Society and Culture, Education

Unleashing entrepreneurship in the academy: The advent of the ‘Rock Star Professor’

Image credit: World Economic Forum (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image credit: World Economic Forum (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When my high school English class read works by Shakespeare, we usually began the unit with a tape-recorded lecture from a renowned college professor. We would gather around the ancient, standard-issue tape player to listen as an entertaining academic provided historical context and analysis of Shakespeare’s best plays. I remember thinking “I can’t wait until college, where all courses will be this good.”

But I was sorely mistaken. Sure, some professors were terrific, but teaching was generally pedestrian and at times worse. That’s because teaching is not valued by the academy. Though it supposedly factors into tenure votes, young academics know the path to success: It’s publish or perish. As a result, even the most vibrant professors dedicate any entrepreneurial energy to their research efforts—tracking down government grants, organizing conferences, and the like. The recorded lecture or alumni cruise has always been a source of extra income for the most entrepreneurial academics, but this market has been an outgrowth, rather than a driver, of excellent teaching.

But what if those incentives changed? What if professors could take their teaching talents direct to consumers and be compensated based on how good their course is? And what if students could take courses from top college instructors for a fraction of what it normally costs?

Enter “Professor Direct,” the latest innovation unveiled by Baltimore-based StraighterLine, a low-cost provider of online college courses. StraighterLine’s existing model provides self-paced online courses on a subscription model. Students pay $99 a month, plus a $39 registration fee per course. StraighterLine credits now transfer to a number of traditional universities.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported yesterday, Professor Direct allows instructors to set their own prices and class-size, and to customize the course’s amenities—virtual office hours, email assistance, and YouTube tutorials. Future students will be able to choose courses on the basis of crowd-sourced reviews, producing a market for individual professors’ talents. Any per-pupil revenue above StraighterLine’s base price goes to the professor. Good teaching will be rewarded, both monetarily and with greater market share in the future.

The project stands to benefit two growing groups in American higher education:

  1. The great lecturers and instructors who have been shunned by the tenure track for lack of research—often forced into the itinerant life of the adjunct professor teaching across multiple campuses.
  2. The cost-conscious student, who has traditionally had few options for low-cost college courses taught by an honest-to-goodness professor.

Professor Direct also presents a direct challenge to traditional universities, not just in terms of the market for students, but also for human capital. As Anya Kamanetz wrote yesterday, universities rely on non-tenure track faculty. More than 70% are either adjunct or part-time in two and four-year colleges, and often low-paid adjuncts at that. If models like Professor Direct blossom, colleges may not have these hard-working teachers to kick around anymore. One thing is for sure, it will be awfully fun to watch traditional colleges and universities scramble to prevent their faculty from unleashing their inner entrepreneur by joining Professor Direct.

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