I saw the announcement for Georgia Tech’s sub-$7000 massive open online course master’s degree pilot program a couple of weeks ago. When I saw how prominently AT&T featured in the effort to award Georgia Tech degrees in computer science to people who never need set foot on campus, I decided to commit an act of journalism.
It’s not that I think something nefarious is going on. But it’s profound news that could radically remake the institute. So I asked the communications folks at my alma mater to give me e-mail from Georgia Tech’s Director of Corporate Relations Beth Bryant related to the AT&T gift and the project under a Georgia Open Records Act request — a peek at the inside dope. Apparently, I’m not alone.
Among the highlights: Tech expects more than two-thirds of the students will be outside of the United States, with the program specifically targeting India and the Middle East in its marketing. Students have to furnish materials commonly required for graduate admissions like prior degrees and transcripts, according to working documents. But the admission application need not include scores on standardized tests.
In the program, “all exams are proctored using national proctoring standards,” communications staff said in the media prep emails. “We have access to 4,500 physical proctoring facilities and are working with online proctoring institutions.” Let’s hope more than half of those institutions are outside of the United States.
The documents take care to note that the program will carry branding by both AT&T and Udacity — a venture-backed privately held online course startup based in California. Though the courses are free, the degree is not: Udacity gets 40 percent of tuition revenue from degree-seeking students.
So, Georgia Tech — a state university operating under real budget constraints over recent years — will use $2 million of AT&T’s money to develop an online degree program for the profit of a private, out-of-state company. A course which we all expect will be used primarily by foreign workers in countries to which we routinely outsource software jobs, so they can earn degrees with Georgia Tech’s prestigious name on them at half the cost a regular grad student here might pay.
I don’t mean to sound like some nativist yahoo. I still like the idea in principle. Grad school loans are evil things, and an educated world is a better world. But they’re trying to sell this … in Georgia? Tea Party country? Oy.
Plainly, the power of first-mover advantage compels. One of the primary concerns among faculty looking at this appears to have been getting scooped by someone else. And I can see the financial case. Georgia Tech’s budget is about $1.4 billion. About $240 million of that comes from tuition. The computer science department has a budget of about $45 million.
The institute has about 5000 graduate students enrolled right now, with about 2100 of them in master’s programs. About 240 of those are computer science master’s degree candidates. The inaugural class of online students — projected to be no more than 300 students — would instantly double the size of the program, at a net cost of about $3 million or one-fifteenth of the current departmental budget.
If the program scales as administrators hope to 10,000 online students, with 5000 graduates contributing about half of a $6630 tuition payment every year, then Georgia Tech would bring in another $18 or $19 million a year before expenses. If it works, one might assume the school would expand it to other departments.
The path would make Georgia Tech the largest degree-granting educator of graduate students in the world in a few years. But the meaning of a Georgia Tech graduate degree could change fundamentally. That might be fine, if quality can be maintained — something both the faculty and AT&T seem to be keenly aware of. Georgia Tech had to scrap a comically disastrous Coursera online course about — of all things — online courses last year because of design and implementation flaws.
AT&T gets access to student performance data as part of the deal. Georgia Tech will establish criteria “for assessing students that will include traditional measures (e.g., exam performance) but also an assessment of collaborative skills and “soft skills” (e.g., ability to work in teams; ability to communicate). We will share the assessment data with the program advisory board, and, with students’ consent, we will connect talented students to the program sponsors.” AT&T also plans to actively recruit from the program.
Notably, AT&T has half of the first 300 slots for the new program reserved for its employees.
While there are email notes assuring staff that AT&T will have no control over curriculum, “where appropriate, (AT&T will) offer corporate projects for credit, be a source from which Georgia Tech draws curriculum content and guest instructors, offer internship opportunities to select students and provide marketing counsel and support,” according to internal media training guidelines sent to the program principals.
AT&T will be hiring an evaluator to make sure Georgia Tech’s using the grant well. Tech staff appear to be debating the virtues of hiring their own independent quality evaluator or adding a staff member to the College’s assessment office instead.
Online course instructors will be paid … differently. “Participating faculty will be compensated at multiple levels and at multiple points of the MS CS-Online. A tiered compensation system will reward faculty for initial course development, oversight of an initial offering, oversight of an existing course offering, etc. We are also exploring additional ways to compensate faculty based on the popularity of courses they design.”
Tech plans to spend only about $220,000 on registrar, proctoring and the like in the initial batch. Another $100,000 is slated for third-party evaluation. That’s one or two people tracking hundreds of students in foreign countries. Udacity has committed online interactive support of only one hour per student per credit hour.
I don’t want to sound down on all of this. It’s potentially a way for Americans to migrate to new skills in a digital economy. It could be a cost-effective alternative for single parents. If Georgia Tech maintains academic rigor, it could legitimize the practice and put some really terrible for-profit schools out of business, or fill in the gap for people who would go to community college for a couple of years just to keep their general education costs down before transferring to a “good” school.
“The reality is that with today’s educational infrastructure, it isn’t possible for many would-be students constrained by time, location, or funding to receive knowledge like that provided in these MOOCs,” said Martin Ahrens, a software engineer at Medicity and a Georgia Tech graduate from the school’s CS master’s program. ” To address the clear shortage of people with such skills with the kind of scaling possible with today’s seemingly-untapped technologies is an exciting win-win-win.”
“I have grown my CS abilities tremendously outside of class through necessity and interest for my start-up.” said Nathan Black, a recent Tech graduate. “In fact, GT did a good job turning me off to CS with the 2 classes I took. But since I’ve graduated, I’ve learned a ton on my own very quickly. I was told by a GT grad the other day that he wish he had studied something else, because he could have just learned CS on his own. It requires discipline of course, but all the resources are there, free. You simply don’t learn CS by being lectured at. But, having structure projects and team work is necessary.”
Nonetheless, I also have questions about how Georgia Tech realistically plans to maintain the kind of quality that makes its computer science graduate program a top-ten ranked endeavor. I worry that the school is turning over the power of its academic credentials to a private firm as a way of plugging a budget gap. Arguably, it’s helping a major Georgia employer facilitate skills transfer overseas. And it might devalue my degree if the folks using it turn out to be cheating bastards.
As an aside, I suppose I could have been … gentle … and just asked to talk to folks before throwing around open records act requests. And I hope to do so later. But Georgia Tech and the state university system has a terrible reputation for jerking news reporters around with preposterous expenses for data retrieval and a general culture of opacity to outsiders, and I wanted to start with something more than the party line.
This story cost me about $100 to get, after the school decided to charge me $35 an hour for about 2 1/2 hours of search costs related to “review” by the lowest-paid employee qualified to do so. I am assured that nothing I received was redacted or withheld under an exemption of the act … which was predictable … leading me to question the legitimacy of those expenses since there is no legal standard for who is the lowest paid employee or whether or not this kind of review is anything more than a roadblock to public scrutiny.
It is this very posture — the creation of unnecessary financial barriers to transparency — that makes me critical of the school’s motives and makes me more likely to examine their plans with suspicion.