Pitt to partner with online education startup through summer semester


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Outlier.org, a New York-based education technology startup, initially approached the University and proposed implementing an online Calculus I class in early 2019.

By Vaibhav Gupta, Staff Writer

Pitt students have squinted at complex equations on blackboards and scrambled through calculus exams for decades. Now, they can still squint at equations and sweat through exams on a computer screen through an online course offering.

The University partnered with Outlier.org, a New York-based education technology startup, to provide online Introductory Calculus and Psychology courses and will continue working with the company through the summer term.

Outlier would not respond to specific questions about its history, the implementation process at Pitt or its partnership with the University. The company declined an interview, but provided a statement on behalf of Outlier founder and CEO Aaron Rasmussen that said Outlier provides university-level courses taught by educators in their respective fields through universities across the country.

“We create accessible, affordable and well-designed courses taught by some of the world’s best instructors to make learning fun and effective for students,” Rasmussen said. 

Jonathan Rubin, the chair of the mathematics department, said Outlier had initially approached the University and proposed implementing an online Calculus I class in early 2019. He said the online class size for Calculus I is about 30 people.

“Part of the reasoning for this is the high number of students and the demand that exists for such courses,” Rubin said. “Outlier will provide access to education to those who have not yet felt comfortable in the classroom setting, maybe preparing for other classes, people who are not yet enrolled in college, but might be interested.” 

According to Outlier’s website, the online courses cost about $400 each and provide transferable course credits, videos from experts in the field, personalized learning, an interactive textbook, study groups and free tutoring. The online course follows a traditional classroom model with midterms, final exams, homework and quizzes.

Rubin said the main goal of the project is to provide the same high-quality Pitt education that in-person students experience day to day, but instead move it to a more affordable online presence. 

“The program is going to be of sufficient quality,” Rubin said. “It will fulfill the same goals of a traditional Calculus I but differs only in the way it is presented.”

According to Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, who helped with the program’s execution process, Pitt’s relationship with Outlier rests upon reducing the financial strain of education, which fulfills one of Pitt’s missions to support access and affordability.

“We wanted to explore ways of enabling low-cost access nationally and internationally,” McCarthy said. “Our pilot with Outlier.org allows us to explore that — and, early on, we see that prospective/nontraditional students are achieving well.”

Rubin said the program has not experienced any major challenges, and Pitt will continue its partnership with Outlier through the summer semester. He added that an advisory group, largely composed of faculty, will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the program at a later date, as well as a possible future expansion.