Feature Story

The Coming Online World of the College Drop-In

by Eric Rabkin

A look at how the rise of the college "drop-in" is filling a need in the new world of Massive Open Online Courses.

In a world of Massive Open Online Courses that enroll tens or hundreds of thousands of "students" at a time and, if one doesn't seek course credit, currently cost participants nothing, traditional institutions of higher education rightly fear enormous disruption to their revenue models—and to the very ways they educate.  

Every day, students find it easier to take courses anywhere and anytime and accumulate them into a degree at a growing number of fully accredited institutions. StraighterLine, which Fast Company calls "An eBay For Professors To Sell College Courses Directly To Students", offers general education courses at $999/year for 10 courses.  According to the Education Advisory Board,  over 250 institutions across America, from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, have accepted at least some of these credits.  Without their captive audience, how will most schools survive?  One answer, I call "the college drop-in."  In the long run, the drop-in phenomenon should drive a very desirable revolution for educational institutions, for individuals, and for business.

Harvard Business School already outsources one of its entry-level courses to Brigham Young University because the online offering is "so good," freeing HBS resources—including faculty—for more specialized work.  HBS students become BYU drop-ins, and both institutions—and their students—win.  Similarly, under-enrolled courses in any specialized subject,  for example rarely taught languages or advanced seminars in string theory—can meet their enrollment targets by inviting properly qualified drop-ins from vetted institutions.

Institutions and individuals waste resources—classroom seats—when a course is dropped or unsuccessfully completed.  Instead of remaining in residence, a student can retake a single course—or even a single course module—online while working elsewhere in the summer, or in any other semester, dropping in to back and fill or, for underprepared students, dropping in for review or prerequisites so that when they do occupy those seats, they will succeed. Learning success and lowered total costs obviously serve the drop-in student. 

Businesses of all sorts are springing up, both inside and outside the academy, to join this revolution.  In addition to well-known MOOC providers like Coursera, other companies offer pieces of the online toolkit.  Personify Live provides an inexpensive solution to capturing lectures and demonstrations in live, interactive, online sessions that integrate with standard conferencing platforms, like WebEx (and proprietary Learning Management Systems, like Blackboard) and can be replayed later.  VoiceThread, created and licensed by Pennsylvania State University, is an add-on that allows distant students—drop-ins—to participate asynchronously in residential classroom discussion.

But what do businesses, and individuals, really want?  Credits? Degrees?  Or knowledge and skills?  Google says, "We're less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think. We're likely to ask you some role-related questions that provide insight into how you solve problems."

If a business wants an employee to brush up or acquire a skill, drop in.  If any individual wants to explore a new field, drop in.

With the drop-in phenomenon, higher education need not be focused on two semesters a year for 18-22-year olds from more or less affluent zip codes; it can offer learning experiences of extraordinary fit, effectiveness, and convenience to those seeking education for any reason at any time of the day, year, or their lives.  This enormous market will sustain those institutions and those businesses that learn to serve and enable the coming world of the college drop-in.


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