The Evolution of a Scaled Degree Program

In the first of a three-part series, William Kuskin describes the changes required -- administratively as well as pedagogically -- as his university built an online degree from scratch to serve hundreds of students.

October 23, 2019

The University of Colorado at Boulder has partnered with Coursera on an affordable scaled master’s degree that returns to the essential mission of disruption in the MOOC format. The pilot launched this October, and the full degree is scheduled for January 2020. This article is the first in a series tracking the development of the degree as it rolls out over 12 months.


It began on a road trip.

Bob Erickson, power electronics engineer, professor and often chair of the department of electrical, computer and energy engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and I were stuck in the Houston airport. We had just flown in from The Hague, where we attended the 2016 Coursera Partners Conference. Our destination, Denver International Airport, was snowed under, and there wasn’t a connecting flight to be had in the Mountain West. We looked at a map and rented a car.

It’s a long way from Houston to Boulder. Bob and I mulled the conference over as we stared out at the Texas landscape. The Hague marked a new phase for Coursera: the move into degrees. We liked Coursera’s platform, but in terms of the degree, neither of us favored their model, which emphasized synchronous lectures and high-touch teaching. After all, we mused, Coursera’s platform excelled at, and its claims to disruption were based in, asynchronous, student-driven learning. The degree struck us, perhaps, as a bit like Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, which we had just seen at the Mauritshuis: brilliant but tethered, unable to reach its potential.

At some point, gnawing away on Texas jerky, we began to ask the fundamental question -- “Why?” Why is the university married to certain models of teaching, scheduling, admissions and enrollment? What if we took up Coursera’s rallying cry of educational revolution and brought it back to an electrical engineering degree? We chewed on this idea until the jerky was gone and then fell silent, reflecting that disruption always sounds easy from the front seat of a car.

The Evolution of M.S.-E.E.: Obstacles and Emergent Processes

Back at the campus, our colleagues’ initial skepticism was actually quite good-humored. After we presented our case, two-thirds of the ECEE faculty, the dean of engineering, the graduate dean, the provost and the chief financial officer took us seriously. The provost termed the project “a test particle,” and he and the CFO saw the idea as a chance to think about the future of higher education. They never wavered in their commitment.

Quentin McAndrew, who works in the provost’s office, took oversight of the particle, moving it into the vacuum tubes of enrollment management and accreditation. These processes, too, went surprisingly smoothly. Quentin has documented them in her article “Innovation Leashed: How a MOOC-Based Master’s Degree Brings Invention Home to the Institution.”

By the end of the accreditation process, we had articulated our vision of “why” as three main disruptions:

  1. Learning belongs to the learner. Our experience with scaled courses recalled for us that much university pedagogy is premised on an almost mystical process of knowledge transmission from faculty to student. The faculty are critical shepherds for successful learning, but interest, motivation and discipline lie with the student. Our key commitment in this degree was to a high-engagement pedagogical structure for student learning.
  2. Modularity benefits everyone. Rather than insisting on a universal course length defined by the three-credit-hour standard and organized according to the agricultural calendar-based semester, we designed asynchronous, fractional credit-hour modules, which stack into larger course equivalences, then into certificates and then to the degree. This allowed the faculty to tighten their focus within each module. It also allowed us to present the degree to learners who may have a variety of goals: specific knowledge or certification in a single field, as well as a full degree. In our view the degree is neither the main focus nor the main product; access to learning is the focus, and the student’s accomplishment is the product.
  3. Performance-based admissions. One of the fundamental tensions in American public education is that of elite standards and public access. We leaned toward access and developed performance based-admissions that moves students directly into the for-credit courses and into the degree if they achieve and maintain a 3.0. There is no application. The students’ ability to do the work allows them into the degree; their ability to maintain a standard keeps them there.

Bob, Quentin and I steered the M.S.-E.E. down the academic road. The degree’s major existential threat came, ironically, from Coursera, which appreciated our vision but was tepid about committing to electrical engineering and suspicious about our decision not to develop synchronous course sections.

More to the point, Coursera presented us with two objections: academically, they pressed CU Boulder for academic oversight over the courses, which violated our accreditation principles. Methodologically, they disagreed with our emphasis on performance-based admissions and asked for synchronous lectures and high-touch moments within the semester, which would ultimately tether the degree to the semester. These requests surprised us, because they seemed counter to Coursera’s strengths, which lay in asynchronous, accessible, on-demand education.

It was as if, post-Hague, Coursera would not fully commit to the disruptive nature of its own platform. Irony redoubled: by the 2017 Partners Conference, which was actually held at the University of Colorado at Boulder, we had essentially broken up.

I came to see Coursera’s objections as conceptual, part of its development as a company and part of the at-scale degrees development as a distinct genre within online education over all. Coursera could not design our degree. It is not an academic entity; as OPMs have come under criticism for intruding into academics, this quality is entirely in Coursera’s favor. At the same time, it hewed to online education as we all knew it: synchronous classes with TA grading, albeit on a large scale. What Bob and I imagined in our long car ride was something different, something native to the MOOC environment. This genre of online education now travels under the names “at-scale degrees” or “affordable degrees at scale,” but at the time it was still evolving. Disruption is not so easy when you’re actually trying to accomplish it.

Still, Coursera remained the only viable alternative for us. Its ecosystem, its growing base of users and its commitment to analytics is unrivaled in the industry. Moreover, only Coursera was able to accomplish the data management process that would enable us to automate enrollment.

When Coursera’s new leadership came on board, we reopened our negotiations and found a way forward, one that left curriculum to the academics and allowed us to embrace Coursera’s capacities. It felt like a powerful moment when we all decided to move ahead.

By this time, our internal collaborators -- the registrar; the bursar; the university’s office of information systems; the campus’ office of information technology; the department of electrical, computer and energy engineering as well as the dean of engineering; and the offices of enrollment management; finance; and planning; the graduate school and the provost -- began to show substantial progress. That all these units were involved is a noteworthy point. This was not simply a departmental effort but involved the entire university.

Our work to automate enrollment, payment and transcript services stands out as a major innovation in the degree, a fourth item to be added to the list above and an unexpected design development that constitutes “emergence” from the confluence of different units working together.

If the notion that learning belongs to the learner questions the myth that great faculty shape minds by arguing instead that great minds shape themselves, our discovery here is that innovation belongs to the university as a whole -- not simply to the faculty but to its talented staff. At-scale degree design changes the terms of educational delivery, demystifying long-held existing assumptions and setting out new constraints. In a system as established as the university, this is a rare opportunity indeed, a chance to cut the delicate chain of tradition and attempt new flight.

The Pilot

Coursera’s marketing delivered. So as to not be overwhelmed at the very start, we developed a strategy to pilot three initial courses, each capped at 75 students. We staffed up to support these students, tested our enrollment management systems, opened the door for enrollment on Sept. 23 and began the first three courses on Oct. 21.

Two of the three courses, power electronics and embedded systems, filled within 24 hours. The third, optics, crept up to capacity before the Oct. 21 deadline, at which point we closed the courses. We enrolled these students, moving them through payment, matriculation, identity provisioning and enrollment within twenty-four hours. Seventy percent of these students came from the U.S., and 95 percent of those came from outside of Colorado.

One student anonymously answered our onboarding survey with the following:

I would like you to know that I am *extremely thankful* with UC Boulder for bringing this program to people in 3rd world countries where we couldn't dream to go on campus due to the high costs involved. This program is going to have a huge positive impact around the world. You can be sure of that.

In sum, we hit our enrollment goal of 225 students amazingly quickly. Performance-based admissions presents an enormous challenge for these students, however: they must gauge their own ability and be willing to withdraw. At the time of this writing, we have closed enrollment but are allowing students to withdraw for two weeks as they see fit.


The passenger-side rearview mirror affords the vision of hindsight, and there remains a great deal of open road ahead of the M.S.-E.E. Still, at this initial rest stop, I make three observations.

  1. At-scale degree programs: Higher education has entered into a new phase of online education. Joshua Kim has termed this “low-cost master’s degrees,” the group at Georgia Tech has termed it affordable degrees at scale and Ray Schroeder has recently written about it in terms of at-scale degrees. It is founded by Georgia Tech’s original degree in computer science. Although the movement is clearly an outgrowth of MOOCs, I would argue that it is not simply a technological affordance so much as an intellectual one. Thinking about scale forces a rethinking about the university’s roles and processes.
  2. Experimentation: Because the movement is intellectual, at-scale providers are not traditional OPMs. Coursera’s value involves its platform, its significant marketing heft and its channel into an ecosystem of 50 million subscribers. Unlike an OPM, Coursera stays out of academics, and as a result, it allowed us to create internal change.
  3. Emergence: In attempting to extract a product from the university -- the course -- early claims to MOOC disruption missed the university’s fundamental identity as a community. The university structure is not simply faculty members steeped in tradition, so many tea bags in an antique teapot. Disrupting this structure does not simply amount to knocking it over and watching it crash on the floor. The university is a holistic entity. It relies on a great many creative individuals. Their work cannot be separated from student success, and when unleased, it can be the source of emergent practices. In the field of higher education, disruption is a holistic journey.

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William Kuskin is a professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


William Kuskin

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