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A single factoid from a 9/5/17 PBS NewsHour story caught my attention:

"Online, there are nearly twice as many of students of color than on campus.”

The story was about Georgia Tech's online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) program. This story is part of the NewsHour’s ReThinking College series.  

According to Georgia Tech, the program had a spring 2017 enrollment of 4,515 students. Of these, 14.7 percent are underrepresented minorities, and 13.9 percent are women. 

The online degree program is considerably larger than the residential program, with 212 students enrolled in the online computer science master’s program receiving their degrees, compared to 64 residential students.   

Let’s take a moment to think about this.

The big story about the Georgia Tech’s online computer science master’s program has always been about cost and scale.  By taking advantage of scale, the program is able to drive the per-student costs down, which enables Georgia Tech to offer the online degree at a price of $6,600.  This compares to $42,000 a year for the residential program.

What we have talked less about is the potential for online learning to drive student diversity.

It is not clear to me why the Georgia Tech online program is able to matriculate underrepresented minorities at twice the rate of the residential program.  Is this a function of the program being online, or of the program being offered at such a low cost?

Further questions would be:

  • How does time to degree and graduation rates compare across demographic groups between the online and residential programs?
  • What are the total student costs for online and residential programs, as are scholarships or other funding available for underrepresented minorities in the residential program that are not available in the online degree?
  • How do employment outcomes differ across demographic groups between the online and residential programs?

If Georgia Tech is indeed able leverage scaled online learning to graduate underrepresented minorities at much higher rates than comparable residential programs, then it seems that all of us in higher ed should be taking notice. 

I remain skeptical that an online degree program that is not built around intensive interaction, mentoring, and coaching between faculty and students can be successful.  Going to scale in order to drive down the costs seems to require a transactional, rather than relational, approach to teaching and learning.

The success that Georgia Tech is having, however, in extending a graduate degree in computer science to underrepresented minorities should make all of us in higher education curious about this model. We should try to approach our efforts to understand this sort of program with an open mind.

Maybe a model of online education that does not rely on building a relationship between a faculty member and a student can work for particular subjects and disciplines?  Is computer science more a skill-based profession, where skills around creativity and metacognition and leadership are less salient?  That is not how I think of computer science, but perhaps I’m wrong?

Is online learning, or online learning at scale, really an engine for diversity?

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