The Georgia Institute of Technology’s plan to offer a low-cost online master’s degree to 10,000 students at once creates what may be a first-of-its-kind template for the evolving role of public universities and corporations.
When it agreed to work with Udacity to offer the online master's degree in computer science, Georgia Tech expected to make millions of dollars in coming years, negotiated student-staff interaction down to the minute, promised to pay professors who create new online courses $30,000 or more, and created two new categories of educators -- corporate “course assistants” tasked with handling student issues and a corps of teaching assistants hired by Georgia Tech who will be professionals rather than graduate students.
New details about the internal decision making and fine print of Georgia Tech's revolutionary effort are based on interviews and documents, including some that the university provided to Inside Higher Ed following an open records request.
Georgia Tech this month announced its plans to offer a $6,630 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors. Georgia Tech and Udacity, a Silicon Valley-based startup, will work with AT&T, which is putting up $2 million to heavily subsidize the program’s first year. The effort, if it succeeds, will allow one of the country’s top computer science programs to enroll 20 times as many students as it does now in its online master’s degree program, and to offer the degree to students across the world at a sixth of the price of its existing program.
A contract between Georgia Tech's research corporation and Udacity spells out the time that Udacity staff members are to spend helping students, though representatives of both the company and the university say their understanding of how much time students will need is likely to evolve.
An internal faculty report generated by professors in the College of Computing says there were “significant internal disagreements," despite Georgia Tech’s portrayal of the deal as heavily supported by faculty.
Interviews and documents also suggest that the full Georgia Tech Academic Senate had little chance to review the deal, which was negotiated at a “rapid pace,” according to the minutes of one faculty committee meeting. Many professors were unaware of the plans until they were announced at the end of the term, said the chairman of one faculty committee.
Of particular interest to professors across the country, who are already on edge about what higher ed technology may mean for their jobs, are two classes of educators that Georgia Tech and Udacity plan to rely on to make the program work. On Udacity's side are company staff who will be helping students with "non-academic and academic tasks," according to the contract. On Georgia Tech's side is a new category of personnel who will help instructors manage the massive classes but, unlike teaching assistants in traditional courses, these employees are unlikely to be graduate students.
Charles Isbell Jr., the senior associate dean of Georgia Tech's computing college, said professors will remain in charge of their courses. “The professor, as always is the case and must be the case, is in charge of all the curriculum and all the curricular details,” he said.
But the contract says that Udacity’s course assistants will interact with students “in a variety of ways” and provide no less than an hour of support to students for each credit hour. The assistants will also report to "quality assurance" staff at Udacity, as well as to instructors.
Accreditation standards require professors to assign grades, a Udacity spokeswoman, Erica Billups, said. But Udacity’s software will help correct non-graded exercises and its staff will help with some exercises meant to teach students how to program computers. “The professors are in charge of the final course grade,” Billups said. “Udacity course assistants help with many of the exercises and formative assessments.” The internal faculty report also suggests the course may rely in part on peer grading.
Georgia Tech is also working to hire a new class of university employees. These will be “people with domain expertise," Isbell said, who can work with faculty and the course materials. These employees will be a new professional class of employees and not graduate assistants.
Umakishore Ramachandran, a computer science professor who chaired the working group that prepared the internal report, said moving away from graduate assistants might be a good thing. He said graduate student teaching assistants face a learning curve and do not remain T.A.s for life. A professional aide, he said, could “help in retaining uniform quality.”
“In that sense, having a core of professional staff that can help in managing the grading part of it can actually be an asset,” Ramachandran said.
In an otherwise detailed contract, it’s unclear how many of these employees Georgia Tech will need to hire and at what cost. Isbell said there is uncertainty about how many employees it will take to operate the program at full scale in the coming years. He said the "notion of developing and revisiting the contract was a central theme" of the discussions between Georgia Tech and Udacity.
Despite that, the contract between Georgia Tech and Udacity does make precise cost estimates for the first three years of the program.
The Georgia Tech program will have four enrollment tracks for students. Enrollment starts in January, though the first year will feature a small test run of several hundred paying students drawn mostly from the military and the corporate world, particularly AT&T.
Georgia Tech and Udacity expect the program to cost about $3.1 million in its first year. With a $2 million one-time sponsorship from AT&T and about $1.3 million in tuition and fees, Georgia Tech and Udacity
expect to split $240,060 in gains at the end of the first year.
In the second year, without AT&T’s large subsidy, Georgia Tech and Udacity plan to spend $7.5 million and scrape out gains of just $14,848 for the whole year.
By the third year, when the program is expected to be running at full steam, Georgia Tech and Udacity expect to spend $14.3 million on the program but bring in $19.1 million in revenue -- for a total gain of about $4.7 million.
Georgia Tech will receive 60 percent of the revenue and Udacity the rest. The money to Georgia Tech will flow through its research corporation. Professors and the computing college both stand to gain from the effort. A professor will receive $20,000 for creating a course and $10,000 for delivering the content -- meaning most professors will receive $30,000 per course. Professors will receive a royalty of $2,500 each time the course is offered again.
One of the computer science college’s hopes is that the plan will generate significant revenue and allow it to hire more faculty, according to the internal working group report. It also expects this effort can free up faculty time for research.
Faculty Reservations and Competitive Pressures
The working group of computer science faculty had serious concerns, though, including worries about diluting the Georgia Tech brand. Since Georgia Tech created its traditional on-campus master's degree program in 1991, fewer than 2,000 degrees have been awarded, according to the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. Under the new effort, that many could be awarded in a single year.
The working group also fretted about another university beating Georgia Tech to the project.
"It is an experiment that no other institution of our caliber has embarked on (yet!) but everyone is talking about moving in this direction, so if we want to do it, we should do it right away," the report, produced in late February, said. "There is an opportunity to be a leader rather than a follower if we act quickly and thoughtfully."
The faculty also worried about being unable to find a market for the online degree, control quality and evaluate whether the program is a success.
The report also says there were “significant internal disagreements” about whether its new offering was the correct approach for the future of higher education -- even though multiple Georgia Tech administrators have tried to portray the decision as having significant faculty support.
“I wouldn’t call it disagreement," Isbell said. "I would call it typical heated academic debate.”
Eventually, when the computer science faculty voted on the plans in March, 75 percent of them backed the deal, university officials have said, though they did not provide records of the vote.
Ramachandran, who chaired the group that prepared the report, said faculty viewed the new program as a roller coaster ride: A rush but one that is based in part on understood principals -- in this case, decades of Georgia Tech experience with distance education. Still, there is no question the new plan is unprecedented and worrisome to some faculty.
“Even people who voted positively -- even the small minority that voted negatively – they all have trepidations about how to make this work on a large scale,” Ramachandran said.
Benjamin Flowers, the chairman of the graduate curriculum committee at Georgia Tech, said a lot of faculty were taken completely by surprise when the Udacity deal was announced in mid-May.
Part of the reason is the way the plan was maneuvered through the bowels of Georgia Tech.
University administrators portrayed the partnership with Udacity as a simple modification of the existing online master’s degree program. That program enrolls fewer than 100 students, according to university officials. Designating the Udacity effort as nothing more than a modification meant that it was able to escape the traditional approval process new degree programs have to face. That's even though there are aspects of this new program that differ significantly from the existing online master's degree, including the creation of a new class of instructional aides at the university, not to mention the reliance on Udacity employees.
Flowers said he is not sure Georgia Tech administrators made the right call.
“I would say that scale of change gives one pause as to whether we are dealing with the same degree program,” Flowers said. He said he was not sure if there is widespread endorsement of the plan, which "radically deviated" from tradition.
“What I would like to see is the larger question of, 'Is this kind of radical, quote unquote, disruptive change something that the faculty as a whole embrace [or is it just a subset]?' " Flowers said.
He added that he thinks the effort is being “driven at Tech from the top rather than the bottom.”
There's mixed evidence for such a claim.
The deal started to come together about eight months ago in a meeting between Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun and Zvi Galil, the dean of computing at Georgia Tech, according to interviews with both men.
In fall 2012, the working group starting studying the issue, Ramachandran said. He said he did not face any pressure to approve the plan or to partner with Udacity.
“We did not have any pressure, either the working group or the faculty in terms of having to do this," Ramachandran said. "It was immaterial to us who the partner was going to be, whether the partner was going to be Coursera or somebody else.”
The working group created a “straw man” draft and then an “iron man” draft that was finished in late February.
In March, about three-fourths of the computer science college’s 80 or so faculty members signed off on the arrangement in a series of votes.
“I think the faculty, insofar as they want to be involved in even the nitty-gritty details, should be aware of them,” Isbell said.
He said he personally talked to other deans about the plans.
Still, it’s not clear that most faculty, or even groups representing most faculty at Georgia Tech, were kept in the loop.
“I’m not sure if the faculty feel like they are being invited to engage in a decision making discussion,” Flowers said. Despite a year of considerable hype as leading colleges and universities created online partnerships to try to redefine higher education, a recent spate of strong faculty reactions make clear that tradition will not change easily or silently, especially at institutions with a strong history of faculty influence.
In early March, an assistant dean at the College of Computing gave a presentation to the graduate curriculum committee Flowers is chairman of. At the time, the committee noted in its minutes that discussions with Udacity were progressing at a “rapid pace, and it will be important for the committee to be updated appropriately.”
The same dean presented to the committee again on April 11, according to meeting minutes. The committee endorsed moving forward with discussions, according to the minutes. The minutes do not make clear if the graduate committee was told about the new classes of instructional aides the university and Udacity were both planning to create. Flowers said he never saw a formal presentation on the deal.
The academic faculty and faculty senate's only crack at the issue appears to be on April 23. According to computing college spokesman Michael Terrazas, the senate, "per usual," was asked to approve meeting minutes for its various committees, including the committee that heard the reports about the Udacity deal.
The state university system's Board of Regents took a look at the deal on May 14 and gave its blessing. Udacity and Georgia Tech announced the plan later that day.
Flowers said it’s possible the full senate might want to take up the issue when professors return from the summer break.
“Institutional reputation, which of course always in some ways lags reality, involves all faculty,” he said.
Flowers said the announcement’s timing at the end of the semester was “very interesting.”
Isbell said the timing was a factor of the timing of the Board of Regents meeting.
Still, while there was not the university-wide debate -- or even chance for debate -- that faculty at other universities have had, there is clearly some willingness by some Georgia Tech faculty to try something that some see as the clear future of higher education.
Ron Bohlander, the secretary of the faculty at Georgia Tech, the top faculty representative, said the faculty know they are pushing the envelope but the experiment with Udacity is an experiment worth doing. He said it's all a bit like packing for a trip to the Congo for the first time.
"Do we know everything we're getting ourselves into?" Bohlander said. "Well, that just wouldn't be consistent with the adventure."
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