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3 Questions for CU Boulder on Growing Application-Free, Performance-Based Degrees

A conversation with Robert McDonald, professor, dean of the university libraries and senior vice provost of online education.

August 30, 2022

Three years ago, CU Boulder announced its first performance-based degree on Coursera, a master of science in electrical engineering (M.S.-E.E.). This degree removed applications entirely. Any students who maintain a B average in a series of gateway courses are automatically admitted.Robert McDonald, a white man with dark hair wearing a suit and tie.

My friend Quentin McAndrew, current academic strategist at Coursera and former assistant vice provost at CU Boulder, who helped archetype the degree, says, “When we were creating the program, ‘Why?’ became our mantra. Why does the admissions process have to work the way it does? Why can’t we reimagine it to truly test students’ ability to complete the work of the degree? That constant questioning led us to create a program that is truly open and accessible while still being rigorous and scalable.”

Over the last year, the university saw the number of students in its M.S.-E.E. program grow by 30 percent, so I chatted with Robert H. McDonald, CU Boulder’s senior vice provost of online education, to hear more about how they’ve done it and what they’ve learned.

Q: CU Boulder was an early innovator of the application-free admissions movement. Now, the trend is gaining traction with other colleges, like West Texas A&M University and West Virginia’s Davis & Elkins College. What lessons have you learned about how to make a performance pathway work for students while still delivering the high-quality content CU Boulder is known for? Have you seen this admissions process increase diversity in your degree programs?

A: In a traditional master’s program, students go through a rigorous application process that usually requires transcripts, an application essay and letters of reference. Those who are accepted can wait up to a year for classes to begin, and fees are paid up front and may not be fully recoverable if things do not go well. Such a system favors those with resources such as money and time and discourages those who do not fit into the traditional profile of a master’s degree candidate—working professionals, caregivers, those who need to jump-start their careers immediately and those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. Much like the programs that you mentioned, our performance-based pathways for our master’s programs seek to include more students who can qualify for admissions but aim to eliminate the fear of rejection and the typical single annual admissions point for those who need our master’s-level degree programs.

We’ve learned—and continue to learn—so much about making graduate degree programs available to broader audiences since we first launched performance pathways in 2019. Our performance pathways open up opportunities for more people to benefit from our degree offerings. We offer our courses six times a year in eight-week terms, so students can begin when their schedule permits. They can try out courses and only pay the full fee towards the degree after they know that they can pass. Moreover, every pathway course has an associated noncredit version that allows students to test their readiness for the degree content. Student progress in the noncredit version automatically transfers to the for-credit version once the student pays tuition and registers for the course. This means students can test their readiness in a low-stakes environment and then apply successful progress to the degree program when they’re ready through our stackable courses.

We are also excited to iterate our degree experience based on what we’ve learned so far from student behavior and success. We recognize that many of our prospective students are new to the field or are changing careers, so we have created prep courses to help our students master the foundational skills before taking their degree courses. Students who are unsure of their readiness can now take prep courses and feel more confident about taking the performance-pathway courses. This allows us to bring in students from more diverse backgrounds, such as those without technical training.

We remain committed to our goal of providing the highest-level curriculum to a broad audience that traditionally doesn’t have access to a CU Boulder credential or a residential experience. We have seen that providing noncredit versions of the pathways, prep courses and multiple enrollment terms benefits students not just within the U.S. but globally. According to student-reported data, the master of science in data science program enrolled students from 89 countries in its first year of operation, while the master of science in electrical engineering has enrolled students from 94 countries since the degree launched in 2019. We are proud that our innovations in online education are creating opportunities globally.

Mattison Hineline, a student living in Malaga, Spain, said she values the opportunity the program is providing for her to make a career change. As someone without programming experience, she appreciates the support she gets from the student online community via Slack.

“This degree is the best option for those who come from nontechnical backgrounds and who want to learn on their own schedule,” Hineline said.

Q: Tell me about how faculty helped create CU Boulder’s online degrees on Coursera from the bottom up. What did this look like in practice—from curriculum design to prioritizing hands-on learning? How did having open courses, or MOOCS, already created on Coursera impact the process?

A: All of our courses are designed by CU Boulder faculty, who are responsible for the course content, assessments and grading rubrics, and our courses present the same curriculum as the on-campus degree versions. We provide learning experience designers (LXDs) and student assistants to support our faculty as they design courses that can be scaled. Our LXDs help faculty think about translating courses from on-campus residential to an online, asynchronous course experience. The LXDs also work with faculty to implement the learning and assessment strategies that best fit their teaching style and student outcomes so that we can build courses according to the instructors’ strengths. We believe this attention to high-level curriculum, teaching strengths and intentional design ensures that students have an optimal experience through both their individual courses and the full degree program.

Nearly all of our for-credit courses are presented in a parallel open version, which allows us to reach larger audiences but also requires us to think about how to reach audiences that we do not regularly connect with. This means building courses that are clearly delivered—both in terms of content delivery and curriculum flow—and that provide students a meaningful experience, all while teaching a rigorous master’s-level curriculum. We also have a catalog of noncredit courses not associated with our degree programs that are built by faculty from across the university. Our goal is to capture the individual teaching style and unique student outcomes in every open course. Our suite of open courses and experience-building courses from domains across campus has given us the experience we need to build learning experiences that implement new tools and novel teaching approaches, both of which inform our approach to curriculum development in our for-credit courses.

Q: Last time we talked, you had one online degree. Now, you have three online degrees with “performance-based” admissions and four stackable graduate certificates. It’s incredible growth. Is it easier or faster to grow online programs once you have one program launched? What tools and strategies have you implemented to keep tuition affordable while still setting students up for success?

A: We’re thrilled with the growth we’ve seen because it reflects our university’s commitment to reaching nontraditional audiences who are not able to come to our campus for a residential experience. Our first degree on the Coursera platform, the M.S.-E.E., was revolutionary and required both a new way of thinking about degrees and a new way to deliver those degrees in terms of student experience and administrative processes. Our goal was to scale a top-ranked engineering degree so that we meet the widest possible audience. To do this, we had to scale our enrollment services through an automated enrollment and tuition payment system. We could not have done this without an incredible group of thought leaders and innovators from the electrical engineering department, the registrar’s office, the bursar’s office, the Graduate School, the Office of Information Technology, University Information Systems, and our online innovation office, which is now known as the Office of Academic and Learning Innovation. These constituents were willing to change and modify existing systems and work to build a new experience from the ground up for our students in those programs.

We’ve learned a lot since then, and we have expert operational and visionary teams composed of staff and faculty from the offices referenced above who are able to implement new degrees using many of the systems and processes we developed for the M.S.-E.E. At the same time, we want our degree experiences to reflect the unique needs of the subject matter of those degrees. With every new degree we’ve launched, we’ve incorporated new curricula, which require us to modify some of our automated systems. When we built our initial M.S.-E.E. program, we knew that we wanted to be able to add new degrees and this openness to innovation helped us develop a standard model for those programs wanting to deliver an online degree program on the Coursera platform and the flexibility to add their own requirements. We have been able to meet those challenges because of the foundational work we’ve done prior to the launch of the M.S.-E.E. degree and the cross-collaboration that we have enabled with our campus administrative and academic units.

We now employ an automated system to integrate new students into our student management system, collect tuition at the point of purchase, and enroll students in four graduate certificates and three degree programs, all of which have their own specific requirements. We’re proud of the work of our support teams and support of our campus leadership, both of which were necessary to build the robust but flexible automated system that serves students throughout the life cycle of their degree experience.

Sriram Sankaranarayanan, professor of computer science, explains how we do this within the course experience: “In order to set up students for success, we have course facilitators who conduct regular office hours and pass on issues faced by the students to the instructor at regular intervals. Their feedback has helped the instructors fix issues in a timely manner. Another strategy has been to design programming assignments that allow students to solve challenging problems but also get near-instantaneous feedback through test cases and hints. The use of Jupyter notebooks has been particularly helpful in this context since it allows us to incorporate descriptive text and useful pre-programmed functionality that students find helpful. Furthermore, the structure of the notebooks helps students build up solutions incrementally through smaller steps that add up to solving a challenging problem.”

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