Pricing eLearning and the Value of the Online Option

As I was trying to make a dent in the unread count in my Google Reader this weekend, I read a few blog reviews and watched a few highlight videos from the much ballyhooed D10 Conference last month. Of special interest to me was Wall Street Journal’s tech columnist Walt Mossberg’s interview with Stanford President John Hennessy and online learning celebrity Sal Khan.

About 11:30 into the interview (see it below), during a conversation about the skyrocketing cost of education, Khan made a provocative comment about what a particular university he’s familiar with is charging for their online program – roughly the same amount as the school charges for the full brick-and-mortar experience. I tweeted the resulting question:
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Hamish Macleod, Joint Programme Director of the highly-regarded Masters in eLearning program at the University of Edinburgh responded:
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Khan’s rhetorical question resonated with me, because the argument often offered for the dramatic increase in tuition in the U.S. is for the on-campus experience: luxury boarding, quality meals, world-class fitness centers, cutting-edge lab facilities, etc. So if you don’t get any of that when you take the online program, why do you pay the same price? Seems like a fair question, right?

Enter the word: value. Depending on how you define it, the value of something can be fairly subjective. A one-of-a-kind vintage Beatles t-shirt from the 1960s might be worth a couple hundred bucks to me, despite its cost of production. So I can see that the value of a Stanford degree earned online, for example, might be worth much more than the cost of production. And here, I’m assuming the cost of production for online learning is much less than the cost of the residential experience. Push back on that if I’m wrong.

To Hamish’s point, eLearning certainly has its own costs. And I’m an eLearning advocate who really values the online option – to be honest, often in my experience the quality of online can surpass the brick-and-mortar. But should I have to pay more for it than the residential experience? Aren’t the residential prices completely bloated and unreasonable?

Am I missing something?

Anytime, Anywhere, Cheap Brand-Name Professional Development

Perhaps it’s Stanford University’s proximity to Silicon Valley that gives it an innovative bent, or maybe the West Coast Ivy is hoping to capitalize on the experience some faculty have had in recent years opening their classes to a broad audience. Or maybe the school is just trying to avoid the tsunami-like impact of digital era disruption better than record and book stores have.

Stanford certificates carry brand-name appeal

Last week, Stanford announced a fully online, low-cost/high-quality Energy Innovation and Emerging Technologies certification. Courses will be taught by the field’s “preeminent researchers”, will be open to nearly anyone, will have no prerequisites, and the program’s 4 courses will cost a total of $780. Courses are offered more or less within the traditional semester format, but it appears one could complete the certificate in just a few months if the courses were taken simultaneously. This is not a completely new format for Stanford, as the university also offers an online certificate in IT Benchmarking, which can be completed in about 6 months, on average, and costs only $500.

So, here are just a few of the questions I’m pondering as I consider Stanford’s program:

1. How much longer before brand-name university programs replace conferences and local grad courses as regular professional development for educators? This summer, it will cost my school and me about $1,500 combined for me to go to ISTE in San Diego. If, for example, the Harvard School of Ed offered a go-at-my-own-pace-anytime-anywhere certificate program of focused professional development in eLearning for say $700, why would I go to a conference? From such a program I would get a verification of mastery from a widely respected institution. Yes, conferences are great for meeting new people, interacting with experts, and hearing new ideas, but modern online courses are probably just as good as conferences for this. And, yes, good online certificates in eLearning already exist, but the program at George Washington U., for example, costs almost $700 per credit hour.

2. Will we see online certifications cannibalize graduate programs? Masters in education programs are typically either expensive, difficult to attend due to scheduling, or both. And, in my experience, it’s sometimes unclear what the practical value of these programs are to the daily practice of teaching. Would it be better for teachers to instead hold certifications in specific areas like “inquiry-based learning” or “differentiated assessment”? It seems to me that a university could leverage economies of scale to offer such programs, taught by recognized experts, to a wide number of teachers for very low costs.

I’m just scratching the surface here. The nearly weekly news that high-quality programs are going online with dramatically lower barriers for participation than traditional education tells us that the tsunami is closer than most think. Kudos to Stanford for keeping their eyes open. It will be interesting to see if they’ve acted quickly enough.

Photo courtesy of Steven Erat,