The shape of (third-level) things to come?

Techdirt image, via Techdirt.Techdirt points to an article in Washington Monthly which raises the possibility of College for $99 a Month. The theme of the piece is that the next generation of online education could be great for students, but catastrophic for universities. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about.

From Techdirt:

Next Up For Disruption? College

… The article in Washington Monthly discusses a company called StraighterLine, which offers online college classes, but it totally disrupts the traditional business model of university learning. While the classic model is that you pay per class (or per semester as a fully matriculated student), StraighterLine has a simple model: you pay $99/month and get an all-you-can-eat offering. You go at your own pace — so if you have lots of time (and can complete the work) you can take multiple classes in that month. In the opening story of the article, a woman completes four full classes in just two months — for a grand total of $200. Taking those same classes at either local universities or online would have cost thousands, and would have taken much longer to complete. And, it’s not as if the StraighterLine courses skimp either. According to the article (and it would be great to hear from anyone who’s tried it to see if this is true), they use the same materials found in many college courses.

Techdirt goes on to note that the article compares this to the rise of Craigslist, and highlights

… how similar the newspaper business and the University business are. It notes that freshman lectures are “higher education’s equivalent of the classified section” in that they’re insanely profitable and subsidize many other areas of the business.

Now, there are many differences between the US university experience and the position in Ireland – undergraduate teaching is basically a zero sum game here rather than a cash cow. Moreover, just as with newspapers, universities fulfill other functions and have other revenue streams. In the case of newspapers losing classified advertising to sites like Craigslist, there are still great quantities of commercial advertising (if slightly less in these recessionary times), newspapers still have the cover price, and they are experimenting with charges for premium content online (even if they are still learning how to cope with the web). In the case of universities, there will still be a need for real-world face-to-face interaction in lectures and tutorials, the StraighterLine model doesn’t seem suited to graduate, clinical or laboratory work, and universities have research-based revenue streams. Moreover, undergraduates come to college for the life experience as well as to earn their degrees. Nevertheless, if the StraighterLine model takes off in the US, then – sooner or later – some version of it will follow here. Small post-leaving schools and private colleges will probably feel the pinch first, but that does not mean that it won’t have an impact on universities too. It will be just one more thing for us to worry about, unless we beat them to the punch, and start offering some version of the idea first.