New degree program is big test for MOOC-style higher ed

ATLANTA – Dary Merckens was in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, several weeks before moving to Las Vegas. He was also entering his second month in a master’s degree program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

rethinkingcollegeMerckens, who is 30, can take his education with him. That’s because he’s enrolled in Georgia Tech’s new online master’s degree in computer science.

The Georgia Tech program is in its first semester, with 375 students; the university has admitted about 500 more for the summer and fall semesters.

Advocates of online higher education hope this first-ever attempt by an elite institution to offer an entire computer science graduate program in a MOOC-style format will prove the value of so-called massively open online courses, which — after huge fanfare and dramatic growth — have been thwarted by high dropout rates, waning faculty support and slowing growth.

So far, say Georgia Tech faculty, Facebook and other social media are humming with the kinds of questions that come from students who are busy charting a degree program, as opposed to just taking a course. This suggests they’re engaged, and serious about finishing, said Charles Isbell, Jr., senior associate dean and professor at the college of computing.

“They ask questions like, ‘What series of courses do I need to take?’ for example,” he said.

Merckens, who worked at ESPN for five years before starting his own tech company, said he has taken MOOCs before, but this program feels different. He feels more focused on reaching a goal — the degree.

“There’s more dabbling when you’re not in a program,” he said. The young entrepreneur said his fellow students appear to have the same commitment, as they regularly exchange information online about the program and its course offerings.

That kind of commitment is key to making online learning work, according to early research. Only about 5 percent of the hundreds of thousands of students who registered for the first 17 MOOCs put out by Harvard and MIT last year actually completed the courses, according to one new study. Another study shows that the number of students enrolling in online programs nationwide is increasing at the lowest rate in a decade. And faculty support for online courses is waning, with many citing a lack of discipline and low retention rates, according to an analysis by the Babson Survey Research Group.

Some good news for Georgia Tech may come from another study, which suggests that paying for online courses increases commitment, having raised completion rates at community colleges to between 68 and 82 percent.

The master’s program, which costs $6,600 for six terms, is the first of its kind at a top-tier institution.

“Game changer?” — that was the subject of the email that Ken Hartman, principal analyst at the higher-education consulting firm Eduventures, sent to colleagues when he heard about Georgia Tech’s program.

Hartman, former president of Drexel University Online, said the conversation about online education has evolved in the last decade-plus, from “offering education anytime, anywhere” to answering the question, “at what price?” The next big hurdle will be quality, he said.

“The market is calling for a higher-quality, lower-cost product,” Hartman said. If Georgia Tech achieves that, he said, it really will be a game changer.

Several months into Georgia Tech’s new program, observations about the first group of students to enroll have faculty and officials optimistic. First, at about 35 years old, they are, on average, 11 years older than their on-campus counterparts. Also, most are working. So far, these students “are more engaged in many ways than those on campus,” said Georgia Tech’s Isbell.

Of course, at least two of the four letters in the MOOC acronym are not a part of Georgia Tech’s program, said Michael Feldstein, partner at MindWires, a Boston-based educational consulting firm that specializes in digital technology. So far, it’s neither “massive,” nor — since students have to be accepted and pay — “open.” At the same time, he said, “to be able to offer an online degree at the level of quality consistent with Georgia Tech at a lower cost would be an important innovation.”

The launch of Georgia Tech’s online degree got a big boost from AT&T, which donated $2 million to the program and has enrolled about 80 employees. The program is seeking more industry partners and still setting prices for students who are not seeking degrees. It currently includes five courses, with at least as many being produced for the fall semester. Each costs up to $400,000 to produce, said Zvi Galil, dean of the college of computing.

This raises the question of scale, and how many students the program needs to be cost-effective. “We still don’t know the exact cutting point at which it’s viable,” Galil allowed. “The question is, ‘Will they come?’”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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