Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Statistics.com: The thin end of the wedge

"The Specialists" by Steve Kolowich, Inside Higher Ed, April 5 2010.
Kolowich hits the nail on the head in this article on a number of themes, taking Statistics.com as an example of the type of entity that I think will be a central player in Education in the 21st century. The article is well worth a read.

Statistics.com seems to operate the Superstar model - I'll confess I don't know who the Superstars of Statistics are (it seems a strange idea!) but the Faculty looks grunty enough to make a land grab for the title. The course programme is comprehensive, and seems to have the relevant approvals and certifications. The Faculty is global, and grading is outsourced to India. One assumes that mentoring and synchronous tutorials are run from there too, or if not, they soon will be. Finally, and most importantly, the site operates by distance. It's in direct competition with every statistics department on earth.

Existing Universities will probably fight long and hard against this. It's Turkeys voting for Christmas. The article notes:
"Traditional institutions, however, have been hesitant to open the door to commercial ventures that sell higher education by the course or program."

Hesitant? No Kidding. Only a foolhardy or bankrupt University head would suggest downsizing the Stats department and contracting in a third party provider. It's also culturally incomprehensible and politically intractable. Most Universities think distance education is beneath contempt, unless it's their own  lecturers putting own Powerpoints on Blackboard, in which case it's a dynamic, innovative revenue stream. The idea of contracting out a core activity like teaching is politically impossible to institutions which just about manage to contract out the cleaning and catering.

The best new entrants like this can hope for is that a University might grant exemptions to students who have completed modules with them. It's tempting, would you lose out on fees for a potential MSc student because you won't recognise the modules, when the University of Down the Road will? The article suggests that is indeed the case:

"The [American Council for Education] says that it has never heard of a college refusing to accept credits earned in Statistics.com courses."

In the end though, the success of providers like this hinges on employers. If you were taking on a hire who needed stats and they had paper from Statistics.com, would you give them the time of day? If the market is tight, or the candidate is otherwise strong, you might think it worth the effort to get one of your existing Stats guys to check it out, or run some skill tests on the new hire. If there's twenty strong resumes in the pile, you might not bother and just hire the person who took their Stats from the same department you did. Even so, that's still progress. You probably have existing staff that need to be skilled up in Stats. You could send them down to the local college, but their lecture schedule is insane and won't gel at all with a working day. You could hire in a guy for some onsite training, but that's major expense and it won't wash for three people. Maybe you'll enroll them with Statistics.com, see how it works out...

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