Imagine that you could take a Physics MOOC or free online course based on the same course and contents at MIT, take a proficiency exam administered by Stanford at a cost of $150 USD, and earn 4 hour credits to be used anywhere. Now imagine you could do that to take 18 courses, pass the associated proficiency exams, and earn enough academic credit hours to transfer as a junior (3rd year student) to the top Civil Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All at a cost of less than $3,000 USD to learn from the best experts in the world, and pass the exams from the best universities on Earth. In addition, you could do all these in your hometown, be it in Chicago, Chengdu, KL, Kodiang, Jakarta, or even Timbuktu.
Impossible? The key ingredients are already out there. Take a look at the list of online courses with complete video lectures from MIT below – this alone could support and satisfy the requirements for an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree. Also, some online and small colleges have experimented with the independent study plus proficiency exam concept for a few courses. The next bold step is to offer the whole package (as shown below as an example) equivalent to the first two years of any 4-year university degree program at efficient, ultra-low cost, but high in quality. This concept could truly be a new disruptive innovation in higher education.
Example Free Courses to Support Independent Study Based
Associate of Science Degree (A.S.)
Associate of Science Degree (A.S.)
Hypothetically, a student could choose to pass and combine any different system. One could choose to pass all the science and technology requirements from top engineering schools (e.g. MIT, Berkeley, Illinois etc.), and all general education requirements from top liberal arts school (e.g. Harvard, Columbia). The universities may also employ different strategies to address different objectives to target the underprivileged groups or attract hidden, young talents. Caltech may make its Ph.D qualification exam in Physics available at all test centers around the world – one exam could waive all Physics-related requirements, and offer a non-traditional route to a Ph.D. before even completing the Bachelor of Science degree.
Motivation & Goal
Motivation & Goal
In a long flight across the Pacific last April, I was intrigue by an article in the Economist regarding the return on investment of higher education. Since then I've been thinking about different ways to improve the ROI, especially from the supply side to address the cost element.
Here is my hypothesis: Combining high-quality, free online courses with a rigorous proficiency exam system available at low cost will revolutionize the higher-education landscape in the U.S. and globally by making higher education more accessible at more reasonable cost.
I believe a 50% cost reduction of any 4-year higher education degree program in the U.S. and around the world is an attainable goal. I describe this concept in more detail below using an example strategic plan including the vision, mission, objectives, key initial activities and potential risks (e.g. brand dilution) for a hypothetical university interested to implement the concept:
- Pioneer and leader in promoting rigorous online academic independent study.
- To advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship worldwide, and help everyone attains a higher-education credential effectively and cost-efficiently.
- Offer opportunities to everyone to earn an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree effectively and cost-efficiently to transfer to any 4-year degree program in science and engineering.
- Develop and administer proficiency-based online Associate of Science (A.S.) degree programs.
- Identify and organically develop high-quality course materials online and make them available to everyone.
- Reduce the cost of any 4-year degree program in the world by at least 50%.
Key Initial Activities:
- Discuss with the Faculty and Board of Trustees to get approval to offer an online Associate of Science (A.S.) degree.
- Solicit and secure private endowments especially from large educational foundations e.g. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the effort.
- Work with related academic consortiums or networks (e.g. Transferology™) to ensure academic credit transferability to other universities.
- Develop and manage a proficiency exam system and collaborations with test centers.
- Identify and collaborate with international university partners to accept transfer students from the online A.S. program.
- Develop communications, publicity and marketing plans.
- Granting an online degree, let alone an online associate degree, may dilute a top university's brand. To mitigate this risk the proposed program could be led by an independent entity supported by the top university e.g. a virtual Global campus. The benefit of being the pioneer and leader to revolutionize higher education in the U.S. and globally may outweigh this risk.
- Different universities could develop a proficiency exam system, come up with a list of approved online study materials, administer the exams, and confer the associate degree. A big-name university may be required on the supply side to induce market confidence and ensure the success of the program. So there is a risk of being left behind by other institution peers.
- The online associate degree may not receive as wider acceptance as expected for admission to degree programs worldwide. This risk's mitigation strategies may include identifying and partnering with championed universities including existing partners, and to guarantee admission to home campus to students with above 90% or 3.75/4.00 overall grade at the completion of their associate of science studies.
- Proficiency-based model is exam oriented. Students can cram to study and pass a proficiency exam for a course with an intensive 2-3 week schedule. It's not clear if the students would actually learn, and can survive more dynamic and rigorous technical courses in their following two years to complete their degrees. An alternative is the competency model e.g. by College for America/SNHU that requires students to complete various competency tasks. The competency-based model might not be financially sustainable as it is expected to incur high costs to implement such a subjective assessment system. The proficiency-based model would be more objective in assessing students' performances, and its low cost would enable an implementation over wider market globally.
- Independent learning requires high self-discipline and basic technical skills, hence not for everyone.
As with my other articles, this is me thinking out loud. Large financial and intellectual champions are definitely needed to hash out the concept. If this idea do have merits, it will be realized sooner or later. I prefer to let the market decide, ideally with some government's encouragement. If not, well, it doesn't cost much to be thinking out loud.