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StraighterLine and Udemy offer the potential of self-employment to entrepreneurial professors. But will a free market for online teaching pay off for faculty?
"Self-employed professor" could soon be an actual job title, thanks to two companies that are helping a small group of college professors market their own online courses, set prices for them and share the tuition revenue.
In January StraighterLine will launch 15 professor-taught courses. This is new territory for the company, which currently offers 42 low-cost and self-paced online courses. A growing number of colleges have agreed to issue credit for at least some successfully completed courses at StraighterLine, which is not accredited and is ineligible for federal financial aid. Students can also earn credit recommendations from the American Council on Education (ACE).
Although online tutors are available to help, the company's course material is automated. With the new “Professor Direct” courses, however, a pilot group of instructors will lead courses. The instructors will pick their own tuition premium amount, which will be tacked on top of StraighterLine’s base fee of $49 per course and $99 per month for enrolling, among other pricing options. There will be no cap on the professor premium, but most will probably range from $50 to $125 or so.
Sarah Tidwell will teach an English 101 course for the company in January. She’ll keep whatever she chooses to charge above the $49 base price, as well as a $25 per month for each student she attracts to her course, for as long as those students stay enrolled at StraighterLine, even when they move on to other courses.
“You’re getting paid like a sales associate,” said Tidwell, who has graded papers for StraighterLine and also worked as an adjunct instructor for an online for-profit. She said her friends in higher education are intrigued by what she’s told them about the experiment. “I think the word’s going to spread."
StraighterLine only hires instructors who have a master’s or doctoral degree in the discipline they will teach, said Burck Smith, the company's CEO and founder. The initial list includes several Ph.D.s. as well as others who hold a master's as their highest degree. Tidwell, for example, has a master's from the University of Phoenix. Most of the group, which includes a former college president, have taught primarily at open-access, online institutions.
Whether Tidwell or her Professor Direct peers succeed will have a lot to do with how well they sell their courses to prospective students.
StraighterLine students can currently choose between fully self-paced courses and ones with start and end dates. In professor-taught courses they will be able to choose eight or 15-week courses, as well as those that are self-paced. They will have other choices to make under the new model. Professors will sometimes teach the same course with different textbooks, from multiple publishers. They will start with an existing course, but can add assessments, assignments and their own teaching style.
StraighterLine’s professors will have a personal page on the company’s website, where some will post videos that describe their courses (see below). Students can mull which professor, course material and price look best before enrolling in a course.
Smith calls the new course offerings an “eBay for professors,” who can now “hang out their shingle” with the company's help. “It used to be that students paid professors directly,” Smith said. “We’re rebuilding that model, but with a baseline for assessments.”
However, the response from at least one faculty group to StraighterLine’s new approach was tepid.
Matt Williams, a vice president with the New Faculty Majority, which seeks better working conditions for adjuncts, said the free market doesn’t always lead to good results in higher education. For example, he said it’s “overly optimistic” to think students will gravitate to the best professor at StraighterLine.
“Students are going to be seeking ways that they can get more for less,” he predicts, specifically “more credentialization for less effort.”
Professors can also be free agents with Udemy, which is a player in the emerging field of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. By definition, a MOOC is free. But many of Udemy’s 5,000 courses include a price-tag, with “tuition” fees set by the professors who create and teach them.
Most of Udemy’s courses are not taught by traditional academics. Many lack advanced degrees, and offer courses based on their work experience or knowledge about a topic. But at least a few dozen are actual professors, who are moonlighting in addition to holding faculty gigs.
The company is essentially a professor-centric platform for online teaching, said David Janzen, a professor of computer science at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Janzen is teaching “Java Essentials for Android” on Udemy. He charges $89 for the course, which enrolls 450 students.
Janzen said he has five other Udemy courses in the pipeline. Producing the courses is time-consuming, he said, particularly given that he has a demanding day-job. But the work is devising course material, not in fiddling with Udemy’s platform. And he said it is satisfying to see the number of students who take his course creep upward.
“They make it very easy for anyone to put a course together and put it out there,” Janzen said.
Udemy takes a 30 percent cut of whatever Janzen and other professors make on their courses. The company also gives them coupons that make the courses free or discounted to students. Janzen said he started distributing coupons after he hit $5,000 for the Java course, an amount which he said covered his time.
Janzen also found another use for the coupons – he gave them to his students at Cal Poly, and he encourages them to watch his online Udemy lectures.
“I retain all of the intellectual property” from Udemy, Janzen said. “I really like being in control.”
Cal Poly has been enthusiastic about Janzen's Udemy foray, he said. And the university did not make him ask permission before freelancing online.
MOOCs and Freelance Professors
Hotshot professors are a big part of the supposed draw for MOOCs. The founders of Udacity and Coursera are top academics themselves, having taught artificial intelligence at Stanford University before riding the disruption wave to found their own companies. And MOOC providers talk up the quality of the teaching in their courses, which is handled exclusively by professors at prestigious colleges and universities.
Some big-name professors have decided to go solo online. For example, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, both economists at George Mason University, are teaching a MOOC dubbed Marginal Revolution University, which is named after their popular blog.
But Udemy and StraighterLine offer a different path for the entrepreneurial professor. For one thing, there’s money involved, maybe even a substantial amount.
The 10 most popular professors on Udemy made a combined $1.6 million in their first year with the site. To the non-mathematically inclined, that’s an annual haul of $160,000 each.
As for its students, Udemy’s leaders say the company is focused on helping adult learners who are interested in career advancement and the convenience of online learning. One student archetype might be the company’s co-founder, Eren Bali, who started taking online courses in the rural Turkish village where he grew up and later helped create Udemy.
The platform is open to any potential professor. But its employees review every piece of content, company officials said, and require that professors are experts in their fields.
For now, Udemy courses do not lead to college credit, unless students try to pursue prior-learning credits. That could change, however, said Dennis Yang, Udemy’s president and chief operating officer.
“We are seeing interest from institutions that are interested in issuing credit,” he said.
Some outside organizations have begun validating the content on both Udemy and StraighterLine. And the two companies have nascent efforts underway to “bundle” courses with partner organizations.
For example, StraighterLine has partnered with the Ashoka, a nonprofit group that advocates entrepreneurship for social change. The group is helping to incorporate social entrepreneurship in four or five StraighterLine courses -- all of which are in general education -- with the goal of creating a full semester’s concentration in the subject. A sociology professor from the University of Florida, Kristin E. Joos, is working to adapt the content.
“You can get an entire semester of credit,” said Gretchen Zucker, executive director of Youth Venture, an Ashoka offshoot. StraighterLine’s low cost made it an attractive partner, she said.
Likewise, Udemy is working with the Jack Welch Management Institute to create a suite of online management training courses aimed at corporations. The institute, which is a subsidiary of Strayer University, wants the courses to be customizable and able to reach a large number of employees at individual companies.
For now, neither of the bundles of courses is tied to anything resembling a college-issued certificate. But they give a glimpse of how that sort of nontraditional credential might start to materialize.
Options for Adjuncts?
Cutting out the middleman in higher education, or disintermediation, could be a boon for professors. If the approach pioneered by StraighterLine and Udemy takes off, adjunct professors in particular could have a new avenue to hawk their wares.
Take Corrine Hasbany, who has taught accounting courses for the University of Phoenix, and currently teaches for Southern New Hampshire University. She has taught online and in the traditional classroom.
Hasbany will be among the first group on StraighterLine’s Professor Direct, with an introductory accounting course. She and others like the idea of a potentially self-sustaining platform for professors, but acknowledges that there are plenty of unknowns about the price point of Professor Direct courses.
“It’s trying to find that cost markup that the market will bear,” she said. “You have to test it out.”
Williams, however, remains skeptical. He said the New Faculty Majority is interested in new opportunities for adjuncts, but that it’s too early to predict whether StraighterLine’s new foray will be good for professors. Smith, unlike some higher education reformers, spoke with the group’s leaders to explain the concept.
In the meantime, Udemy is racking up satisfied professor contributors, including traditionalists like Margaret Soltan, who blogged for this publication about her experience teaching a free poetry course on Udemy. Soltan, an English professor at George Washington University, has long been dubious about online teaching, but Udemy helped win her over to MOOCs.
Janzen, too, has enjoyed his work on Udemy. But he scoffs at the question of whether he would leave his post at Cal Poly. Janzen plans only to “dabble” in the massive online space, which he said could never replace his love for the classroom.
“You don’t have that personal interaction with a student online,” he said.
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