In yet another step toward democratizing higher education, StraighterLine, a pioneering provider of accredited, low-cost, self-paced online college courses, has started a new feature called "Professor Direct." The program—which will be eligible for college credit through the American Council on Education—gives professors the option to teach courses directly to students.
The first batch of StraighterLine professors themselves hold degrees from universities ranging from Columbia to the University of Phoenix. One, Jerry Israel, is a retired college president interested in the future of higher ed; many others are adjuncts who teach on a freelance and part-time basis both online and in-person around the country. They’ll be teaching based on StraighterLine’s few dozen self-paced offerings—15 new courses were announced for launch—ranging from humanities and general ed requirements to business, science, and remedial math and English. The professors will charge each student a premium ranging from $50 to $250 per head for additional services, like live video chat office hours, moderating discussions online, or offering and grading extra assignments. StraighterLine will also give professors a commission for any students they recruit directly through social media: For example, Bethany Bird put a video on YouTube to introduce prospective students to her U.S. History course. Pass rates and student reviews are available for each course to enable smart shopping.
The economics of Professor Direct are as intriguing for would-be university teachers as they are disturbing for universities themselves. Adjuncts, part-timers not on the tenure track, make up 1.3 million of the 1.8 million faculty members in two-year and four-year colleges. At community colleges, they earn a median of $2,235 per course—a sum they could match with enrollment of 10 to 20 in a Professor Direct course. StraighterLine isn’t the only such platform: Udemy’s Faculty Project also offers courses from college professors. But it’s the only one offering a path to bona fide college credit. In fact, StraighterLine’s core group of general ed requirements, which cost a total of $2,000, was today awarded an "A" grade for rigor and comprehensiveness from an independent group.
No wonder that two of the tenure-track professors interested in teaching through Professor Direct were discouraged from doing so by their main employers.
StraighterLine’s founder Burck Smith has been providing ultra-low-cost college courses since 2008. He says the advent of free "massively open online courses" or MOOCs such as Coursera and Udacity, with many Ivy League universities as partners, have helped raise awareness that the economics of higher education are ripe for disruption. "It’s impossible to ignore, for both students and policymakers, that online courses can be offered outside the accrediting environment at 50% to 90% cheaper than colleges are doing themselves," he says. Where that leaves institutions who have lots of other costs to support, ranging from brick-and-mortar to mental health counselors to sports teams, is anyone’s guess.