(Poets&Quants) — It’s been four years since Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation theory, warned that technology would bring large-scale change to higher education. Universities have since been rolling out hundreds of online degree programs and thousands of free MOOCs (massive open online courses).

But one of most potentially disruptive initiatives in education launched on Wednesday at Arizona State University and edX, the online learning non-profit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Arizona State will allow students anywhere in the world to take their entire freshman year of courses online and then use the college credit earned to complete undergraduate studies at either its campus or any other university willing to accept those transfer credits.

Like other MOOCs, the courses are free, but if a student wants to earn college credit for them, he or she would pay $200 per credit only after the course is passed by the student. There will be no required SAT, transcript of high school grades, or application to join what is being called the Global Freshman Academy. Because the series is hosted and administered online, learning can occur anywhere, at any time of day, on any day of the week.

“This is the first time any MOOC provider will offer a curriculum of courses that any learner can take for free or for a small fee as a verified student and then parlay that for credit if they pass the course,”says Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX. “That automatic step of being able to convert a set of courses through university credit … has not been done before.”

The new offering is sure to raise eyebrows in academia, where change takes place slowly and with great reservation. The model makes freshman year relatively risk free and significantly less expensive than the typical first year of study on a college campus. The cost for eight three-credit classes will total $5,160, including a $45 verified student fee for each course. That compares with Arizona State’s out-of-state annual tuition of $24,503, or the estimated cost of a year on-campus of $39,601, including room and board.

As many as 40% of those who enter a U.S. college fail to get a degree within six years. Ensuring that a student is college-ready and able to complete the first year at a fraction of the on-campus cost stands to disrupt traditional education. “This will create an inversion of the college model, a completely new way to enter college,” says Agarwal. “For under $6,000, you would have completed a freshman year’s worth of courses. The important thing is you have to pay for credit only if you want to and only if you pass the course.”

The 12 to 15 courses that ASU plans to make available will include math, humanities, arts and design, social-behavioral sciences, and natural sciences. The first course in the freshman sequence, Introduction to Astronomy by professor Frank Timmes, will debut this August. Then, in September, two more courses will open for enrollment: Western Civilizations: Ancient and Medieval Europe as well as Human Origins, the latter taught by Donald Johanson, who discovered the hominid skeleton known as “Lucy.” The university said it will offer seven different courses in the first year of the program and 12 within the first 24 months.

Until now, perhaps the most disruptive move in higher education came from Georgia Tech last year, when it launched a one-year online master’s program in computer science. The cost of obtaining the Georgia Tech degree was priced at just $6,600 instead of the $46,000 out‑of-state tuition expense for an on-campus degree. Some 1,286 degree candidate students enrolled in the program, more than quadruple the number of on–campus enrollees. But the potential audience for a focused master’s program in computer science is very small compared to ASU’s new venture.

The university and its partner are steering clear of making concrete predictions on how many might take advantage of the new freshman entry model. “Any modeling we have done about number of students who will take the courses are guesses on our part,” says Adrian Sannier, chief academic officer for EdPlus at ASU. “We expect to see tens of thousands of students pursue the courses for credit. Our goal is to establish an Internet scale experience that can be sustained by the credit revenue.”

The completion rate of MOOC courses is woefully low, with just 7% of registered users finishing a course. “When learners put some skin in the game and pay for a certificate, the completion rate is about 60%,” says Agarwal. “By having the option of college credit, we hope to bring in a new cadre of learners. Credit is the ultimate incentive to complete courses.”

Sannier believes the new initiative will appeal to three different segments of the market: high school students, learners who opted not to go to college or dropped out, and international students who ultimately want to study in the U.S. “High school students, both on an individual level and in conjunction with their teachers, will use these courses to establish their readiness for college,” he says.

“Those who interrupted their college journeys but now realize they need a college credential to pursue career options unavailable to them is the second group,” adds Sannier.” Going back to college in your mid-to-late 20s can be a scary decision so the opportunity to try it before you buy it should be appealing. And then there are a whole bunch of international students who are looking for ways to come to study in the U.S. Having a full year of courses under your belt will be pretty compelling to them.”

Sannier says the freshmen MOOCs will be different from the previous generation of online courses, which have largely been taken by students who already have college degrees. ASU will attempt to increase the “level of interaction” in the freshmen courses and make available more “resources for students to succeed.”

One of the biggest advantages of the program, Sannier maintains, is its limited risk. “If you are under prepared for college when you first go, it is a very big risk for you because you have to put up a substantial amount of money,” he says. “That can be daunting and put students in a wrong mindset when they are learning. This will allow students to go through a course, build confidence, and then pay for the credit with a greater certainty that the experience will be a success. It opens the door to higher education to a broader group of students.”

Sannier doesn’t believe the program will substantially cannibalize the school’s on-campus freshmen class. “We have been through the cannibalization question before when we opened our downtown Phoenix campus,” he says. “But what it did was offer another way for students to go to college and it was a growth opportunity for us. And when we started ASU Online four years ago, it was the same thing. We saw the growth in both our residential campus and in ASU online, which now has 15,000 students.

“We know there will be some students who, instead of attending ASU for freshman year, will … use the freshman academy. But when they enter our on-campus program, they will come with a stronger likelihood to complete. We believe it will grow the pie.”

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