New Provider Offers Low-Cost Online Courses. But Will the Credit Transfer?

Aug 15, 2019

The leader of a company known for light-hearted lessons from celebrities is moving into more academic topics—and starting to offer college credit.

Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass, this week announced the launch of Outlier, an online provider of university-level courses. While MasterClass offers taped lectures on cooking by chef Gordon Ramsay, guitar shredding by musician Carlos Santana and creative writing by youth fiction author Judy Blume, the first Outlier courses teach calculus I and introductory psychology.

Although the Outlier topics are decidedly more staid, they may serve a higher purpose. That’s because Rasmussen thinks he can help students reduce the cost of earning degrees.

Outlier joins the ranks of several other online course providers that market their a-la-carte classes (rather than complete degree programs) as more affordable options for earning college credit despite having no accreditation of their own.

For example, StraighterLine and Study.com offer courses approved as “college equivalency” by entities such as the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service and the National College Credit Recommendation Service.

Outlier pursued a different route to legitimacy by securing a seal of approval directly from the University of Pittsburgh, which has accreditation. That’s somewhat similar to credit-eligible courses hosted by edX, each of which is associated with a specific accredited institution.

One key difference is that at edX, university partners design the classes, while Rasmussen says he and the Outlier team initially developed their courses largely independently of the University of Pittsburgh, taking a collage approach by incorporating components from lots of different college syllabi and textbooks and involving many professors in the curriculum design process. Instructors who recorded the lectures came from institutions including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, New York University and Davidson College. Student assessments, Rasmussen says, are graded by “robots.”

However, Pittsburgh faculty do provide oversight and guidance for the classes, university provost Ann E. Cudd told EdSurge in a statement.

Outlier will share profits with the university, Rasmussen says. He declined to say how much seed funding the company raised.

Tricky Transfer Credit

One key promise of these credit-eligible online classes is that they may count as transfer credit at a variety of accredited institutions. But not every college plays along. It’s largely left up to students to check and verify which institutions will accept which online classes for which degree requirements.

“Universities have different attitudes toward that,” says Nina Huntemann, senior director of academics and research at edX. “It’s up to them at the end of the day.”

StraighterLine, a company founded a decade ago, appears to make the transfer credit potential of its classes relatively transparent. Its website lists more than 100 accredited colleges (including for-profit, private and public schools) that have agreed to honor transfer credit and also explains exactly which classes each institution will accept. A prominently posted badge reminds students they must earn a 70 percent minimum grade to receive credit.

However, the list of StraighterLine partners has fluctuated over the years, with some previous partners cutting ties and other colleges quietly accepting transfer credit without declaring it outright. Burck Smith, company CEO and founder, declined to comment for this story.

EdX hosts a collection of freshman courses designed by Arizona State University, which provide students who complete them with an ASU transcript. Having an established brand name on the letterhead seems to facilitate the credit transfer process, Huntemann says.

“That’s one of the real benefits to learners,” she explains. “From a well-recognized institution, students can take that transcript to a good number of universities, certainly in the U.S.”

Rasmussen doesn’t know yet which universities will accept Outlier courses for transfer credit, but he’s betting that the company’s affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh will elicit respect from other institutions.

“Universities in that top 100 tend to have credits transfer a lot more easily,” he says. “I don’t know if the credit will transfer to an Ivy League school, but the point of education access is not to transfer into an Ivy League. It’s to help students transferring into other institutions.”

Keeping Costs Low

Online course providers say their services appeal to a variety of students. Some need to pass a couple of prerequisite classes to gain admission to graduate school. Others hope to knock out basic general-education requirements before enrolling in traditional bachelor’s degree programs. And still others are working adults who want a flexible way to earn their diplomas.

“Our shared goal for the pilot is to reach students across the country who might not otherwise have access to courses like these,” Cudd said. “These could be students who are enrolled at other institutions or students who are just trying a course like this on their own.”

Regardless of their unique personal circumstances, most students share one trait: thrift.

At universities that charge tuition on a semester basis, the cost per credit is not always clear. But many community colleges do explicitly charge per credit, Rasmussen says, making it easier for students to compare those costs to the $400 Outlier charges—a fee that includes access to all necessary course materials. Other online companies offer different pricing models, like the $199 per month subscription service at Study.com.

However, many online courses from unaccredited companies are ineligible for financial aid.

Some students also turn to online credit-eligible classes to complete degree requirements more quickly. Study.com classes are broken into micro-lessons of just four to six minutes.

“In general, students will complete these college courses faster than a typical course, but it covers the same syllabi material,” says Adrian Ridner, co-founder and CEO.

Speed is not one of Outlier’s goals. The company’s first two 14-week courses are designed to run parallel to traditional semester classes, in part so that student cohorts can collaborate virtually.

But Rasmussen does hope to stand out from the competition by offering highly engaging instruction. Drawing on his experience at MasterClass, he made sure to “cast” professors whose teaching style he thinks is exciting enough to keep students interested.

“I’ve spent a long time filming charismatic people,” he says. “I know what works well.”


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