Changing Course

With its new online remedial courses, Blackboard is betting that community colleges will put aside reservations about outsourcing academics.
October 22, 2010

As a growing number of nonprofit colleges hire for-profit companies to lay tracks for their new online programs, academics generally have been the third rail. Technology and information systems are one thing, the colleges say; to outsource teaching and curriculum is quite another.

Now, two major e-learning companies have teamed up to disprove that truism. Blackboard and K12, Inc. announced last week that they will begin selling online remedial courses to community colleges beginning next year. The details will be hashed out over the next few months, but the basic outline is this: The companies will design the courses and provide the instructors from K12’s stable, and the colleges will offer the courses through their normal catalogs.

Some nonprofit institutions that partner with companies on online education have been careful to emphasize their commitment to keeping a wall between the business and technology of online course delivery and the actual instruction. “Some things, we would never turn over to the private sector,” Philip Regier, dean of Arizona State University’s online programs, said earlier this month, after his institution announced it was going into business with Pearson to help boost its online offerings.

But Blackboard and K12 are betting that remedial education will be an exception. About 75 percent of first-year students at community colleges need at least one remedial course, according to a report released earlier this year by the The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. And yet the percentage of students who end up moving beyond such courses is typically less than half. Under the circumstances, it might be hard for faculty to reject outsourced courses on territorial grounds.

Larry Gold, director of higher education for the American Federation of Teachers, said that "this particular enterprise may or may not advance student learning — we can’t tell from a press release," But, he added that "we do know that students in developmental education and introductory college courses, particularly at community colleges, need a great deal of personal academic attention and a large array of educational support services, including but certainly not limited to technology. Providing those services to students from all walks of life will require a major investment in on-site instructional and support staff."

As a general rule, faculty have a reputation for being resistant to ceding control of any part of the curriculum to what they might view as commercial interlopers; but remedial courses — with their low pass rates and sub-college material — are notorious for being undesirable gigs. As catch-up courses, they tend to lie far from the academic core of an institution, and in many cases they do not earn students credit toward a degree. “Most professors who get to college level are not there to teach high school English and math,” says Matthew Small, the chief business officer at Blackboard.

High school English and math are K12’s bread and butter. K12 is a publicly traded company that has focused on providing online education — remedial and otherwise — for elementary and secondary school students. “These are the same kids we’re teaching at the high-school level, only six months older,” said Bruce Davis, the company’s vice president of worldwide business development.

K12 has made only a few inroads in higher education; last summer one of its subsidiaries was rebuffed by an accrediting agency when it tried to take over operations at Rochester College, a four-year liberal arts college in Michigan. (K12’s collaboration with Middlebury College to deliver language instruction as part of a summer program has been more successful.) Davis said he will be pleased this time to have, in Blackboard, a co-pilot with a huge network of existing higher-ed clients.

For Blackboard — which has sold online learning platforms and other services for years, but never courses — the deal also represents a new sort of business. Both sides say K12 will do most of the heavy lifting on course design and provide the labor from its stable of 2,700 instructors, while Blackboard will focus mainly on the technology. But the two companies say they will work together on all aspects of the product. Small, the chief business officer, said Blackboard does not currently sell courses past the remedial level. “Outside of this very targeted effort, we have no plans to move into the general areas of curriculum and instruction,” he said.

But despite the widely acknowledged need for better college remediation, there is no guarantee that community colleges will readily outsource their remedial courses.

Burck Smith, CEO of StraighterLine — which sells courses directly to students, rather than institutions — says that it might be difficult to develop better courses for less than what the community colleges already spend on remediation. While state governments give community colleges more money if they enroll remedial students, the colleges are often not required to spend that money on remediation; they actually tend to spend very little on those courses, Smith says. Offering superior courses for less, he says, might be tough. (Blackboard says it has not yet worked out pricing details. As for quality, “We expect to win on the merits,” says Small. “We will have the highest quality offering in this space.”)

Smith nevertheless says he wished luck to the companies, which he does not consider competitors since only a small portion of StraighterLine's courses are aimed at remediation.

“Yes, I think there is interest,” says Michael Collins, program director for Jobs of the Future, which focuses on creating career pathways for underserved populations. But there are some wild cards. First, some community colleges might resist outsourcing remedial education if it stands to affect how much state funding they get, Collins says.

Davis, the K12 vice president, says online courses are a perfect fit for remedial education, since online learning platforms are increasingly able to monitor student engagement and send up red flags when a student is falling behind. As in any classroom, some remedial students are likely to outpace others. But whereas a classroom instructor has to establish a common pace in order to move the entire class through the material in the time allotted, the online version is more like a private tutor, where students learn at their own pace. “An online [system] knows exactly where a student is in curriculum, how long they’ve been there, and where to intervene,” says Davis. “A computer," he adds, "is infinitely patient.”

In the months ahead, Blackboard says it plans to conduct focus groups with its clients to figure out exactly what sort of a product they would be looking for. “I think institutions will still be very hesitant to outsource actual teaching of the courses,” says Kara Monroe, executive director of instructional technology at Ivy Tech Community College, in Indiana. “But based on the demand there is for remedial education in the United States, I think it's still an option we need to look at and consider.”

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