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Business Model for Education Venture Calls for ‘Empowering Adjuncts’

So much of the innovation in higher education today seems based on structures that treat faculty members as an afterthought, and a low-paid one at that. A fledgling online-education venture called Oplerno, however, aims to do just the opposite.

It’s based on a business model ensuring that 80 to 90 percent of what students pay will go directly to the people teaching the courses.

There are “phenomenal professors making poverty wages” right now, says Oplerno’s founder and chief executive officer, Robert A. Skiff Jr. “That’s a misallocation of capital.”

With Oplerno “we’re trying to recreate the relationship of a small group of people learning from a teacher,” says Mr. Skiff. “But instead of the institution capturing the money, we want the teacher to.”

Oplerno is seeking to attract experienced professionals as well as traditional academics as faculty members. But unlike some other for-profit models, in which faculty members are recruited to teach a standardized curriculum, those who teach for Oplerno will be expected to develop their own courses—and will own the intellectual-property rights to them.

Courses will run for 12 weeks but can start at any point during the year. In a way, it’s the anti-MOOC, with the focus on small classes of 25 to 30, rather than one instructor teaching thousands, and an expectation of more student-faculty engagement. “People have to learn from people,” says Mr. Skiff. “There has to be a relationship between the student and the teacher.”

Oplerno LLC (the name is short for “open learning organization”) isn’t one of those Silicon Valley education darlings. At this point, with just Mr. Skiff and two other employees on the payroll and about $50,000 in start-up funds, it’s barely a molehill on the landscape of higher-education reinvention.

But the company, which Mr. Skiff describes as a “a self-organizing, nonlinear, complex adaptive system,” does present an interesting approach.

In addition to “empowering adjuncts,” Mr. Skiff says he sees Oplerno as creating greater transparency for students. Once faculty members have proposed their courses, they will also provide detailed information about their syllabi, their expectations of students, and their own expertise for teaching it. (Students will be graded on a portfolio of their work.) The Oplerno “marketplace,” where courses will be listed, will also have space for prior students—and outsiders—to comment on courses.

“Students are going to be able to vet the faculty before they take the courses,” says Mr. Skiff.

The transparency extends beyond the students and the faculty. Eventually, says Mr. Skiff, he hopes to partly evaluate courses based on feedback from employers who have hired Oplerno students or alumni.

Professors will set their own prices, but Mr. Skiff says his goal is for most courses to be priced from $500 to $1,500 each. Oplerno will take 10 percent or $100 per class, whichever is greater, so a professor teaching a $1,000 class with 10 students would earn $9,000.

A student “might spend extra money to work with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter”—one of the 17 faculty members who’ve already signed up to teach via Oplerno has those credentials, he says—but maybe pay less for another course. “People can pick or choose based on their needs,” he says.

Mr. Skiff says he would be “really bummed out” and consider Oplerno unsuccessful from a societal standpoint if students had to go deeply into debt to attend.

John H. Todd, an emeritus professor of natural resources at the University of Vermont, and his wife, Nancy Todd, are among those faculty members looking at Oplerno. Ms. Todd has already proposed a course on ecological literacy. Mr. Todd will propose one on his field of expertise, ecological design.

They both know Mr. Skiff from his days as a co-founder of the Vermont Commons School, in the late 1990s (he founded that with his wife, Leah Mital-Skiff, and his father, Robert A. Skiff Sr., a former president of Champlain College), and the Todds are enthusiastic about his new venture. “I know a lot of people who would like to teach, but there isn’t this vehicle” to allow it, says Mr. Todd, who also taught Mr. Skiff at Vermont.

He also appreciates Mr. Skiff’s challenge. “It rather depends on if he can attract people who are highly recognized in their field” to teach, he says.

That’s where some of the self-organizing comes in. Mr. Skiff says that, as faculty members sign on, he hopes they will start to “develop their own networks” to attract others, so that Oplerno can eventually offer certificates, programs, and at some point full degrees. He plans to apply for accreditation this fall from the State of Vermont to award credit for its courses.

Ayaz Ul Haque, managing director at Exalt Capital Partners and an informal adviser to Oplerno as it begins to position itself to raise additional funds, says the ideas behind the company are appealing in the current climate. With the value of higher education “under the microscope,” he says, Oplerno offers a sense of clarity about the “black box” of college costs.

“It’s a model that needs to be proven,” Mr. Haque allows, “but I think most of the risks are on the execution side.” (He met Mr. Skiff through mutual friends from Middlebury College, which they both attended; Mr. Skiff graduated in 1990.)

Mr. Skiff, who is now completing his Ed.D. degree at the University of Vermont (his dissertation is unrelated to this venture), says he appreciates the challenges he faces, not least of which is establishing Oplerno as a legitimate academic enterprise. For that, he says, he’ll eventually hire deans and others: “It does take expertise. But it’s not rocket science.”

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