A Curricular Innovation, Examined (Part 3)

December 16, 2010

‘It Should Be Fine’

Perhaps all of the back-and-forth about StraighterLine — the news stories, the blog posts, the assorted incidents of backlash, the endless tug-of-war over who awards credit for what — might be boiled down to two essential questions: Are StraighterLine’s courses truly more or less equivalent to the courses that many college students are already taking? And, more broadly, at what point does any educational experience — specifically, in StraighterLine’s case, an introductory-level general education class — become worthy of college credit?

The former question addresses the level on which Burck Smith would like for his brainchild to be evaluated; the latter is an issue that he actively seeks to avoid. In a long series of emails over the course of several weeks, as well as one 90-minute telephone interview, Smith repeatedly and expressly urged me to “make sure to compare our courses to other colleges’ general education courses with whatever evaluation standards they use rather than what they say they do or wish they did.”

“…[E]veryone else is doing the same thing,” Smith said, “but they’re allowed to be accredited and approved and sort of part of the club.”

If one accepts Smith’s terms of debate, it is difficult to argue with him. Surely accredited institutions offer plenty of courses that are not of the utmost quality. And colleges and universities do turn a profit on many large, introductory-level courses — particularly courses that are taught by low-paid temporary instructors, or broadcast online to vast numbers of students — and that profit is used, as Carey’s Washington Monthly article puts it, “to pay for libraries, basketball teams, classical Chinese poetry experts, and everything else.”

How colleges pay their classical Chinese poetry experts is not Smith’s concern; on the contrary, he views himself as something of a consumers' advocate. “When you can start breaking apart these elements of the college,” he said, “now you can create different overall instructional models that may work better for students.”

Carey’s article takes the point a step further: “If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built. The consequences will be profound.”

“Let’s say,” Smith said, “…[that] I don’t want the fabulous, immersive— that I’m not ready to pay for the fabulous, immersive liberal arts environment. So what works for me instead? Getting the basic English comp course might. You put that in the article… and people are going to say, ‘Oh, [StraighterLine], it’s a low-quality course,’ but that’s not the issue. The issue is that we are a sufficient and even a better course, in many cases, at a far better price. So we are far better value than what most colleges are doing — and it’s this concept of value that I think is entirely missing from course-level discussions.”

Photo: Courtesy Baltimore Sun

Burck Smith, StraighterLine's founder

“The issue,” that is, meaning the issue as defined by Burck Smith. But the two questions need not be mutually exclusive; the one might even inevitably raise the other: Does StraighterLine indeed offer courses as good as those provided by many accredited institutions? And if defenses of StraighterLine often seem to boil down to the argument that, well, it’s not that great, but it’s good enough (and much cheaper), does that not raise — or perhaps beg — the question of what it means to be good enough?

‘Nothing… That’s Different From Anybody Else’

I can’t answer the question of whether I learned more or less from my StraighterLine course than I might have learned elsewhere. Watro, Parker, Volpe and Shapiro all seem to be offering their students an experience that is more in-depth, more challenging, and more relevant than the course that I took — but of course, as Smith noted, “Professors have internal incentives to say, ‘The course I do is better than this’ … because that’s their livelihood.”

Asked whether UMUC, Penn State World Campus, Jefferson Community and Technical College, or Fort Hays were fair bases for comparison, Smith said, “I don’t want to say they wouldn’t be good examples; I think the best comparison would be to take… a large online economics course through someone else’s program in sort of a similar format at similar price points.”

Of course, part of the problem with that strategy (besides the issue of having world enough and time) is that there may not be many (or any?) classes in a similar format — and, particularly, at similar price points.

“And that’s part of the point,” Smith said. “We’re providing the best value.”

Of all the professors I spoke to, it was Watro — who does not teach any online classes — whose courses sounded perhaps the most similar to the one I took from StraighterLine. His exams and homework, he said, are largely multiple choice, though he said he also assigns “take-home questions, which are more short-answer — problems and short explanations for things.” Do Watro’s students — who don’t have the option of tutoring for their economics courses, “because [JCTC] can’t get anyone to tutor students, given what they pay, and given very few people can do the tutoring in economics as opposed to other courses” — learn more than StraighterLine students taking the same classes?

Watro, for his part, opposes online education on principle. “Economics is a very challenging class, and I don’t think online is really teaching, to be quite honest with you. … And then there’s lots of issues in terms of interactions with the students and… who’s actually taking the exam when the exam is being given.”

Watro said that he was unaware of his institution's relationship with StraighterLine — which, he said, he'd never even heard of.

‘A Sufficient and Even a Better Course’

My final grade in my economics course was 739/760 — a shade over 97 percent. I didn’t cheat, but then, I never was quite able to figure out just what it would mean to cheat in a StraighterLine course. The student handbook says, “SMARTHINKING tutoring should not be used while completing graded exams,” but does not mention the use of notes, the textbook, the study guide, Google, friends or other experts, or anything else. I even tried to get my course adviser to clarify:

Dear Andrew:

…I realized when I was taking a test the other day that I couldn't recall what StraighterLine's policy is for using the textbook/study guide/notes/websites etc. during an exam. I know we're not supposed to get tutoring during a test (obviously!), but I actually have no idea if I'm allowed to use books or not. …

… Can you point me toward StraighterLine's policy on what is and isn't allowed during tests?

Let me know, and thanks!




I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. It is fine to use your books on the exams, but as you noted not the Smarthinking tutors. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks.


For the first few tests, I didn’t use the textbook, though I still did just fine; after receiving this e-mail, I simply double-checked all my answers in the textbook before answering each test question. Knowing I could do this, I cut my studying to the minimum. I would go through each lesson presentation (though only for the sake of this article, and only ever once each — why re-read them for later chapters when none of it would be on the test anyway?) and then read the chapter in the textbook. I didn’t bother with the study guide, which simply gave a condensed version of the material in the textbook, or the review activities, given their marginal relevance and quality.

This minimal effort was more than enough for me to do as well on the exams as I did; I started to wonder whether I could do as well without reading the textbook at all (since I was consulting it during the exam anyway), but couldn’t bring myself to test that theory.

Of the fact that I was able to earn a 97 percent with such a modicum of effort, Twigg observed, “But that’s true in any college course. … You could find face-to-face courses on any campus in the country and that would be the case.” She recalled her undergraduate years at William and Mary, where, she said, she took two years of French without attending the class. “I just took the tests, and got Bs.”

“I think the level of engagement, to me, is not the critical factor. The critical factor is how well students do on the assessments,” said Twigg.

Similarly, when I told Burck Smith I’d gotten a 97 percent in the class, he replied, “Congratulations! It worked!”

Of course, Smith has never pretended that StraighterLine offers the ideal educational experience: “We’re not in the business of making the best courses. We are in the business of making the best value courses.” He himself attended Williams College as an undergraduate. In an ideal world, would every student get an education like that — face-to-face, in small classes at a top-quality liberal arts college?

“Sure, sure,” Smith said, laughing. “It’s terrific. Who wouldn’t want it?”

“We are living in a world,” he added, “especially now, where there are harsh budget realities. You can’t -- and so tradeoffs are going to have to be made. So where are those tradeoffs, and who makes them? Is it the taxpayer? Is it the student? … I mean those are all up in the air, and if we continue to try and hold people like StraighterLine and others to standards that colleges aren’t really upholding themselves, but wish they were, then we’re really not going to get anywhere.”

For all of Smith's staunch, articulate defenses of his model, it was Twigg whose summation stuck with me.

“Within the universe of institutions,” Twigg said, “there are high-quality courses and mediocre courses and really lousy courses…. [StraighterLine] is well within the sort of mediocre and above, because of the oversight that’s gone into it.”

“I think it’s certainly a viable option within the panoply of higher education offerings,” she concluded. “How’s that for a lukewarm endorsement?”

She paused, laughing.

“It’s as good as the other stuff.”

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