Middlebury College, a small, elite liberal arts college in Vermont, has partnered with K12 Inc to develop courses for its summer language program aimed at high schoolers. This announcement not only made the usual circuit through the higher education publications, but also made the New York Times. Middlebury claims the partnership stems from a desire to educate more young people in foreign languages, but many are claiming the move comes purely from financial motivation.
Currently Middlebury runs its summer language program in partnership with the Monterey Language Institute and students may enroll at several colleges around the country in addition to Middlebury. Moving some courses online will expand their reach beyond those schools and perhaps even to students who would not be able to travel to spend weeks studying a language. Expanding that reach would also reap more revenue.
Philip Altbach, a professor of Higher Education at Boston College, was quoted in the Times article as being concerned about the college's brand. This is a common complaint faculty have when schools begin to build online curriculum. They worry that the curriculum will be watered down and will therefore taint the reputation of the college's face-to-face courses. There is still a stigma against online education.
The Middlebury program, however, is not aimed at college students, but high school students. At the K-12 level, online education, either as a supplement or as an alternative to traditional schooling, has more acceptance. Certainly for a summer program, it seems appropriate to try some new approaches. It's possible that the lessons learned from the venture could be applied at the college level, which could lead to online courses, perhaps with a corporate partner. A few people I discussed the issue with think this may be a model for some struggling smaller colleges. A corporate partner gives them the ability to outsource the technology while they can oversee the teachers and the curriculum. It seems to be a potential win-win.