The New Republic has a profile on Black Mountain SOLE, an online-learning company based near Asheville, detailing the center’s “rough start” and pondering some of the larger issues with online learning:
At Black Mountain, much hangs on this brand of team-building exercise, because community is the program’s chief selling point. The other selling point is, basically, access to the Internet. It’s both an offshoot and an indicator of the recent boom in online education, especially the rapid growth of MOOCs, which have made lecture courses from a wide range of universities available for free online. Though traditional colleges are increasingly rounding out their curricula with online courses, Black Mountain claims to be the first experiment in assembling an entire campus around MOOCs. “If you want to study what you want to study, MOOCs are a great way to do that,” Katie Cleary, a staff member, told me. “But if you want to get the full experience of developing yourself, then you can come here and do that, too.”
But like most experiences of developing yourself, this one is off to a bumpy start. And, typically, the struggles seem a lot more like those of a tech start-up than those of a beleaguered university.
Since launching in September, Black Mountain has watched much of its seed money drain away as it struggles to build a seaworthy business model. Though many of the tech- and business-minded SOLEmates have flourished, creative types and liberal arts-seekers have foundered. The number of participants is growing, but at least half of the original class seems likely to leave before finishing their intended nine-month stay. Black Mountain was founded on the premise that college’s last remaining selling point, in this digital age, is community—so it set out to replicate the effect. The last four months have gone a long way toward proving the theory wrong.