Is California’s Partnership With Udacity Actually a Big Deal?

In short, yes and no. First, the story:

Startup Udacity and the California State University system announced they would jointly pilot classes specifically to provide students with a completely online class experience-a first for MOOCs and university professors.  The program, which will launch at  San Jose State University, will offer the classes for $150 apiece and will start this month.

The initial classes,  which will include a remedial algebra course, college-level algebra and introduction to statistics, will be limited to 300 students in total (100 per class), half from SJSU and half from nearby community colleges and high schools. The National Science Foundation is providing funds to study the effectiveness of the new online classes.

This is a huge win for students who get the chance to take a high quality remedial course for a fraction of the expected price. The agreement also legitimately moves the MOOC ball down the field by making online learning a cheaper substitute for a traditional piece of the curriculum. This isn’t an independent class that gives you a certificate or an online class that still requires paying full tuition. In terms of the hypothetical MOOC utopia of cheap learning, it’s close to the real deal.

What’s lacking in the deal is that it dances around the core areas where universities are gouging students. Offering remedial classes is a good start, but we’ve yet to see colleges allow cheaper competition with regard to standard courses. In that sense this deal is like a cable company giving you a discount on installation, but still charging you $79.99 for a bundle of channels instead of letting you pay $4.99 to just buy the ESPN networks. The basic model, with all of it’s inefficiencies and injustices, is still the same. Until universities are ready to risk losing significant revenue by letting students take “Microeconomics 200” online for $150, MOOCs will be unable to actively transform the higher education system.

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