What's Holding Back Online Courses: Money, Quality, or Inertia?

"We should focus on having at least one great course online for each subject rather than lots of mediocre courses," Bill Gates wrote in his 2010 annual letter for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The appeal is obvious and nearly universal. At a time when states are looking to cut spending on higher ed, and aspiring students are looking for great deals on quality college education, a downloadable one-size-fits-all course on, say, psychology would replace the need for expensive instruction. So why isn't Prof. Randall Stross nervous about being replaced by a piece of software?
Developing that best-in-the-world online course -- in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class -- requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too.

One million dollars sounds like a lot of money. But it's the cost of six to eight Ivy League professors' one-year salaries, or 25 students' tuition at a top-twenty university. Twenty five students! That's a discussion section! The cost just doesn't sound prohibitive to me especially considering the deep benefits of creating a worldwide replacement for human-taught evergreen classes like Pysch 101. The challenge of designing an intellectually rigorous and widely accepted software program that top schools would take ... now that's a much taller barrier.

Read the full story at the New York Times.