More thoughts on online education

Thanks Dan for the mention I had a few more thoughts.

I took advantage of a lot of online classes during my undergrad education. You know what my number one irritation was? The classes were always sold out. I think online classes fill up faster than any other kind, and yet they usually are more expensive.

So my first question is, why does the online version of the class cost more? Just looking at it at face value I would assume that most of the overhead would be eliminated. No physical buildings required to meet in, no desks, no electricity, no projector, no heating, no parking, etc… so are they just charging more because they can?

I was actually perfectly fine with paying more, because I saw an online class as a convenience. I was still able to work full time, and go to school full time. Expect more often than not they were full. Why oh why do they not offer more classes online.

To use a web metaphor, I envision that online classes should scale much better than a physical classroom. If you have a sudden explosion of interested students, you should be able to scale out your classes to match. Amazon never says ‘sorry, we have too many customers this quarter, please try again’. Of course I’m being flip, but still, how much different is this really. The front end to your class is software, Blackboard I think is dominant. Blackboard also has some really broad patents which they have promised not to use. So to scale all you have to do is pay more to blackboard, although if it were me I would be investigating moodle which was compared to blackborad in this study by CSU (they spent $1 Million annually on blackboard licenses) and from the study (done in 2005, I’m sure moodle is even better now) it seems to conclude that Moodle was at least on par with blackboard. If online education was my core competency I think I would enjoy the flexibility that an open source, customisable, and free! LMS would provide.This software looks interesting as well.

There is the cost incurred for the time and effort of retraining staff and students though. As well as overhead in maintaing your own system. Outsourcing does have its benefits. But they should be weighed. Let students vote with their pocketbooks, offer a slightly cheaper verison of the class on the moodle system.

But anyways, back to scaling our online education. You pay someone more money, either blackboard, or buy more servers. So now the front end is taken care of. So now you need to recruit teachers quickly. I believe there are a surprising number of people who would love to teach an online course. I see a few ways of tapping into that.

Why not follow the university model of using TA’s? Online TA’s would allow larger classes that could be overseen by one ‘real’ teacher. They could be former students who did really well in the class, they would help lower the collaboarative friction.

Why not recruit from local high schools? Teachers are usually looking for additonal income. You can always outsource as well, there are many highly (over) qualified individuals in foreign countries who would love to teach.

So if you can easily scale the front end, and easily scale the back end, where is the hold up? It must not be that simple, it never is 😉