As the leader of an organization committed to affordable learning solutions, and as the architect behind TEL’s $99 courses for college credit, I field plenty of questions about how to design and deliver affordable education in a sustainable and scalable fashion.
- How can you offer courses at such low prices when even community colleges and regional public institutions charge 4X to 5X as much (plus textbooks and fees I many cases)?
- How can you provide high-quality content and engaging learning experiences with such low prices?
Design Constraints and Assumptions
The answers to these questions begin with a discussion about constraints and assumptions.
From the beginning, TEL has utilized a backward design model to define our products and pricing, which has resulted in four foundational constraints that we impose on our work.
Affordability — TEL is a missional organization driven by a commitment to make quality learning affordable for and accessible by everyone. Early on, we determined through conversation with young adults and adults that we would need to provide three-credit-hour college courses for between $75-$100 in order to give anyone in the U.S. the opportunity to get started with their postsecondary learning.
Quality — A second constraint on our work is related to providing a quality learning experience. At TEL, we define this quality learning experience as one that leads to the demonstrable mastery of course concepts (and tied to granular learning outcomes). In other words, our courses must provide measurable evidence that students have learned course subject matter and that they can apply their learning in meaningful ways.
Flexibility — We also understand that the impact of our work is, in many ways, determined by the number of different audiences our products can reach. In order to meet the needs of diverse markets, we must design courses that easily adaptable to a wide variety of implementation models, audiences, and schedules. They must support independent and self-paced learners — from working adults to homeschool students — looking for a flexible solution to earn college credit. They must work for urban school districts and rural schools, homeschool and independent learners, and medium-sized businesses and correctional centers.
Accessibility — Equally important, TEL courses must be widely accessible if we are to achieve our mission. This means course materials should meet the needs of resource-constrained schools, students with low-bandwidth availability, and learners with special needs. For TEL, accessibility also extends to reaching learners with personal or social mindsets that likely prevent them from enrolling in traditional college courses — first-generation college students, adult workers who have been out of school for 10+ years, and incarcerated men and women.
The Four P’s of Designing for Affordable, Sustainable College-Level Learning
We have worked, for more than two years now, to design college-level courses that can help us reach our goal of creating a model for affordable, sustainable college learning that can make it possible for anyone in the U.S, to start or continue their post-secondary studies. Our backward design approach — starting with final product design and constraints, and then working backward to define processes and product to match — has made it possible for us to work intentionally and relatively quickly to meet our mission goals. Along the way, we have identified four distinct areas or opportunities for innovation to support our efforts.
At TEL, process innovation applies to organizational structure, communication protocols and tools, workflows, and logistics. In everything we do, we strive to find ways to be cost-effective, efficient, and effective. This affects decisions about hiring experts vs. training people internally, as well as finding the right balance for both. It influences company culture, decisions about the tools we use, and what we look for in employees and contractors. It also means continuous process engineering, often resulting in frequent and quick changes. Of course, our emphasis on the process only works if everyone in the feels empowered to test and implement changes that will lead to our desired results.
While our end product is education via the delivery of online/hybrid courses/services, much of what we do resembles the work of traditional education publishers. We design, create, publish, and deliver content in the form of college-level courses. Stages of development include learning design (course design, content outline, assessment-to-skills alignment), content curation and creation, editorial, media development, production, QA, and final product publishing for use by students. Part of our innovation is tied to the utilization of a single product model that supports our learning goals and requirements for rapid publishing and revision processes. This innovative product model allows us to integrate everything from product development and production to dynamic customization to our partner institutions/schools and efficient course redesign within one framework with complementary workflows.
Our products at TEL are a combination of learning design, content, instruction, and technology. We spend significant time and energy determining the right amount and use of each of these elements. We use learning design to address learning outcomes and experience and to integrate different levels of instruction into our content. Our content model supports our goals for student mastery as well as cost-effective and flexible production via templated, stackable lessons. To complement these efforts, our technology is designed specifically to support scalable affordability, both in terms of publishing and instruction. Technology also provides a foundation for data analysis related to student performance and instruction/support requirements.
Bill Gates remarked in a recent interview how Microsoft’s early success was driven by strategic partnerships. TEL’s ability to scale high-quality, affordable learning is also facilitated by key partnerships. These include strategic technology partners, such as MonotrEDU (exam proctoring) and Peerceptiv (peer-review and engagement), who provide cost-effective, specialized technology to support our mission. Sustainable affordability is also supported by our higher education partners, who believe in our model and support our mission with their infrastructure and regional accreditation, and our school partners who provide students with needed local guidance in their learning journey.