College in a Box

Textbook giants are now teaching classes.

A college-age woman works on a laptop.
Organic chemistry is still hard, even online.

Photo by Ammentorp Photography/Thinkstock

This summer, Chad Mason signed up for online general psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This spring, Jonathan Serrano took intro to psychology online at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey.

Though the two undergraduates were separated by more than 600 miles, enrolled in different institutions, and paying different tuitions, they were taking what amounts to the same course. That’s because the course wasn’t produced by either school. Instead, it was a sophisticated package devised by publishing giant Pearson PLC and delivered through a powerful online platform called MyPsychLab.

Both students worked their way through the same online textbook, watched the same series of videos, and took automatically graded quizzes pulled from the same question bank. All the teaching that might have taken place in a classroom was handled by the MyPsychLab software. Serrano took the course entirely online, never meeting his fellow classmates in person. He communicated by email and phone with his nominal local instructor, who offered encouragement and guidance. Mason also took the class entirely online;  he says he had no contact with his professor, save for a few mass emails reminding him when assignments were due. He took his final while on vacation in the Bahamas.

The phenomenon is not limited to Essex and UNC, nor to the field of psychology. Jamie Wingo enrolled in an online college algebra class last year at Odessa College in Texas, and Suzanne Visciano enrolled in college algebra at Western Governors University, a nonprofit school that offers classes entirely online. They, too, took almost exactly the same course, based on something called MyMathLab, also developed by Pearson.

These are strong classes overall, and students are generally pretty happy with them. Wingo says that anytime she was stuck on a problem, she could click on a button and up would pop a video of someone working out the equation she was struggling with. “The videos would actually show you how to do the examples from the book,” she says. Visciano is equally enthusiastic. “It might have felt like an obstacle course if I hadn’t had videos to watch,” she says. “Polynominals, blah. But then I’d click on a video and there would be a teacher explaining it. It was just as good as a classroom.” MyMathLab took care of the whole course, from illustrating thorny concepts to correcting online quizzes, even spitting out their grades at the end. Wingo received an A-; Visciano got a B-.

As these online course products have improved, more and more schools have plugged them into their curricula. The result is a creeping homogenization of basic classes throughout many U.S. universities. That’s raising some uncomfortable questions, starting with: Why should I pick one school over another if they offer the exact same classes? And: Why are universities buying ready-made frozen meals instead of cooking up their own educational fare?

For the schools, adopting these online courses is part of a complicated trade-off. Colleges and universities are under pressure to roll out more online offerings, for a number of reasons. In some states, such as Florida, legislatures are leaning on public universities to expand online classes to produce more grads at a lower cost. At many community colleges, the classrooms are spilling over, and expanding online becomes a way to meet soaring demand. Finally, some schools just fear being left behind as more material migrates online.

Creating online courses from scratch is expensive and time-consuming. When universities try to do it themselves, the results can be erratic. Some online classes wind up being not much more than grainy videos of lectures and a collection of PowerPoint slides.

Publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. They’ve been at the game longer, possess vast libraries of content from their textbook divisions, and have invested heavily in creating state-of-the-art course technology.

Faced with these alternatives, schools frequently choose the plug-and-play solution. “We would love to create all of the online content ourselves, but that’s not always economically feasible,” says Lindsey Hamlin, the director of continuing and distance education at South Dakota State University, which uses an array of Pearson products for classes in math, economics, and psychology. “These types of courses are really easy to implement. Yes, they are created by other professors. But the content is really good.”

Companies such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Wiley—the heavies of the college textbook market—have produced bundles that are basically a turnkey solution for basic chemistry or econ 101 and dozens of other classes, most at the introductory level. These courses feature content vetted by experts, slickly produced videos, and a load of interactive tests and quizzes. Some are so advanced that they can simulate a physics experiment, engage a student in a developmental psychology exercise, or even run software that grades an 800-word essay. They provide pretty much the entire course experience, without much interaction with a professor and without the hassle of showing up to class on time—or, for some instructors, the hassle of teaching.

The growing uniformity, though it has its advantages, puts schools in an awkward position. The transaction can reduce colleges’ academic mission to that of middleman, reselling course materials produced elsewhere. If schools are offering the same basic courses with minimal variations, it makes it all the more difficult to sell themselves to prospective students or justify their tuition levels.

At UNC–Charlotte, tuition and fees for the psychology course run $413 for in-state students and $1,682 for out of state. The MyPsychLab price is about $173 extra. At Essex, tuition is $325 and fees for MyPsychLab are about $130. Students can buy MyPsychLab directly from Pearson or through the college bookstore.

It’s sensitive terrain for the publishers as well. In theory, many of their courses could easily act as stand-alone products they could sell directly to students who need to fill a social science or math requirement. Pearson PLC could become Pearson U. But the publishers don’t have college accreditation. They need the colleges to turn a course into something that can count toward a degree, and they don’t want to undercut their main market.

In the past few years, the digital courses have grown into a sizeable slice of the publishers’ overall business. McGraw-Hill’s revenue for its digital higher education products hit $261 million last year, up from $60 million in 2008, and it now accounts for a third of the higher-education division’s total sales.

Last year, the cumulative number of students who had taken a class that uses one of Pearson’s MyLab or Mastering products, which cover topics from sociology to physics, exceeded 11 million, a 9 percent increase from the year before.

All told, 34 percent of the 21 million students enrolled in a degree program in the fall of 2012 were taking at least one online course, according to an annual survey released by the Babson Research Group. That’s up from less than 10 percent a decade earlier. As these courses have grown, universities have increasingly relied on adjuncts—external faculty who are often paid on a course-by-course basis—to teach them. Since 2005, universities have hired part-time faculty (a category that accounts for the bulk of adjuncts) at nearly twice the rate as full-time faculty.

These courses are distinct from MOOCs, the massive open online courses that have garnered lots of attention but not as much traction. Most MOOCs have been transferred from the classrooms at prestigious universities such as Harvard or Stanford and are offered for free but, significantly, not for college credit. Only in a few cases have they been moved into college curricula, generally with mixed success.

So far, most of the courses that the publishers produce are the general education classes, such as basic biology or introduction to sociology, the kind a student might traditionally take in a large lecture hall without a lot of one-on-one interaction with an instructor. But the publishers have been steadily creeping up into higher-division courses as well, the ones that might otherwise be taught by a professor sitting around a table with a dozen or so students.

McGraw Hill’s SmartBook technology—which allows an entire course to be created online—is now available in more than 400 titles in 68 different course areas, including organizational behavior and organic chemistry.

Pearson’s MyLab series now has products in criminal justice and Jewish thought and culture. The MyPsychLab line offers six different topics in psychology, including abnormal psychology and clinical psychology. Its Mastering series for science topics has courses in the geography of climate change and microbiology.

“Demand for digital products is simply going to increase,” says Jason Jordan, the director of digital strategy at Pearson’s education division. “Students have grown up in a digital world and will be more demanding of content delivered digitally.”

At the same time, he notes, the higher-education landscape has become more cutthroat, with schools now battling one another on price. “Customers will be selecting where they want to go with their wallets,” he says. Universities will be forced to respond by beefing up digital courses that they can offer to more students at a lower cost. “That’s the bet Pearson is making,” says Jordan.

It’s also likely to lead to greater standardization. Some argue that’s just what higher education needs. “In the standardization argument, we’re missing the forest for the trees,” says Stephen Laster, the chief digital officer of McGraw-Hill’s education division. Creating standard materials, he argues, makes it easier to create measures for evaluating whether students have actually learned what they were supposed to. “Without measurement we can’t educate,” he says.

Even some professors see standardization as a giant leap forward. Lori van Wallendael, who helps develop UNC–Charlotte’s introductory psychology courses, says that while some faculty resist being told what they have to teach, standardization ensures that students have the same basic knowledge when they move into more advanced classes or transfer to another school.

Former majority leader of the California state Senate Dean Florez, who now runs Twenty Million Minds, an organization that lobbies to lower textbook costs, is on the same wavelength. Florez welcomes the increasing standardization, arguing that it allows us to dispense with the fiction that each college offers a unique approach to teaching. If basic courses can be standardized, he says, then they can be delivered at scale, which in turn will drive down tuition costs. And at the current prices, what’s not to like about that? “The more users of the software,” he says, “the lower the price should be.”

But the publishers have to tread carefully around how they peddle their products. They are wary of making it appear that they are offering a complete course solution where the professor fades into the background. In many cases, however, it becomes a Catch-22: The more sophisticated the product, the less the professor is required to do. The course software can monitor, test, and grade students. Some can even check for plagiarism. It’s a tempting offer for any instructor, but it also opens the question of how much is the professor really needed to deliver the goods.

So the publishers emphasize how professors can customize the experience, adding in their own materials if they like. They also stress that their products take care of teaching a lot of the nuts-and-bolts topics, thereby allowing the professor to focus on higher-level concepts.

“Virtually everything we offer can be customized,” says Laster. “We don’t think we’re the replacement for the master teacher, but you can rely on us that what we provide has been tested, vetted, and provides outcomes.”

Just how much these courses are customized is difficult to determine. Clearly, many are slotted directly into a curriculum and rolled out to students. “Just about 99 percent of them do that, take it right out of the box,” says Christine Higgins, a former Pearson account manager. “I worked with the largest universities in the country, and that’s what they do. They don’t change them.”

Sometimes the course software is so complete, handling all testing and grading, that students have only passing contact with an instructor or even none at all. “In some classes, I felt the profs got off pretty darn easy because they didn’t even have to grade the assignments,” says Lisa Decker, who is completing her undergraduate degree via online classes at the University of Toledo.

A certain level of standardization is nothing new in higher education. For decades, many general education courses have hewed closely to a structure laid out by the major textbooks, whether in economics or physics. Certainly, some professors have taught classes that involve little more than recapping topics laid out in the textbook. But as those textbooks have become interactive digital products, packaged with videos and other multimedia materials, along with tests, quizzes, and automatic grading, the level of standardization has risen steadily.

Some universities are becoming wary of professors who simply want to unpack a course product and let it run with no modifications. Sue Day-Perroots is the associate vice president for academic innovation at West Virginia University. “Some of these [products] are entire courses. I get a little nervous with that,” she says. Even if the products from Pearson are better than what her faculty can produce, “it goes back to faculty ownership,” she says. “I still want faculty to have some ownership of the content they are teaching.” 

Some institutions, particularly community colleges, aren’t interested in boasting about a picturesque campus or winning football team. They just want to deliver on their central mission: serving the greatest number of students at the lowest cost. For them, ready-made courses are a godsend. Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona, has close to 70,000 students, more than half of whom take classes online. “Our model is very scalable,” says Jennifer McGrath, the vice president for academic affairs. “One course, many sections. Same lesson, same assignments.” Though the school has its own team of online course designers and a dedicated studio to produce course videos, it can only create a fraction of the more than 600 classes it offers. So it looks for third-party content to fill the gap. “We’re very much a Pearson school,” says McGrath.

The results, she says, have been encouraging. It’s easy to measure learning outcomes with the publishers’ online course software, and student retention and completion rates have been high. There are dissenters, she admits. “Some faculty might bristle because they perceive a loss of academic freedom,” she says. “It’s a delicate balance.”

The level of faculty involvement can vary considerably, even with prefab courses. Chad Mason, the UNC­–Charlotte student who took general psychology, said he had only glancing contact with his instructor. Even his essay was automatically graded, giving him machine-generated feedback on voice, sentence structure, and the depth of his ideas. 

But Jonathan Serrano, who took the similar course at Essex County College, said that toward the end of the course, he was calling his professor so often “that I felt I had to apologize.” While the course materials might have all come from Pearson, Serrano said that his professor acted as a guide and at times cheerleader for those in the class. Serrano also received personal feedback on his essays and interacted with classmates through an online discussion session, which the professor monitored closely. He says he felt he grew as a writer during the semester.

The professor, Thomas Page, also holds two conference calls each semester with all his online students. “I think it’s really important to guide them through the process,” he says.

Page, who, in addition to teaching psychology runs the online learning program at Essex, at first created his own online class, making videos of his lectures and uploading his slides and other materials. But after one semester, he realized that Pearson’s MyPsychLab offered a more thorough experience than he could produce himself. So he switched. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel. It was already done,” he says.

Many schools are faced with a similar choice, says Jefferson Flanders, the chief executive of MindEdge Inc., which produces a learning technology platform as well as content for universities and others. “Ironically, I would fear less the course-in-a-box future than I do the cooking-it-at-home,” he says. Doing it yourself, in most cases, means an inferior experience for the student. “Is it better to rework your own biology class online, or take a Pearson Mastering class which has a lot of research behind it?” he asks. That’s an uncomfortable situation for many faculty, however, as they turn over much of the basic teaching to software.

“I don’t think there are any heroes or villains here,” says Flanders. “There is just an extremely muddled understanding of what the boundaries are, and real questions for faculty about what their role might be.”