Burck Smith

Burck Smith poses is founder and CEO of Straighterline. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / August 23, 2012)

Burck Smith is so far making good on his vision for revamping the way people pay for and complete college courses. His startup company, Straighterline, enables students to pay $99 a month for introductory college courses — and potentially save tens of thousands of dollars in the process.

In November, Smith will embark on another disruptive tack in online higher education. His Baltimore company will allow college professors to pitch their own courses through Straighterline, and even set their own prices above a minimum threshold.

The long-term vision, Smith said, is to empower professors — from lecturers to the tenured — to customize Straighterline courses and create an online platform where thousands of students can buy their college education— much like an eBay for college learning.

"Some professors might be better than others," said Smith, whose company is based in downtown Baltimore. "The idea is the student has those choices. It's really an experiment in creating a marketplace for professors and students to meet up."

Straighterline is among a crop of early stage online education companies that have been percolating in Baltimore in recent years. The company is in the midst of a rapidly growing online education industry that straddles the world of accredited education and nonaccredited skills training and knowledge sharing.

Across the Web, numerous companies offer online education and skills training, either for free or for a fee, but few — aside from traditional colleges and universities — offer course credit. For instance, people looking to learn new skills, such as iPhone programming, can watch video courses on iTunes University, Apple Inc.'s education platform.

There also is Coursera, which offers free massive open online courses from professors at major established universities, that could attract millions of students. But most colleges on the site, including the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, don't offer credit — though Coursera is moving in that direction.

There's Udacity, which offers free online courses and allows students to take exams, for a fee, and receive a certification — but no credit. And later this fall, a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, called EdX, will offer free courses, but no college credit.

Just a few years ago, Straighterline and its peers were regarded largely as wild-eyed disrupters whose vision for a 21st century online higher education environment was radical and improbable.

Not anymore. The cost of online software services, broadband and course development and dissemination have continued to plummet. High school and college students increasingly are looking for ways to save money on their college education, in the face of mounting student debt.

Venture capitalists have followed Straighterline and its competitors into the digital education breach. Straighterline raised $10 million in April from a handful of major investors. That same month, Coursera raised $16 million from venture capital firms.

Also in April, Landover-based 2Tor Inc., which builds online education platforms for major universities, raised $26 million.

"The Internet is happening to education," said George Siemens, a professor and associate director of Athabasca University's Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, in Alberta, Canada.

In 2008, Siemens and another professor experimented with holding the first massively open online course, which attracted thousands of students. Such courses now can attract more than 100,000 students from all over the world.

"The need for knowledge has increased in a knowledge society," Siemens said. "We're doing a greater amount of learning than even the last generation did."

Siemens said the cost of creating and distributing course materials has fallen, and communication over long distances is cheaper and simpler. With costs so low now, educational technology companies are trying to figure out what students consider worth paying for. Siemens thinks students want to pay for course accreditation — something that Straighterline offers — because employers still want to see their workers hold official degrees.

"Economically the primary value point is accreditation and recognition — that's what students are willing to pay for," Siemens said.

Straighterline will use its April venture capital investment to expand its marketing and outreach to universities across the country. Smith believes his company differentiates itself from competitors by offering its students a way to receive credit toward a degree at an inexpensive price. University competitors typically charge the same price for online courses as their offline ones, while other companies aren't yet able to offer credit.

Frank Bonsal III, general partner with New Markets Venture Partners, of Fulton, Md., said his firm invested in Straighterline because of that difference.