Monday, February 13, 2012

Straighterline as an Example of Innovative Approaches

Check out Straighterline, if you want to see an innovative approach to online learning. You may or may not like what you see, but I believe they offer a product that makes a lot of sense. The web site is

Essentially, Straighterline has a portfolio of nearly 40 online courses, mostly in general education or at an introductory level (principles of accounting, for example). Because Straighterline is not a degree granting institution, the notion of accreditation doesn’t apply directly. However, their courses are “evaluated and recommended by The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT).” They have more than 20 partner institutions, many of which are in the for-profit sector, but certainly not all. In particular, Western Governor’s University is a partner, which is something that makes me sit up and take notice. According to Straighterline, many other institutions readily transfer their credits, because of the ACE recommendation.

One of the principle implications of a disruptive environment in higher education is that financial models will change. If the experience of business and industry is an indicator, we can expect lower cost options to traditional education to emerge, serving audiences that either can’t afford or for other reasons choose not to enroll at those traditional institutions. As course quality and support services continue to improve, the new options will move upstream and attract enrollment away from more expensive, less flexible providers.

Straighterline has such a financial model. Students pay $99 per month and $39 for each course they take. Thus, if a student wishes and is able, he or she can move along quickly and receive credit for a number of courses at a very modest cost. According to their web site, a student can reasonably complete an entire year of coursework for $999, and that blows away most competition.

However, there is that second concern about support services. Providing strong online support services is both possible and affordable, at scale. Among other services, Straighterline uses Smarthinking, for tutoring support ( ), but certainly there are other ways to go.

Regardless of whether Straighterline is of immediate interest to you or not, I suggest checking out the FAQs on their web site to get a sense of how things work. You can Google “Straighterline” for a wealth of stories about the company, including interviews with Burck Smith, the CEO.

CAVEAT: It isn’t my place to push Straighterline as the answer, not that they need me to. I do know Burck Smith, but I have no personal connection to the company. Smith is an exceptionally articulate spokesman, both for the company and for new models of education.

What is important to me is to emphasize new options and ways of thinking that can expand access and success. As people put together their credits through various means, the cost of a degree will go down dramatically, and I predict that student satisfaction will go up dramatically, as well.

How does all this relate to branch campuses and their access mission? In my next post I will attempt to bring together some of the ideas I’ve been exploring to suggest some approaches that will contribute to branch campus success.