Changing Course

As a growing number of nonprofit colleges hire for-profit companies to lay tracks for their new online programs, academics generally have been the third rail. Technology and information systems are one thing, the colleges say; to outsource teaching and curriculum is quite another.

Now, two major e-learning companies have teamed up to disprove that truism. Blackboard and K12, Inc. announced last week that they will begin selling online remedial courses to community colleges beginning next year. The details will be hashed out over the next few months, but the basic outline is this: The companies will design the courses and provide the instructors from K12’s stable, and the colleges will offer the courses through their normal catalogs.

Some nonprofit institutions that partner with companies on online education have been careful to emphasize their commitment to keeping a wall between the business and technology of online course delivery and the actual instruction. “Some things, we would never turn over to the private sector,” Philip Regier, dean of Arizona State University’s online programs, said earlier this month, after his institution announced it was going into business with Pearson to help boost its online offerings.

But Blackboard and K12 are betting that remedial education will be an exception. About 75 percent of first-year students at community colleges need at least one remedial course, according to a report released earlier this year by the The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. And yet the percentage of students who end up moving beyond such courses is typically less than half. Under the circumstances, it might be hard for faculty to reject outsourced courses on territorial grounds.

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