By Jim Shimabukuro
Steve Cooper is founder of Tech University of America (TechUofA) and a former Army education trainer. The following interview was conducted via email from September 8 to 12.
JS: How did you come up with the idea of offering college courses for a flat monthly fee (e.g., $99 for all the classes a student wants to take) and how long have you been doing this?
SC: All of the courses that we are developing will be free and open to everyone. However, only when students want to begin a transcript and earn an academic certificate or degree is there a $99/month that allows them to take ten courses per year. We only use free etextbooks/resources so there aren’t any other major fees associated with earning a degree.
While building several online university programs I watched as they artificially raised tuition to the student loan cap. I was one of the few for-profit CEOs who didn’t have an MBA or wasn’t a banker so I looked at things much differently. In 2007 when I took over as CEO of a for-profit university, I decided to lower tuition in order to make higher education accessible to more people. We immediately began to enroll students from Africa and several other countries. I found that if you have the same quality of faculty as other well established schools and run a transparent program then people will attend your school if you lower your tuition. At the same time I started to see the popularity of social networking sites explode while the economy started to weaken. I then realized that three things were hot: social networking sites, online learning, and lower or zero-tuition.
Early in 2008, I used to drive over to University of Phoenix Online and sit in the parking lot in search of inspiration. I would sit there for hours watching the sunset, hoping to soak up some of their creative energies, while asking myself, “What would Dr. John Sperling, the founder of University of Phoenix, do today if he were to do it all over again?” I concluded that the first thing he would do is take education to the masses as he did years ago by bringing education from the ivory tower to the community in office buildings then eventually via distance learning. I think one of his greatest keys to success was leveraging existing resources rather than trying to force people to change. For example, he didn’t try to make the corporate offices where they held classes look “academic” nor did he develop some goofy learning management system to deliver their distance learning courses. Rather, they used the existing business offices and Outlook Express. People were familiar with regular office buildings (not intimidating like a college campus) and it was convenient. Also, most adults have used Outlook or Outlook Express so they lessened the learning curve by using systems students would be familiar with — and if they weren’t, chances were that someone they knew could help them — as opposed to building some esoteric and irrelevant elearning system that wasn’t intuitive to adult learners.
So, I eventually thought that if Dr. Sperling were to start over he would bring higher education to the masses. However, today the masses are in social networking sites. At this point I still had not seen a social networking site but realized that if they were generating that much buzz there had to be a reason. I logged into one and instantly said to myself that this is the ideal online classroom! A week later I directed one of my staff members to teach a course in a social networking site, PerfSpot.com, since I knew their leadership and found them to be dedicated to a global reach — and it was absolutely amazing! Social networking sites allow the faculty and students to control their online learning environment (end-user innovation) and can do all the things that conventional learning management systems can’t or won’t allow such as video, audio, showing photos of the users, widgets, etc.
Moreover, using social networking sites to deliver college courses greatly reduces our cost of delivering education since we pay neither learning management fees, which can be as high as $120 per student per course, nor technical staff for support. In essence, it’s a win-win-win because the social networking sites benefit from having more users (our students), we as a college gain by not having any learning management fees, and our faculty and students win because they get to control their learning environment.
JS: Are TechUofA courses accredited? If yes, by whom? If not, is lack of accreditation a problem?
SC: No. Tech University of America is not accredited. We must be operating for two years before we are eligible to apply for accreditation, and we intend to apply as soon as we are eligible in 2011. Since we are a start-up school we have a lot of R&D, yet, at the same time, we are a business so we have to actively seek ways to grow our student body. In order to better serve new schools as well as their prospective students, I believe that accrediting bodies should have a provision that allows for new schools to be conditionally accredited before they start offering courses and then heavily monitor them until they are accredited. In the meantime, we have to operate for two years prior to seeking accreditation, which does offer us time to improve our academic processes while fine tuning the operations of our university.
JS: Are TechUofA classes completely online? Or are students required to participate in F2F (face-to-face) activities at some point during a course? If not, is this lack of F2F contact a problem?
SC: All of our courses and programs are delivered 100% online, and we do not plan on any residency requirements. Recent studies have shown that online learners can attain the same, if not higher, learning outcomes than their F2F counterparts. Having said that, I do think that F2F interaction is obviously valuable. To this end we are exploring several ways that we can integrate various optional study programs that will bring some of our students who live around the world together for meaningful experiential and F2F learning.
Steve Cooper: While I fully agree with Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price . . . that anything that becomes digital inevitably becomes free, I do think that we will see a hierarchy emerge within online learning: we will have free or very low priced schools, then more expensive programs, and finally exclusive online programs for the very wealthy . . . .
JS: Is it possible for a student to complete a degree or certificate at TechUofA? Would this be a TechUofA degree or a degree offered by a college that relies on TechUofA courses?
SC: We will be offering certificate programs as well as associate, bachelor, and master degree programs in business management with several concentrations in fields such as criminal justice, sustainability, construction management, computer science, and sports management. However, we are beginning to partner with several colleges that are interested in using our courses — in these cases students who are enrolled in a partner school and complete our courses would receive credit/degrees from their school, not Tech University of America. In this case we will serve as a blackboard, if you will, with our courses hosted in Facebook, and partner schools will use them at their discretion.
JS: What is the instructor-to-student ratio for your classes? If the ratio is far greater than for F2F classes, how do TechUofA instructors manage the large number of students?
SC: Our student-to-faculty ratio is 1:20 for most courses, and 1:25 for the rest, which is about the average for most online schools, and considerably less than large research universities where ratios of 1:500 are not uncommon.
JS: If students enter a course at any time and exit at any time, I’d imagine that record keeping may be a major problem. Does the instructor monitor all of her/his students? Or is this managed by someone else?
SC: Non-degree seeking students, those who are just using the course materials, may come and go as they please. For our degree-seeking students we have definite start and end dates for each course, and each course is eight weeks in length. Since our courses have less than 25 students, our faculty are able to manage each course.
JS: Are TechUofA instructor salaries comparable to that of F2F institutions? Do you have full- and part-time instructors?
SC: We engage adjunct faculty members to teach our courses. They must have a graduate degree from an accredited school, with practical work experience in their field of study. We also require that our faculty have teaching experience at a regionally accredited school. This allows us to demonstrate that the quality of our faculty is comparable to that of accredited schools.
We use a variable pay model, with each faculty member earning $50-$75 per student. This incentivizes faculty to teach more students per course and is fair because the more they work, the more they earn. At the same time it helps us contain our costs since we are not paying faculty $2,000 when there are only four students in a course. The fact that we do not cap the amount faculty can earn means that they can do quite well. Also, our model encourages faculty to use their own videos in YouTube, social networking sites, etc., which can increase the likelihood that they will be able to secure a textbook contract because faculty who can demonstrate a substantial following these days are highly sought after by publishers. Finally, given that we charge $99 per month, you can see that 50-75% of our revenues go to faculty pay as they are the most critical part of our team.
JS: Does TechUofA rely on staff from countries where salaries and wages are much lower? If yes, is there a problem in quality?
SC: No. However, as we grow our international student body, we will explore hiring staff who reside in countries where we have a large student base so that our staff can relate well to our students, thus serving them better than we can here in Phoenix, Arizona. I must add that I personally am not convinced that outsourcing labor to other countries always saves a considerable amount of money, especially when you consider the inevitable travel, loss of business from language barriers, rising costs associated with outsourcing, etc.
JS: Is TechUofA international? In other words, do students come from many different nations? In U.S. TechUofA classes, are international students charged a higher fee?
SC: We are proud that we have had many inquiries from international students, and in our model everyone pays the same fees. However, we are working on raising money so that we can offer scholarships to people in developing countries so they do not have pay anything to earn a degree from Tech University of America. Also, we are working on building a networking system that allows more fortunate students to sponsor (pay for tuition) for students who cannot afford the $99 a month to earn a degree. We believe this will lead to several meaningful relationships between our students.
JS: Are services such as TechUofA growing in numbers and popularity? Do you foresee a time when the TechUofA way of providing classes will be the dominant means of earning a diploma, degree, or certificate? Will this be at the K-12 or college level? Or both?
SC: Absolutely. Click here for the best overview of this movement which refers to us as EduPunks. Yes, I do see a day when the Tech University of America model will be the prevailing way of providing online courses, and by this I mean using social networking sites as the learning management system rather than Blackboard, using free etextbooks rather than traditional textbooks, etc., but I do not think all schools will have all their courses offered for free and only charge $99 a month for degree seeking students. While I fully agree with Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, and his assertion that anything that becomes digital inevitably becomes free, I do think that we will see a hierarchy emerge within online learning: we will have free or very low priced schools, then more expensive programs, and finally exclusive online programs for the very wealthy that are as expensive as, if not moreso, than Harvard. At the same time I predict that we will only have 50 state schools – one for each state – that has football teams, fraternities, etc., and the rest of the students will attend private, for profit schools, either onground or online, especially given the rise of online high schools. I have been told there are more than one million online high schools students in America.
JS: Is student cheating a problem in TechUofA classes? If not, how is it handled?
SC: Student cheating, plagiarism, program integrity and student authentication are all serious challenges for all schools. The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 requires that a school that offers online courses have procedures in place to ensure that that students who enroll in a course are the same students who take the course and ultimately receive credits. While the HEOA doesn’t apply to us since we will not utilize Title IV funds (federal student loans), we are fully committed to ensuring program integrity. In addition to having a required assignment on personal accountability and plagiarism in our introductory course, have engaged CSIdentity’s Voice Verified product to ensure that the student who enrolls in Tech University of America is the same student who is in a particular course, completes course assisgnments, and ultimately receives academic credit. This is done by randomly verifying the biometrics of their voice throughout their entire course of studies, and the Voice Verified solution is more accurate than a fingerprint.
JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SC: Sure, I think it is important to point out that Facebook, which is central to our model at Tech University of Ameirca, was created by students, for students, and it is fitting that Facebook is finally becoming the leading learning management system. I predict that within 2-5 years, Facebook will buy Blackboard and move all of its users into Facebook..
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