An Outlier for Education: Illinois Tech Partners with Online Platform to Provide More Learning Opportunities



By Casey Moffitt
Michael Lee

Illinois Institute of Technology President Raj Echambadi and other university leaders recognize the difficulties that prevent some people from pursuing higher education, and the university is taking innovative steps to help them overcome those obstacles.

Modern technology makes it easier to bring quality programs and courses to students through online platforms. Building partnerships with these platforms will allow Illinois Tech to deliver a high-quality education to more people at a lower cost.

“We have to think innovatively to bring other populations of students the benefits of higher education,” Echambadi says. “We have to be smart in our intentions in education trends, and we have to be smart in our intentions with new partnerships.”

The first of these partnerships is with Outlier, an online platform that offers associate’s degrees, certificate programs, and courses in areas such as computer science, business, information technology, and data analytics. Courses are taught by faculty from universities and colleges from across the country.

Michael Lee, associate teaching professor of computer science at Illinois Tech, is one of four instructors who are teaching Outlier’s Computer Science I course. He says that he sees Outlier as an opportunity to reach students who might otherwise not consider or be able to embark on a career in computer science.

“Our field is characterized by huge diversity gaps—gender, racial, socioeconomic, and more—and narrowing these gaps is not only a moral imperative, it is critical to help our field grow and mature,” Lee says. “I really like Outlier’s stated mission: ‘to increase access to quality college education and dramatically reduce student debt.’ Theirs is a model, I think, that definitely has a place alongside traditional universities.”

Lee says that he likes Outlier’s combination of asynchronous lectures and interactive, live tutoring, which provide the potential to scale in a way that traditional classrooms cannot.

Credits accrued through Outlier can be transferred to Illinois Tech, allowing those students an opportunity to continue their education and complete a bachelor’s degree.

Partnerships with platforms such as Outlier will help Illinois Tech maneuver through the changing landscape of higher education. The field is facing three main challenges, and the need to reach new students through means outside of traditional, residential-based higher education are needed.

These challenges include birth patterns declining, creating a smaller pool of college-aged students through 2030. Students also are facing an affordability crisis, making traditional higher education difficult to attain. The COVID-19 pandemic has also made students hesitate to move away for education, and colleges have lost an estimated 1.4 million students since 2019.

Echambadi says the university is exploring more partnerships to continue innovative pathways to bring higher education opportunities to more people so they may prepare for careers in a tech-focused economy.

Photo: Associate Teaching Professor of Computer Science Michael Lee