'First Step' Toward More Digital Undergrad Experience

Georgia Tech, having enrolled thousands of students in its well-regarded online master's degree program in computer science, expands its experiments with low-cost online education for undergraduates.

November 2, 2016
 
edX

The Georgia Institute of Technology is expanding its model of low-cost online computer science education to undergraduates.

The institute on Tuesday said it has partnered with massive open online course provider edX and McGraw-Hill Education to offer a fully online introductory coding course. Initially, the course will be available to anyone as a MOOC with an optional $99 identity-verified certificate. After piloting the course next spring among its own students, Georgia Tech intends to offer another incentive for completion: college credit.

Georgia Tech has since 2014 offered a low-cost online master’s degree program in computer science, in which course content is delivered through MOOCs. That program now has nearly 4,000 students, and the institute is looking for opportunities to test the model elsewhere, said Zvi Galil, the John P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing. Early reviews of the program have given it high marks for rigor, and experts on online education has been watching it closely.

Unlike at the master’s degree level, Georgia Tech is not considering creating a fully online undergraduate degree in computer science, Galil said. Instead, the institute plans to use the pilot as the first careful move toward a future where students spend less time on campus -- perhaps two to three years -- completing introductory and senior-level courses while in high school or pursuing a career, respectively.

“I still think that the on-campus program and living, learning, maturing socially and otherwise getting out of home -- all these aspects -- make college very important,” Galil said. “I’m not a big proponent of replacing the college. I’m a proponent of substituting some pieces that will be maybe 20-25 percent of the college degree. That is a dream, and it may take time. We are now doing the first step.”

That first step involves offering an online section of the course (as well as several face-to-face ones) to its residential students in the spring, Galil said. Enrollment in the online section will be voluntary -- students can even change their minds and move to a different section during the first week -- and Georgia Tech expects to accept about 50 students. At the end of the semester, researchers will look at student outcomes in all sections and determine if -- like in the online and residential master’s degree programs -- the results are comparable.

If the answer to that question is yes, only then will Georgia Tech decide how to proceed with fully online education for undergraduates, Galil said. The pilot could, for example, reveal that the course is best suited as a complement to Advanced Placement credit, or perhaps as a continuing education credential for computer science professionals to demonstrate their mastery of basic skills.

Galil informed the faculty about the pilot during an Oct. 12 meeting, a faculty member in the College of Computing said in an email. Faculty members did not hold a vote on whether to approve the pilot, as they were told it was "[Galil's] decision and his implementation," according to the faculty member. Any larger expansion plans would have to be approved by the faculty, however. 

Georgia Tech is not the first institution to consider a future where students spend less time on campus. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which co-founded edX, is also exploring if freshman and senior years could be delivered through online education.

While Tuesday’s announcement stated that credit will only be available to students who are admitted to Georgia Tech, the institute has plans to award credit generally to students who finish the course, Galil said.

While Georgia Tech has partnered with Udacity, another online education provider, for the master’s degree program, it chose to distribute the undergraduate course through edX. Galil pointed out that the institute prefers to collaborate with a broad set of partners, and that it also offers online courses on Coursera.

The partnership is also an opportunity for McGraw-Hill Education to further rebrand itself away from simply being a textbook publisher. In this case, the company, which promotes itself as being in the business of “learning science,” isn’t supplying any course material, but rather the learning platform. The company also provided some instructional design help to Georgia Tech to build a SmartBook, an enhanced, digital textbook that will be used in the course.

“As a business, we’re trying to emerge as something very different, and we think we can play a very relevant part supporting the new architecture of higher education,” David Levin, president and CEO of McGraw-Hill Education, said in an interview.

The company already has software licensing deals in place with Arizona State University and, as of last week, the Cleveland Clinic medical center (though in those examples, the clients use some of the company’s content as well). Levin said those deals represent an “emerging new business model” for the company.

Levin declined to share details about the licensing deal, but said students who use the company’s digital course materials on average pay half the cost of a physical textbook. The SmartBook will be free of charge to students in the spring pilot, Galil said.

“The models have to change for the provision of instructional materials,” Levin said. “It has to move beyond selling pure content to being part of the course and course development.”

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