Could Georgia Tech Use Online to Shave Time Off Bachelor’s Degrees?

University uses model from closely observed master’s in computer science on undergraduates for first time, finds notable success and sees path to shaving a year or more off in-person instruction.

August 9, 2017
Georgia Tech

Georgia Institute of Technology's online, MOOC-inspired master's degree in computer science has many educators watching closely. This spring, the university tried a similar approach for undergraduates and found it so successful that it's continuing along a path to shave off up to a year and a half of in-person instruction for students pursuing a bachelor's degree.

Fifty-nine students enrolled in the experimental Intro to Computing online course this spring, while approximately 350 students took the course in person. The university found no significant difference in grades or accumulated knowledge, based on test scores, between students in the two course models, according to a report compiled by the online course’s instructor, David Joyner, a lecturer at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing who also teaches several courses in the university’s online computer science master’s program.

In fact, test scores were slightly higher on average for the online students, though not to a statistically significant degree.

Adaptive Learning, Too

The spring online course also represented Georgia Tech’s first foray into adaptive learning with software from McGraw-Hill that helped tailor exercises to students’ performance in early lessons. Joyner credits that technology, among other factors, for helping students in the online class feel as satisfied as their counterparts in the classroom.

Components of the adaptive learning model like immediate feedback and flexible pacing were among the features of the class students praised most in their end-of-semester evaluations, Joyner said. It can be difficulty to fully gauge the impact of adaptive learning, though, given that it overlaps with the rest of the course.

“In many ways the adaptive learning is the reason why the course works,” Joyner said. “Adaptive learning is one piece of the puzzle that can’t really be taken apart.”

Emboldened by the program’s early success, another online section of the introductory computer science course will be available to all Georgia Tech undergraduates this fall, according to Joyner, who will be teaching the course once again. Officials told Inside Digital Learning that the fall course will be open to more than 100 students. Modifications from the spring version will include more complete testing suites; embedded personalized feedback and tutoring; integrated code visualizations and style feedback. 

Joyner's course earned plaudits from Zvi Galil, dean of Georgia Tech's College of Computing, who has deemed the experiment a significant success. Galil intends, after consulting with his faculty members this fall, to bring more introductory computer science courses online over the next couple of years, eventually making it possible to shorten a computer science student's on-campus time by as much as 18 months.

"I expected it to be fine, but I didn’t expect it to be this good," Galil told Inside Digital Learning. "[Joyner] did a fantastic job."

Galil maintains that the institution has no plans to establish a full online degree program in computer science; the residential college experience is too precious to sacrifice, he said. But he thinks the prospect of shaving a year off many students' college careers makes sense, particularly because more than half of Georgia Tech's students take longer than four years to graduate. He also wants the online undergraduate courses to be useful to other universities and companies.

The seeds of these efforts were planted in 2014, when Georgia Tech answered surging demand for master's degrees in computer science by teaming with Udacity to launch an online master’s program that would be built on the model of massive open online courses while also charging tuition and having admissions standards. Because the virtual nature of the program allows many more students to take it than could attend classes on campus, the institution can offer highly competitive rates for a high-quality degree.

As of last year, the program hadn’t matched the university’s loftiest expectations. But after seeing strong enrollment and student satisfaction, the university announced earlier this year that it will add a similar online master’s program in analytics this fall. The online computer science master’s program now boasts more than 4,500 students and is expected to reach 5,500 this fall, according to a university spokesperson.

Meanwhile, this spring’s pilot -- announced in November and run by edX with a learning platform from McGraw-Hill -- served to dip Georgia Tech’s toe into the waters of MOOC-inspired online programs for undergraduates, drawing attention in higher education circles and among universities that rely heavily on local enrollment for their tech programs. Institutions have struggled thus far to translate the enthusiasm for their online master’s programs to the undergraduate level.

In surveys at the end of the spring 2017 semester, computer science students in the online Georgia Tech pilot rated the course more highly than those in the classroom version, both independently and compared to other college courses.

Joyner’s report also indicates that some online students with no prior computing experience showed greater improvement over the semester than traditional students with no prior experience. While that difference was not statistically significant, it did contradict the institution’s hypothesis that students with prior experience would be better suited to the online program.

Joyner, also a Georgia Tech alum, volunteered to teach the class, quickly noting the differences between an online course for master’s students and one for undergraduates. He coordinated before the semester with colleagues who were to teach the course’s classroom equivalent, but the actual rhythms of the two courses ended up diverging, with some lessons coming earlier online than in person, and vice versa.

“I wanted to make sure we gave more scaffolding, more feedback, more of a cadence that we could get into a routine with,” Joyner said. “I figured we couldn’t rely quite as much on self-starting students.”

To his surprise, the class was much less “talkative” on discussion boards than he had expected, which meant at times that he wasn’t sure how his students were progressing. He eventually realized that the built-in feedback in the online materials answered many of the questions students would otherwise have asked him.

Though their achievements were comparable, students’ priorities differed between the course types, according to the report. Online learners reported on the end-of-semester survey that they placed high value on lectures and discussions, while traditional learners cared more about textbooks. The distinction is not as sharp as it appears, however -- the free, interactive textbooks in the traditional course also figured into the online lectures.

Online students also more emphatically valued homework assignments than their traditional counterparts, according to the report. According to Joyner, a few students took advantage of the real-time grade updates and purposely flunked a final exam because it wouldn't impact their final grade. Galil points out that this phenomenon isn't exclusive to online courses; students in classrooms also plot out their grades in similar ways.

For this fall’s version, all 300 exercises will be outfitted with scripts that automatically grade students, providing increased rigor and protections against cheating, Joyner said, and more feedback will be available to students throughout the course.  A style checker and a problem visualization tool are in the works as well.

Looking Ahead

Joyner is bullish on the idea of bringing online courses to the undergraduate level, because students at that age might be more comfortable with the hands-on nature of the online course experience than they would be with an impersonal 200-student lecture hall where no one notices when they're absent.

Computer science is particularly well suited to the online model, Joyner said, because most of the students’ activities would be completed on a computer even in an on-campus setting. But it could work elsewhere, too, Joyner said.

“I think the fact that online education has been so inferior in so many places means that a lot of attention really has to be paid to doing it right,” Joyner said. “When you actually very thoughtfully look at the things you can do online and take advantage of what you can do online and can’t do in person, I think it’d be an extremely productive model for most fields.”

Galil maintains that the institution has no plans to establish a full online degree program in computer science; the residential college experience is too precious to sacrifice, he said. But he thinks the prospect of shaving a year off many students' college careers makes sense, particularly because more than half of Georgia Tech's students take longer than four years to graduate. He also wants the online undergraduate courses to be useful to other universities and companies.

Georgia Tech is still years away from Galil’s goal, and Galil is quick to acknowledge that it might not develop exactly as he now envisions it. The online option could also drive down tuition costs and expand opportunities for a greater number of students to enroll, Galil said.

“We are going into uncharted territory. [With the online master’s program,] we jumped into the water and we learned to swim,” Galil said. “We didn’t know it would succeed, we committed to doing everything in our power to succeed.”




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