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Online Learning: Disrupting the General Education Requirement

“Using Outlier.org’s data-driven strategies and innovative technology and leveraging our shared vision to increase access and affordability, the University of Pittsburgh is exploring new paths to expand high-quality opportunities for education.”

Dr. Ann E. Cudd, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor, University of Pittsburgh

In a period fraught with uncertainty, the adaptations of the United States to the pandemic have been successful to varying degrees. COVID-19 continues to emerge in pockets across the country as the 2019-2020 school year comes to a close, and students of all ages find themselves thrust into online learning. As such, in-person coursework for college students has been deemphasized for the indefinite future.

Just as COVID-19 has triggered a trial run for a work-from-home revolution, the World Economic Forum says that online education is having an unprecedented moment. In just five short months, major shifts have occurred in our workplaces and our learning spaces.

In 2020, almost overnight, America’s student body became distance learners. Many of them for the very first time. And while many are wondering whether they’ll ever go back to the way things were, Outlier.org has had its sights set on making online education more accessible for the last few years. Starting at an affordable $400 per course, Outlier.org offers two classes: calculus I and introduction to psychology. Both of these are backed by three transferable University of Pittsburgh college credits.

This is just one startup that has introduced a new model to disrupt the traditional general education requirement and provide greater access to students. Read on to learn more about Outlier.org’s innovative approach to courses in psychology and mathematics.

Meet the Interviewees

Aaron Rasmussen

Aaron Rasmussen, Founder and CEO, Outlier.org

Aaron Rasmussen is an American entrepreneur, inventor, and game designer. Rasmussen is currently the founder and CEO of Outlier.org, a company focused on creating the world’s best online college courses. Outlier.org currently offers calculus I and introduction to psychology, both of which are taught by a team of world-class professors and backed by credits from the University of Pittsburgh. Students in Outlier.org courses earn real, transferable college credit for just $400. Outlier.org is reimagining higher education as a resource that is accessible, equitable, and affordable for everyone.

Previously, Rasmussen co-founded MasterClass, where he served as both Creative Director and CTO, responsible for the company’s aesthetic, production process, and technology. The company has raised over $130 million in capital and developed over 60 online courses led by renowned instructors, including Serena Williams, Gordon Ramsay, Malcolm Gladwell, and Natalie Portman.

Rasmussen earned a bachelor of arts in computer science and bachelor of science in mass communications from Boston University, which he attended on a Pell Grant.

(The biography for Aaron Rasmussen was provided by Outlier.org and edited for brevity by this author.)

Dr. Ann E. Cudd

Dr. Ann E. Cudd, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor, University of Pittsburgh

Ann E. Cudd is the University of Pittsburgh’s provost and senior vice chancellor. Since September 2018, her duties include supporting scholarly excellence among more than 4,600 full-time faculty members and student success among the University’s nearly 35,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students on all five Pitt campuses.

Dr. Cudd previously served as Boston University’s dean of the college and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which is the institution’s largest school. Prior to joining Boston University in 2015, she served for 25 years at the University of Kansas, where she earned the title of University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. At the University of Kansas, Dr. Cudd held various positions of increasing responsibility culminating in the position of vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies—an inaugural role for that university.

Dr. Cudd holds a PhD in philosophy and two master’s degrees—an MA in philosophy and an MA in economics—all from the University of Pittsburgh.

(Dr. Cudd’s biography was provided by the University of Pittsburgh Office of the Provost and edited for brevity by this author.)

The Cost of High-Quality Online Education

For the last decade, online students everywhere have begun to see the emergence of fully online degrees in STEM fields and related disciplines. Also, graduate programs in project management, business, economics, and the social sciences have become one of the many choices available to students of the new decade.

“We are obviously firm believers in online education and its ability to deliver a really high-quality experience,” says Aaron Rasmussen, founder and CEO of Outlier.org. “Now, the whole world is being put to the test with that concept.”

As the novel coronavirus upends the world economy, recently-published data from a 2019 study titled Online Education Market & Global Forecast reports that the online education market will grow to $350 billion by 2025. The report cites an increase in the “introduction of flexible learning technologies in the corporate and education sectors” as a major factor in the projected market value increase.

And as our collective reliance on devices to meet education goals continues to grow, so too will the means by which wider education of the public might be achieved.

“We actually draw a lot of influence from video games as far as determining, ‘What is the best learning experience?’” says Rasmussen. “It always comes down to incentives: if people can’t learn your video game, then they won’t be successful and they won’t play it.”

The same is true of learning and absorbing lessons in an education setting. From the unwieldy Blackboard and Moodle systems of yesteryear to Udemy’s slick UI and Outlier.org’s clean utilitarian design, students have learned one overwhelming lesson: with the effective presentation of information, the barriers to learning and understanding will fall. Consequently, Outlier.org considers a curriculum and its source very carefully.

Another is the price of the course. The average cost of a year of study at a public American university is $10,116 for the 2019-2020 period, with a total degree cost of $40,464, according to US News & World Report (2020). As a non-traditional student with his eye on affordable education, Rasmussen realized the importance of calculating costs when you’re on a limited budget. To that end, he took prerequisites at the community college level to save money.

“I realized that if I transferred community college courses I could save $5,000 each term,” says Rasmussen.

The University of Pittsburgh and Provost Ann E. Cudd

For non-traditional students everywhere, Rasmussen’s story as a prereq-focused, FAFSA-fueled learner will be a familiar one. While higher education has, in general, taken many important steps to lower barriers to access for vulnerable groups, this is just one variable for consideration by Outlier.org. Balancing affordability and course quality is the company’s main motivation. It’s also the reason that University of Pittsburgh Provost Dr. Ann E. Cudd and Rasmussen decided to partner.

“Exploring innovative platforms to grow the reach of a world-class Pitt education is just the latest way we’re pursuing greater access and affordability for all,” says Dr. Cudd. Her academic areas of interest include political philosophy, economic inequality, capitalism, and gender. An accomplished professor and scholar of social philosophy, she has published more than 50 articles, books, and chapters of academic study.

As the ambassador of student success and scholarly excellence, Provost Cudd remains committed to new and experimental forms of education. But where does the University of Pittsburgh see itself in a more self-directed, customizable educational environment? One of the clearest threads is that successful learning methods knock down previous obstacles to higher education.

“Using Outlier.org’s data-driven strategies and innovative technology and leveraging our shared vision to increase access and affordability, the University of Pittsburgh is exploring new paths to expand high-quality opportunities for education,” says Provost Cudd.

The Outlier.org-University of Pittsburgh Partnership

The partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and Outlier.org began out of a need for readily-available courses from a major public institution. While Rasmussen and his Outlier.org team could provide the programmatic framework and business acumen to make the platform tick, they still needed to work with professors and their universities to structure the courses and choose the first subjects to be covered.

“I thought back to what wasn’t available to me as a student, which was an exceptional education. When you look at the US market, a million students a year take calculus 1 and spend, average, $2,500 per course,” says Rasmussen. “That means we’re spending $2.5 billion a year on calculus 1 teaching, and 40 percent of the students fail. So we’re wasting $1 billion a year.”

“Those are really extraordinary numbers,” he says. “So I looked at it and said, ‘Well, why is it $2,500 a course? We know how to teach it.” He goes on to discuss MOOCs (massive open online courses), noting that what Outlier.org and the University of Pittsburgh have built needed to head in a different direction.

“The way we teach calculus has been symbolically the same for a couple of hundred years,” Rasmussen points out. “My favorite calculus book is from 1910. Why can’t we make an exceptional course and also provide it inexpensively?”

Rasmussen continued, “We had to look at how you get that stamp of approval—how do we appeal to the university system and say ‘This person has learned these skills?’” That’s where the partnership with the University of Pittsburgh is valuable, and the school benefits in turn: “Partnering with Outlier.org gives us the opportunity to explore cutting-edge teaching and learning technology using data-driven strategies in a pilot program,” says Provost Cudd.

The Future of Outlier.org and its Approach to Online Education

“The ultimate goal is really to make the first two years of school and those first 25 courses, which are about $50 billion in spending a year, accessible for more students,” says Rasmussen. “If you took all those courses with us, students could save $40 billion a year.”

At this time, Outlier.org’s sole institutional partner, the University of Pittsburgh, is incredibly positive about the quality of the Outlier.org courses. Rasmussen is also exploring further partnerships with educators and institutions to foster opportunities for students.

Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by BustedCubicle.com, MedicalTechnologySchools.com, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.