Op-ed | A word of caution to students about Outlier courses


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Pitt currently has a contract with Outlier to offer Calculus I and Intro to Psychology for credit throughout the summer.

You may have heard about online courses being offered at Pitt by a company called Outlier. Outlier is a for-profit company based in New York that, according to its website, offers the “world’s best online education.” Outlier offers online courses for $400 each with a money-back guarantee if you don’t pass. Pitt currently has a contract with Outlier to offer two courses for credit throughout the summer, Calculus I and Intro to Psychology.

I can understand the appeal of these classes to students. They cost substantially less than other Pitt courses, and you get your money back if you don’t pass. Plus, you’re already taking your courses online anyway, so what’s the difference? As an instructor of Introduction to Psychology at Pitt, I’d like to make you aware of some very big differences between the Intro to Psychology course that Outlier is offering and the Introduction to Psychology courses that Pitt offers outside of this contract with Outlier.

Some faculty members, including myself, met with Outlier.org CEO Aaron Rasmussen and his staff in late January. We were told that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the assessment of learning outcomes from the Outlier course. But my colleague from psychology and I had several questions for the Outlier team, given that we had just found out about the existence of the company and its partnership with Pitt from an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I was given access to the Outlier course after this meeting and was able to see the syllabus for the course and watch the recorded lectures.

The primary difference between the Outlier Intro to Psychology course and other Introduction to Psychology courses offered at Pitt is that the Outlier course is not taught by a Pitt instructor. In fact, there isn’t a singular instructor for the course. Instead, instructors from all over the country deliver pre-recorded lectures. I am not questioning the ability of these instructors to teach their courses. Many of them are well-known and well-respected in their field. But I would argue that there is a good deal more to teaching a course than simply delivering a lecture. For example, what I and my fellow psychology instructors do in our courses is draw connections between the different topics that we discuss throughout the semester. We want you to see the big picture — how topics such as neural communication, memory, emotions and prejudice are all intertwined. Drawing these connections is integral to a quality education and is impossible when you have multiple instructors delivering single lectures on different topics. For the most part, each instructor only delivers one lecture on their specific topic, and they are unaware of what has been discussed in previous lectures, making them unable to refer back to other material.

What if you have a question about a topic that was discussed in one of the lectures? For every other Pitt psychology class, you can directly email your instructor or stop by office hours to chat about your question or anything else that has fascinated or confused you. For the Outlier course, Rasmussen said during the meeting that students would post that question to a Slack channel to be answered either by your fellow students or by a course facilitator. These facilitators are not required to have a degree in psychology, Rasmussen said during the meeting. An open discussion board without an expert guide is a recipe for the spread of misinformation, and we know that misinformation about psychological topics abounds on the internet.

What about assessments? A majority of your grade for the Outlier Intro to Psychology course comes from three exams with 50 multiple-choice and true-or-false questions. These exams are administered remotely using Examity, which locks down your browser and tracks eye movements to monitor possible cheating, they said during the meeting. Once an exam is started, you have two hours to complete it, based on a review I did of the course. There is no indication in a course syllabus I reviewed of how students with disabilities would be able to utilize accommodations such as extended time for exams.

You also must have the required technology, such as a webcam and high-speed internet, in order to complete the course. This raises issues of the accessibility of the course to all Pitt students. All other courses at Pitt are required, rightfully so, to provide an education that is accessible to all students.

Ultimately, what the Outlier course is lacking is a human connection. Even when I moved my Introduction to Psychology course online this past spring, I did my best to be available to my students if they had any questions or concerns. In my recorded lectures, I drew connections from the material to the current pandemic. I even tailored the material to be what I considered to be most useful to students during this time. These are spontaneous adaptations that can’t be made in pre-recorded lectures by instructors across multiple institutions.

If you think back to your courses that went online this past spring, I imagine that your instructor’s ability to make a connection with you made all the difference to your experience in the class. That connection is necessary to enhance your feeling of belonging in a course. We know that this sense of belonging is important not only to you feeling satisfied with a course but also to how much you are able to learn in the course.

I should also note that the Outlier Intro to Psychology course was not designed by Pitt faculty. Indeed there has been no oversight by psychology faculty. We have been told that there is a faculty advisory committee that is evaluating the Outlier courses, but there are no psychology faculty serving on that committee. Intro to Psychology has been offered as a course through Outlier since last year, but we have not received any data regarding students’ performance or satisfaction with the course. I also urge you to talk to your adviser before enrolling in a course offered through Outlier, because there is a possibility that these courses will not count as prerequisites for mid- or upper-level courses.

You chose Pitt because you recognize our ability to provide you with a world-class education. That education is provided by Pitt faculty members. As faculty members, our primary interest is your education. Outlier is a for-profit company whose primary interest is making money.

I get that tuition at Pitt is high, and I certainly don’t want you to be saddled with debt your whole life. But I would argue that there are better ways for the University to address this issue than by offering sub-par courses to students, and I hope that the administration is willing to consider these alternatives.

Melinda Ciccocioppo is a psychology lecturer.