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Science Careers Blog

December 17, 2012

Academics As Free Agents

In today's tight job market, it's common for people in a wide range of fields to earn their livelihoods as freelancers. Now, thanks to rapid expansion of online education, academics are being added to the mix, as "freelance professors," reports Inside Higher Ed.

Many of the online courses open to the public are offered under university auspices, as, for example, through the multi-university edX organization.  But two commercial companies, both  already active in providing open online courses, are following a different model. StraighterLine and Udemy contract individually with some of "the world's top instructors," as the Udemy Web site puts it, who present courses as academic free agents.  Using the companies' platforms, people with expertise in a wide range of subjects offer courses for which students pay a fee.  The instructors split the proceeds with the companies. The teachers have a say in setting the prices charged for their courses, and students choose and pay for courses piecemeal.

StraighterLine only contracts with people who hold master's or doctoral degrees in the fields they are teaching.  Udemy does not require academic credentials to establish expertise.  At StraighterLine, students can convert courses into college credit.

"You're getting paid as a sales associate," says Sarah Tidwell, whose English course will launch on StraighterLine in January, in Inside Higher Ed.  So how much can a freelance instructor make?  Udemy's 10 most popular teachers split $1.6 million during their first year lecturing in cyberspace, the article reports.  The article doesn't say how much--or little--less popular professors took in.

How promising an opportunity is this for entrepreneurial academics?  It likely depends on the attractiveness of the cyberprofessor's wares in this literal marketplace of ideas.  How many people want to learn the subject?  How good a learning experience does the teacher provide?  How strong a reputation can she or he develop?  How good is his or her marketing?

These aren't questions that academics usually consider in evaluating their career prospects. But in the expanding world of online learning, where some courses have already attracted hundreds of thousands of students, the possibilities for the most successful teachers could be very large indeed.

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