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"I think the story of the demise of higher ed is a little tired to me. I don't buy it," says 2U co-founder Chip Paucek.

Photo: 2U
College has gone remote. Will it stay that way?
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College has gone remote. Will it stay that way?

The new pandemic-shrouded school year is here, and higher education is reckoning with the value of its institutions.

Over the course of a few weeks in March, pretty much every educational institution in the U.S. had to figure out how to offer remote classes. States closed up shop and one by one, students went from meeting in the halls to Zoom waiting rooms.

While this came as a shock to many, for others it was nothing new. 2U has been offering classes online longer than the iPad has existed, and it has expanded over the years to offering entire degree programs, as well as specialized certificates, entirely online. Last year, there had been some concern about the viability of the remote-learning business model in the long run, and 2U's stock price took a hit as a result. Would people pay to learn online if they thought there was more value in doing it in person?

Things have unsurprisingly shifted as a result of the pandemic, with many schools rushing to companies like 2U to help set up something — anything! — to get students learning remotely with the new school year upon them. But the problem many are facing isn't just technical: You can put a Zoom window in front of anyone, but if they're actually going to learn anything, you're going to have to think differently about how to engage the students, according to 2U's CEO and co-founder, Chip Paucek.

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The pandemic has exposed hundreds of thousands of students and educators to what remote learning can offer, but the question that remains is whether what you save in not having to go in person is worth the trade-offs of being stuck learning from home.

Protocol recently spoke with Paucek to discuss the current online education boom, and what it means for the future of higher ed, access to education and the cost of four-year degrees.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How ready were you for this boom, from a technical perspective?

We were in really good shape, and we do this as a normal part of our operations to run online programs. That's what we do. So the one component that we had of the business that was at scale that was not fully digital was our bootcamp business.

It was about 90% in person, and we had to very quickly move all of it online. It took us about a week, and we moved everything online, and that has gone well enough that we will never move them back. That clearly has resonated with the consumer and with the student in the program actually experiencing it. That is a permanent change that was, operationally, pretty significant. You had a pretty large business that had to immediately move online.

A different way that this impacted us is [through] our partners. We produce a ton of content for our partners, and we have historically done that in our own studios in D.C., LA, London and Cape Town. Obviously those were not open, so we pretty quickly innovated this thing called "studio in a box." We shipped a kit to the faculty that had a high-quality camera, lights and a mic, and connected to our software to allow them to produce their own courses instead of us filming them. That worked really well, and I believe that is now a permanent innovation as well, because we're finding success in how we're doing that.

How difficult was it to get professors running with these studios in a box?

A big part of the product that we provide our universities includes support of the faculty, training, how to think about a course from a pedagogical perspective, taking a course that is physically delivered, and then delivering it online. You can do most of what you do if not as well, you can often do it better in the online environment. You have to be intentional in creating the right path for students. If you thought about a two-hour course, if you take the first hour of the content, instead of using it as the first hour of the content, if you curated a path of stuff you wanted them to learn so that when you come together, you're in a discussion, then it's really powerful and that curated path can include a lot of interactive work.

We've found that you can do this better than the campus if you do it right. And we've been doing it for 12 years. I feel a little bit like the world thinks that we all just discovered the internet in higher ed.

Is that frustrating at all, though? I feel like remote tech leaders I've spoken to have repeated the fact that they have been here. It's not like telemedicine just came into existence in March. You're working with top schools, but has it felt in the past that your work has been sidelined?

Oh, no doubt. We are doing this at scale in a way that I don't think anybody else really is, and still have often felt like we were on the sidelines. Higher ed has been slow to adopt, and fortunately we've done pretty well as a company, but I think that this is a fundamental change. You're talking right now about a significant ramp in the digitization of all things — COVID has required that, and higher ed is a big part of that. Higher ed has been forced to deal with it, and I do think it will have a lasting impact. And I really liked the odds of our ability to succeed going forward.

Do you get a sense then that the reputation of remote learning has shifted in the last few months as a result of all this?

Well, probably not — because it was never good. If it had shifted, it would have shifted negatively. In other words, the learning process has been poor, so the only reason I don't think it's done any damage is that preconceived notions of online education have been terrible for some time. The challenge we have is that we have a lot of data that shows that if you do it well, it can be better, not just as good. You just have to be intentional in creating online programming. That's not what we're doing right now. What we're doing right now is remote instruction.

Even back when we were starting, creating high-quality asynchronous content was part of the story. It's just how you engage live into it. The point is not to put somebody for two hours into a Zoom and have the professor talk at them the whole time. That's not a good experience.

On your site you say that you want to "eliminate the back row" of classes in higher ed. Is the answer to eliminate the kid zoning out in class this kind of intentional programming you're describing? Or is it something more asynchronous?

The answer is sort of a combo. There are a bunch of techniques you can do in the live class to be as effective as possible, but in doing so, you create a path of instruction where somebody has to deliver a certain amount before they even show up.

What "no back row" references is, in the early days, students would say, "Oh my God, this is much more intimate than I expected it to be." And part of the reason it was intimate is if you didn't come to class with a certain base of knowledge, it was really obvious to everybody, because when the professor calls on you, you don't know what you're talking about.

So how do we do that? I'll give you an example from our law classes. The Socratic method is a core part of most law school instruction, and people do that in physical classrooms where students are required to learn ahead of time, read a case, a contract, whatever. And then when they get into live, the professor uses the Q&A format to drive the right kind of dialogue about what's happening in that contract. So we created something called the bidirectional learning tool. What it does is re-create the Socratic method in the asynchronous instruction. We film a professor with a couple of students talking about it the way they would talk about it if they were live. And then at one point, the professor turns to the camera and says, "Online students, does this qualify as a contract between the parties?" And then the online student has to answer.

What's cool about the answer is the answer can either be in multiple choice or even in video. The tool turns that video into a threaded video of all the other students' answers. And then you go to class. Once the professor has validation that all of these students have covered the topic this way, it just changes the entire way the class feels.

"No back row" started as a metaphor for the way students would describe the live class, so we eventually turned it into a bit of a mission of the company. We also think it's a good way to think about life: Get out of the back row. You get out what you put in; if you put in a lot into education, you get more out of it.

I get that for a law student who's obviously heavily invested in pursuing a specific vocation. But for a first-semester freshman who wants to major in English and has to take a requirement class in a physics online that they didn't want to be in the first place; I've got to believe that's a harder sell?

Yeah. But you know what I will tell you, honestly, it is a harder sell because the schools are not doing what I just described in general. Take our Simmons [University] and our Amherst [College] relationships. What they are doing, which we did for the fall, is reinvent each course to be appropriate for the online environment.

You have some faculty at Amherst who have defined themselves by being excellent teachers, and they have taught a very specific way, very effectively, in a classroom. They're intentional about their craft. And when they started working with us to reinvent the classes, they got really into it.

There's been a lot of discussion recently about the full amount to attend schools virtually. Do you think the value proposition of higher education needs to change if you don't have the experience of being on campus and spending time with classmates and professors?

The value proposition of a fully physical classroom and an undergrad experience in particular is very much part of the story of undergraduate education. When the students come together, for the first time in their lives, they're out of their home and they're an adult and they have to figure out everything about being an adult, everything from doing the laundry to learning how to not screw up their sociology test. There is incredible power in that. And I actually am a huge believer in the power of the campus experience. I got a Pell grant to attend [George Washington University]. I'd been out of Florida twice in my life. I'd never seen snow. I met my wife sophomore year. We're still together 30 years later. I'm a first-gen college graduate and it is impossible to overstate what George Washington University did for me.

With that said, if online is done really well, while it is different, it can be extraordinarily effective. And I do believe that a lot of the value prop that the universities deliver to the world, they can deliver really effectively if done intentionally online now. For online ed at the undergrad level, it is hard to not acknowledge that a lot of the expense comes from the fact that the students do consume a massive amount of physical plant.

Whereas at the graduate level, they don't. The undergrad experience is deeply embedded into the physical experience. In the case of Simmons, we're taking them fully online for this coming spring. Simmons decided at the board level to go fully online, got the faculty on board, and when they do so, the fully online program is priced at about 50% of the sticker rate of the campus program. So it is my belief that to be competitive in the fully online environment costs, will have to come down. So it's a complicated answer, but I'll also tell you that cost and affordability is a huge part of the whole story. There is no doubt that higher ed needs to be more affordable.

But is there an argument that higher ed doesn't necessarily have to mean a four-year degree to be valuable? Your company offers different degrees. I wonder if there's less of a barrier to learning vocational skills in an online experience than having to go to a place to do it?

So it's been fascinating: We launch our first undergraduate program fully online this fall. It's very good timing. We had no idea COVID was going to happen. It's with the London School of Economics, and we're finding that enrollment is much higher than we thought from our budget perspective. And we're finding a surprising number of traditionally aged college students, not just the nontraditional. So I do think that this is a moment in time where not everybody wants the traditional campus experience.

Do you think this hybrid model we've seen in some schools at all education levels — with some days remote, some days in person — is likely to continue beyond the pandemic?

I do think there's a fundamental change happening here, and the question is how will it play out? There's too many people predicting that 30% or 50% of all higher ed institutions are going to go out of business. I find that a little silly, honestly. There's a reason that they're in business and there is a sizable amount of demand and it's still the best path of social mobility ever invented.

With that said, affordability has to improve, access has to improve and higher ed also has to be more responsive and relevant. And you look at what we've done with our bootcamps — offering high-quality technical training in FinTech, or how to become a coder, or project management — with 30 different partners to be able to get a great job today. Those types of skills need to be embedded directly into higher ed. We announced we were launching with Arcadia University, one of our degree partners, a semester of code, where you can actually take our product for credit through your institution. We thought it was another example of us trying to address society's critical needs through higher education and through innovation.

I think the story of the demise of higher ed is a little tired to me. I don't buy it. I think that there's a ton of demand for a reason. We need more access, not less. How you make it more affordable, how you make it more relevant, that's all very real, but what's good about COVID is it is causing a significant increase in the speed of innovation in a place that needs it.

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