 2Tor will make possible certain beneficial things that cannot be done in an on-ground program.
Right now, she says, if USC needs to send 150 students out to classrooms to learn from schoolteachers in action, it sends one or two each to 100 different classrooms, where they take notes and return to the USC campus to share what each of them they saw. In the online program, USC can have a live video feed (or a recorded excerpt) from a classroom in one of its partner schools, "and all of us can watch the same classroom at the same time, with the faculty member deconstructing and diagnosing what's happening," the dean says. "We can be texting or blogging about what's going on while it's unfolding."
Similarly, 2Tor will arm all of the students in the fledgling program with "the Flip," a cell-phone sized video recorder that will allow students to capture their fieldwork experiences and their own lessons for future discussion (and critiques) by classmates and professors.
More fundamentally, says Katzman, the technology platform that 2Tor is building (with the help of Jeremy Johnson, who dropped out of Princeton in 2006 after the social networking site he created became part of the foundation of Zinch.com, the college admissions site) aims to recreate to the fullest extent possible the educational experience found on-ground at the sorts of selective institutions he wants to work with.
"If you ask a student at one of those schools what percentage they learned from other kids, some say half, some say a quarter," Katzman says. In building the learning software USC's students will use, which incorporates video, whiteboard, chat and other ideas from multiple sources into an underlying Moodle platform, "we've tried to build a Web 2.0 experience that puts all the discussions going on -- between teacher and student, between groups of students -- front and center. Those all-important conversations are an organizing principle in a way." (See a sample page here.)
Gallagher says that, contrary to the stereotype of faculty members deadset against change, professors at the Rossier school have not fought the idea of taking the master's program online. "The biggest thing we had to undo was the notion of bad online learning, of some of the master's educations that are out there," she says. "A lot of them are full of talking heads and are heavily text-based, and some of them don't even get you out in the classroom."
Apart from building the technology up front, ensuring meaningful classroom experiences may be the hardest part of 2Tor's side of the arrangement with USC. It is charged with building arrangements with school districts and finding qualified mentors -- full-time teachers in those schools -- for students wherever they enroll, be it a suburb of Los Angeles or Cleveland, Ohio. (An initial group of students is scheduled to enroll in the program in January, with a full class to enter in May, if all goes according to plan.)
"The challenge is taking all the theory stuff you're learning online and integrating it into the classroom where you're working a couple days a week," says Katzman. "We've got to choose the schools carefully, and the teachers the students work with carefully. And then we need to support not just the students but the mentors, too," who will receive financial subsidies from 2Tor.
When told about 2Tor's and USC's plans, experts on teacher education and online learning were generally intrigued but, in some cases, skeptical. They had many questions: Would graduates of the program would have trouble getting certified to teach in states other than California? (They shouldn't, says Gallagher, because many states accept teachers with a California credential, though some may impose some additional requirements.) Why wouldn't USC take its teacher ed program online itself, without help from 2Tor? ("We'd considered it, but the biggest obstacle is that we're not experts in technology," says Gallagher. "Nor do we within our school have access to anything as sophisticated as John’s technology platform.")
Garrett, the Eduventures analyst, sees several potential impediments to 2Tor's plans, based on the limited information he had about them. He and Carey of Education Sector both questioned whether USC's brand had enough national clout that students would be willing to pay the $40,000 price tag that the university plans to charge -- $1,249 per credit for the 32-credit program, same as its the classroom-based master's program.
(By stitching together various federal, state and other loan forgiveness programs and foundation support it is soliciting for "last dollar in" tuition reimbursement, 2Tor expects to be able to promise students that they will recoup their tuition if they work in a high-need teaching job for three years. "We're going to keep it simple to students who should not have to worry about where the money comes from: 'If I go teach at a school that really needs me, then it’s covered,' " Katzman says.)
The more basic doubt expressed by some observers is how successful 2Tor will be at finding institutions to buy what it is pitching. "Most elite schools don't really need what Katzman is offering them," says Garrett. Some are leery of experimenting with online education because quite a few of them were involved earlier this decade with UNext, AllLearn and the other failed experiments of the dot-com bust -- some of which had significant attributes in common with what 2Tor is proposing. "There are still some burnt fingers," says Garrett.
Jeff Seaman, chief information officer at Sloan-C, a consortium of institutions with online programs, says that most highly selective colleges continue not to see online learning as a central strategic priority. For institutions that are intrigued by delving deeper into online programs, "but have not moved because there was a barrier, does 2Tor coming out [and potentially helping them make that move] remove that barrier?
"Based on what I’ve seen, it's got to be done extremely well," Seaman says. "If I'm a big prestigious institution, and I have a gem of a program I could bring online to teach hundreds of students, there are issues I have that 2Tor's not going to resolve. I still need to staff that. I need to deal with copyright issues, and make sure that online programs match into our tenure and promotion standards."
Then again, he notes, under 2Tor's model -- where it might choose one high-quality business program, one social work program, and one bachelor's degree in history -- perhaps only a few institutions would need to make the leap: "It might not take many to make it work."
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