It is not news that college in the United States is extortionately, inexcusably expensive. Much ink has been spilled about just how expensive: up to a quarter of a million dollars at some private schools; $60,000 at public ones. Even more ink has been spilled to lament the loss of state funding at state schools and the exponential growth of nonacademic expenditures, including ridiculously paid administrators and ridiculous amenities. Someone has to do something, says everyone.
Now, someone is. Last week, a Kickstarter video for a thing called Teachur floated across my Facebook feed, featuring Josh Stanley and Ben Blair, two former adjunct professors and veterans in educational design and ed-tech. These fellows seemed really aware of both the sources of tuition bloat and the shortcomings of the current academic status quo. And, they claimed, if given the resources (and the accreditation), they could offer a B.A. for $1,000. For the whole thing.
Sometimes, something seems so pie-in-the-sky that it loops all the way around to Why the hell not?
Teachur is part of a trend known as “competency-based education” (CBE), an alternate approach to degree-granting. CBE has some high-profile fans, such as President Obama, who lauds it for its emphasis on what a student can actually do, rather than whether or not that student has spent the requisite 15 weeks with her butt in a seat, mocking her professor’s attire on Yik Yak and hoping the PowerPoints will be posted online. I’ve critiqued CBE in the past, because its leading providers, such as Western Governors University, still seem too expensive—about $24,000–$35,000 for a degree. CBE students still have to pay full tuition, even if they just want to take a bunch of online tests—tests conceived, proctored, and graded by for-profit providers.
Stanley and Blair, whom I reached by email, agree with my critiques of CBE, and tell me they are aiming to circumvent them. “Most education today is pegged to how much they can get their students to borrow,” says Stanley. “These types of schools and companies [that provide CBE] are susceptible to some of the [same] criticisms of institutionalized education: Their degree offerings and curriculum are relatively static and limited, and the orientation as an institution is to maintain the institution.”
Though presumably Teachur, if accredited, will also be an institution that seeks to maintain itself, the model does seem to work differently.
Before they pay anything, students using Teachur log into an interface that allows them to research degrees and then get a list of objectives they must meet for the degree they want. How they go about meeting those objectives is their choice, say Stanley and Blair. “Teachur is compatible with any way you can master the material,” explains Stanley. “Want to learn through face-to-face interaction and collaborative work? Perhaps try auditing [a college course], or take a community class, or organize a meetup or study group, or hire a tutor (all at much more affordable prices from enrolling in college). Want to spend more time listening to podcasts or watching instructional videos? That’s OK, too.”
What will distinguish Teachur, however, is that students don’t pay “a dime” until they are ready to be assessed for a course. Most of the $1,000, they tell me, will go to pay for “blockchain-verified assessments,” which is ed-tech speak for “stuff that is set up to prevent fraud and cheating.”
Effectively, students will pay an hourly rate for what basically amounts to a face-to-face oral examination with a qualified “counselor,” which Stanley and Blair estimate could work out to about $100 per four-course load (which is what traditional students take per semester). Students can feasibly do their assessments anytime. (Other fees incurred on the way to the mythical $1,000 include optional tutoring and mentoring.)
But I wonder: In this brave new world of self-directed learning, where are the teachers? Part of the crisis of the American university, or a large part of it, is that actual instruction, as Stanley puts it, is left to the “lowest bidder,” aka the growing army of contingent faculty and per-course adjuncts who are slowly taking over the profession of professing and transitioning it away from a dignified middle-class living. Will something like Teachur help them, too?
Allegedly, yes, because the platform also works as a clearinghouse for curricula provided by professors of all levels and affiliations; they can upload their materials, tutor and mentor students, and even create entire courses, all for actual cash money. (Details of a compensation plan are still being hashed out, but, says Stanley, they are hoping to create a system this year.)
“Teachur offers a way for anyone who can teach anything to shine and be compensated for quality contributions, through direct payment and through improved reputation,” says Stanley. “To us, this sounds like the type of merit-based rewards or supplemental market that lots of people could rally around.” That market would be one that stands in stark contrast to the current, prestige-based oligarchy that rewards the same tiny group of elite Ph.D.s one generation after the next.
It all sounds too good to be true. And technically, of course, it is, because it’s only in the Kickstarter phase. How, for example, will this institution (platform? service?) get accredited? There is a plan in place, likely with the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, but it will take two years, or “summer of 2018, before our first enrollees are ready to graduate.” Stanley also makes the point that accreditation itself can be as much of a boondoggle as the rest of higher-ed; the main reason most institutions get accredited in the first place—especially those for-profits—is to qualify for government financial aid.
“It will be too easy for ‘real’ universities to dismiss our price if we aren’t accredited,” Stanley explains. “Oh, of course they can charge so little, they aren’t accredited. By becoming accredited it will hopefully pre-empt that argument.”
Fair enough. But it has been my experience as an educator and general smart-ish person that even smart people are not nearly as good at self-direction as they think they are. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have a 93 percent attrition rate. Online courses are under constant scrutiny for leaving behind the very students they aim to serve. How will the Teachur model be any different? Well, argues Stanley, “if you look at which objectives a student has learned, it changes the [description] drop-out to the student has completed one-third of the learning objectives. This is a significant difference. It’s a shift from thinking about learning as one complete course to thinking about learning as discrete learning objectives.”
Not to get too Wittgensteinian, but here’s why students are generally very bad at self-directed learning—like, awful at it: In order to teach something, you have to know it really, really well—and if you know something well enough to teach it (to yourself), you don’t have to learn it. I expressed this concern to Stanley, who countered it with more philosophy: “We’re not really trying to help people teach themselves, but to help them recognize what they must master—what they don’t know.” Touché.
What something like Teachur needs to do is disrupt the higher-education prestige economy, offering both students and teachers a workaround that avoids college as “this expensive endeavor that needs to be solved with charity or endowment,” Stanley says. “This creates the exclusionary and competitive system we see today.” I agree, but I am also skeptical that scholars who have been overlooked by a brutal job market will fare any better on this one, without the prestige of an institution to trade on—or that students with a diploma from a startup will fare well on a job market that trades on that same prestige.
Still, this sort of thing could be an incendiary force in the education world. It’s not perfect, but it’s a truly good idea, and a revolutionary one. It may be met with the scorn and derision that entrenched status-quo academics use to signal fear. Here’s hoping I’m wrong about that. And yes, adjunct friends, the Kickstarter money means they are hiring curriculum and assessment writers. Tell them I sent you.