For-profits and Open Education Make for Uneasy Bedfellows (Or Do They?)

Why Kaplan has the ability and the resources to be innovative in the realm of for-profit higher education. A case for first cleaning up their act.


Why Kaplan has the ability and the resources to be innovative in the realm of for-profit higher education. A case for first cleaning up their act.

I was in Barcelona earlier this month for the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival on the Future of Learning, Freedom and the Web. (I'll be producing an ebook documenting the festival.) It was overlapping with the OpenEd Conference, the premiere gathering for the global open educational resources community, featuring such edtech luminaries as David Wiley, Brian Lamb, and Scott Leslie, which I attended last year in Vancouver when I was researching DIY U.

A somewhat surprising attendee at the OpenEd conference was Brian Ouellette, a vice president at the for-profit Kaplan University. It seems Kaplan, a subsidiary of the Washington Post Company, is putting some money into an internal startup. It will be launching a new assessment and accreditation business focused on offering college credit for prior learning—including self-learning and taking advantage of MIT's free OpenCourseWare. This could be the long-awaited missing link for open courseware. Everyone says that an open, democratic accreditation system is what's sorely missing in order for free and open courseware to translate into affordable, accessible, higher education. This could be the Holy Grail. Or, it could be the Evil Empire taking over and strangling the edupunk movement.

This is the same Kaplan, after all, which is currently under fire from Congress for aggressively targeting veterans and the subject of a federal false claims whistleblower lawsuit by three of its own former academic advisors. Not to mention, new regulations from the Department of Education challenging the poor graduation rates and debt burdens of the whole for-profit sector.

They are also the same Kaplan who are the authors of an amazing viral video ad (see above) that says everything that needs to be said about the future of higher education. And they are part of a sector that already enrolls 10 percent of all students, and is growing several times faster in enrollment than the traditional higher education sector.

Ouellette wouldn't comment officially on any of these issues, but I bared my soul to him over some tapas: I believe that the for-profit sector in higher education has the ability and the resources to be innovative, as this freelance accreditation idea shows. They also have the right students in mind—the working adults, the veterans, the first in their families to go to college. I believe that they shouldn't have to pressure or trick people into buying their product. If the sector doesn't clean up its act and submit itself to real regulation, how can they ever earn the public's trust for the real solutions they offer?

Anya Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company and author of Generation Debt. Her latest book is DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.\n

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