KU planning to launch 15 new online programs over 5 years under new deal with startup company

KU and online learning

Past Journal-World coverage of Kansas University’s online education strategy:

April 28: KU moving faster on online education

Jan. 28: KU not spooked by MOOCs

Aug. 6, 2012: More online hybrid courses offered at KU

Kansas University has not been a leader in the area of online education, the school’s leaders have admitted. But that might change as the result of an agreement KU has signed with an online-education startup company called Everspring.

The university and the Evanston, Ill.-based company plan to launch 15 new graduate degree and certificate programs, all in the School of Education, over the next five years.

That will be a vast expansion of KU’s slate of fully online programs. Right now there are two: one in the education school and one in the School of Pharmacy.

“We’re positioning ourselves to move to the front of a pack that we haven’t been in the front of before,” said Rick Ginsberg, the School of Education’s dean.

Unlike Coursera, Udacity and other Massive Open Online Course companies that have made deals with universities around the nation to put individual courses online that students can take for free, Everspring will help KU put entire programs online — and split tuition revenue with the university. KU will be Everspring’s first major client; the two sides signed the deal in late April.

Everspring will take the content and intellectual property already used by KU education faculty in existing programs and package it for online students. The company also will handle marketing and recruitment for the courses, targeting potential students first in the Midwest and then elsewhere.

Jeff Conlon, Everspring’s CEO, co-founded the company in late 2011, leaving his position as CEO of Kaplan Higher Education, which operates the for-profit Kaplan University. The company will design interactive programs that go beyond video lectures or presentation slides, he said, and provide support for students who might otherwise feel isolated hundreds of miles from campus.

“Students who never come to campus, we design an ecosystem to help them feel supported,” Conlon said. He called the system “higher education online 2.0,” and he said KU will be the first university to use it.

The deal with Everspring comes after about a year of talks with the company and several years of planning, KU Provost Jeff Vitter said. Vitter said it will be the beginning of a larger expansion of KU’s online offerings.

“It’s been really a long process to get to this point,” Vitter said, “and we’re very excited about the preliminary products that are being developed.”

The first new offering to emerge from the partnership will be an online version of one of KU’s most highly regarded programs: a master’s degree in special education. KU’s special education graduate program is ranked No. 1 among U.S. public universities and No. 2 overall, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The master’s program is set to enroll its first students in January 2014, followed by a certificate program in special education in spring 2014 and a master’s program in curriculum and instruction in August 2014.

These graduate-level programs are ideal for this online-education expansion, Ginsberg said, because their students generally are educators working full-time. The hope is that many people in such situations who are too far from campus, or who don’t have the time to come to Lawrence for classes, would take advantage of an online program, he said. Everspring would provide infrastructure that KU couldn’t on its own.

Instead of a flat payment from KU, the contract calls for Everspring to take a percentage of tuition revenue from the courses offered. The company will receive 55 percent of the revenue at the start, and the percentage will decrease to 35 as enrollment increases.

The proposed tuition rate for the first Everspring program, the master’s in special education, will be $756 per credit hour — a bit less than KU’s current rate for out-of-state graduate students, about $772.

Ginsberg said KU hoped to recruit 25 students for the first master’s program in January, and several hundred online students by the agreement’s second year.

More details about the program will be released around the end of August, when marketing and recruiting efforts will begin.

The deal with Everspring, announced just a few days after the Kansas Legislature approved about $5.3 million in cuts to KU’s Lawrence campus over the next two years, opens up a potential new stream of revenue for the university.

“As we all know, budgets are challenged, and this is an opportunity to bring new sources of revenue and extend our visibility nationally,” Vitter said.

Ginsberg said about half of the School of Education’s roughly 80 faculty had expressed interest in helping with the online courses. In addition, Vitter said, leaders hope that other KU schools and departments may decide to follow the education school’s example as its online programs grow. Other possibilities could include bachelor’s degree completion programs for adults or for students transferring from community colleges.

“We can extend this world-class set of programs to a much, much larger audience,” Vitter said. “Now that KU value and brand is going to be accessible, really, from anywhere.”