Students Craft Their Own Virtual Colleges

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by Diana Senechal

"My local community college said Candy Crush Saga wasn't a credit it," said Tim Cameron.
“My local community college said Candy Crush Saga wasn’t a credit it,” said Tim Cameron. “At FunCollege I can get a minor in Angry Birds.”

In an era that no longer needs physical classrooms, books or old-fashioned knowledge, why shouldn’t students craft virtual colleges to suit their tastes? Such is the rationale of Steve Ostrov, whose enterprise FunCollege, Inc., has caught onto America like a thousand burrs on a sweater.

Those who subscribe to FunCollege can select from thousands of online courses, package them with the college name of their choice, invite friends to join this new school, choose a theme song and video for it, and even give it a flavor (which they can purchase in the form of promotional lollipops). For instance, Nebraska resident Buzz Perkins enrolled in Remedial English, Engineering for Car Enthusiasts, and The Sociology of Hanging Out. He then named his college “Hangout University—Just Kidding—Well, not really—LOL,” persuaded five of his friends to “like” it (and thereby enroll), and selected a chocolate chili flavor.

Other students have gone even farther in personalizing their institutions. “Everyone at my college has long hair,” said Marcela Pelo, a precocious nine-year-old college student. “I don’t invite anyone with short hair to join.” She has chosen a sea urchin as the mascot, adopted key lime as the school’s flavor, named “Rock Lobster” as its theme song, and populated its catalog with imaginary, tuition-free courses such as Celtic Knots, History of the Birthday Cake and Advanced Psychology of Spiders.

For those with less initiative, FunCollege offers personality tests and “college bundles” to match every type. “You can still name your college and pick its theme song and all,” explained Ostrov, “but a lot of the other work is done for you. Plus, you get to be at a school with people you can relate to, at least statistically speaking.” A poll showed that 90 percent of FunCollege subscribers had chosen the “college bundle” option instead of going through the hassle of customizing their college on their own.

The whole thing’s about convenience, right?” noted Celeste Lachs, a student at a bundled college for intuitive extraverts. “I mean, if I’m going to go to any trouble, I might as well take the walk to a real campus and visit the library and stuff. The point here is to get by with as little hassle as possible, while still making some FunChoices.” For Lachs, the “FunChoice” was to link her college to an order of curly fries. “Whenever I log on to school,” she says, “an ad pops up that lets me order those fries. I usually do. I get ten cents’ commission for every order, so I’m trying to get all my friends to join and order fries too.”

Doesn’t such a system encourage students to waste their money and time on frivolities? Well, yes, you could call some of this frivolous,” said Ostrov, “but that’s going to make them good consumers eventually. My motto is, ‘Why stop at a study hall when you can have a mall?’ That kind of thinking resonates with a lot of people.”

Not everyone is pleased with the new system. Some of the online instructors complain that the FunCollege customers are resistant to learning anything they don’t already know. “We get these kids who sign up for engineering courses and then tell us they don’t want any homework,” said Ernest Treeforth, a real-live professor of engineering. “When I tell them they need homework in order to practice the concepts, I get a message from my administrator telling me I have to satisfy my customers.”

An anonymous English professor concurred. “You get students who are literally more concerned with the ‘flavor of the day’—and yes, I meant ‘literally’ literally—than with anything that gets them to step outside of themselves and their peer group. I assign them Thomas Hardy, and all of a sudden I get bombarded with tweets saying, ‘can’t relate #dense #obsolete’ or ‘dropping this course bye #dinosaur.’ I mean, you get some of that wherever you teach, but this is beyond the pale.”

Ostrov replied that this was what a lot of people wanted. “It’s just a byproduct of a free market,” he said. “You’ll still have places like Amherst and Brown, where you’re supposed to learn something that someone else sets before you. But hey, should everyone be forced into that model? Look at our subscription stats,” he added proudly, showing a rising graph line. “We’re making huge profits. That says it all.”