There are some amazing technological innovations in education right now, and of course the education establishment is doing their darndest to obstru
October 24, 2009

There are some amazing technological innovations in education right now, and of course the education establishment is doing their darndest to obstruct them in any way they can. (Remember the newspaper industry?)

This is just one fascinating example, and the story's too complex to excerpt - go read the rest:

Like millions of other Americans, Barbara Solvig lost her job this year. A fifty-year-old mother of three, Solvig had taken college courses at Northeastern Illinois University years ago, but never earned a degree. Ever since, she had been forced to settle for less money than coworkers with similar jobs who had bachelor’s degrees. So when she was laid off from a human resources position at a Chicago-area hospital in January, she knew the time had come to finally get her own credential. Doing that wasn’t going to be easy, because four-year degrees typically require two luxuries Solvig didn’t have: years of time out of the workforce, and a great deal of money.

Luckily for Solvig, there were new options available. She went online looking for something that fit her wallet and her time horizon, and an ad caught her eye: a company called StraighterLine was offering online courses in subjects like accounting, statistics, and math. This was hardly unusual—hundreds of institutions are online hawking degrees. But one thing about StraighterLine stood out: it offered as many courses as she wanted for a flat rate of $99 a month. “It sounds like a scam,” Solvig thought—she’d run into a lot of shady companies and hard-sell tactics on the Internet. But for $99, why not take a risk?

[...]The same courses would have cost her over $2,700 at Northeastern Illinois, $4,200 at Kaplan University, $6,300 at the University of Phoenix, and roughly the gross domestic product of a small Central American nation at an elite private university. They also would have taken two or three times as long to complete.

And if Solvig needed any further proof that her online education was the real deal, she found it when her daughter came home from a local community college one day, complaining about her math course. When Solvig looked at the course materials, she realized that her daughter was using exactly the same learning modules that she was using at StraighterLine, both developed by textbook giant McGraw-Hill. The only difference was that her daughter was paying a lot more for them, and could only take them on the college’s schedule. And while she had a professor, he wasn’t doing much teaching. “He just stands there,” Solvig’s daughter said, while students worked through modules on their own.

And then there's Flatworld Knowledge, a company offering free online college textbooks (and customized textbooks for a low fee). Anyone who's gone to college (or paid for their kid) knows how expensive textbooks are:

Flat World Knowledge is the brainchild of two industry veterans who, back in 2007, decided to reinvent their industry from the bottom up. Co-founder Eric Frank explained to me how the company’s model works. “We still produce books in the traditional way, i.e., we approach top scholars, conduct peer review, and integrate all of the elements (photos, charts, graphs) into a high-quality textbook. But then we flip the model on its head.”

As opposed to publishing a paper edition under copyright, the company applies a creative commons open source license. It then publishes each title online, where every single book in its catalog can be read for free. (They are also presently free on iPhones, though I suspect that will eventually have to change.) There also are a number of paid options available to the professors and students who sign up with the company:

* A black-and-white soft cover edition will be printed on-demand and delivered within five days for $29.95.

* A color edition produced in the same manner costs $59.95.

* An audio book, in mp3 file format is available for $39.95. (Individual chapters cost $2.99 each.)

* A PDF costs $19.95. (Chapters are priced at $1.99 each.)

* Study aids that include sample quizzes and other helpful material can be purchased for $9.95. (Chapter study aids are priced at $1.99.)

So how is this model working out to date? “Our data indicate that 65 percent of the students choose to buy at least one of our products, with 35 percent choosing the free option,” says Frank. “The average amount spent by a student is about $30 a semester, or factoring in the free use, $20 per student per class per semester.”

The important thing is that consumers should get to have choices. All other things being equal, if these products are as good as the ones offered in a standard academic setting, the establishment is only delaying the inevitable by fighting them.

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