The Revolution in Online Education Nearing Takeoff

Well, you don't get the ENTIRE Georgia Tech experience with an online degree. The $31,000 cost differential has got to buy you something.

Well, you don’t get the ENTIRE Georgia Tech experience with an online degree. For an extra $31,000, the bricks-and-mortar experience has got to buy you something.

by James A. Bacon Jr.

The revolution in online education continues. It’s just taking longer than it should.

Two years ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology partnered with Udacity, a company that runs massively open online courses (MOOCs) and ATT to launch an online masters degree in computer science charging a fraction the cost per credit hour. Georgia Tech was staking its academic reputation on its ability to deliver a quality education online. (Here was my spin on the story at that time.)

So, how is the program working two and a half years later? According to a Wall Street Journal update, the online program has evolved but looks like it has staying power. The program is “relatively massive” with 2,789 students enrolled this semester compared with 312 in the campus-based program. And it’s on track to turn a profit by May.

If there are any drawbacks, it’s that students are moving through the program at a slower pace than the school predicted. “It’s not like they’re not making progress,” said Charles Isbell Mr., senior associate dean at the College of Computing. “They’re making progress at a more leisurely pace than we expected.”

But that should come as no surprise given that many students are juggling their online courses with full-time jobs. Sandip Agrawal, didn’t want to leave San Francisco or his job as a Google software engineer so he enrolled in the Georgia Tech program to build his technical skills and professional credentials, said the WSJ. The alternative to the Georgia Tech degree would have been stringing together a few massive, open online courses and forgoing an accredited degree. That George Tech degree, by the way, will cost $7,000 compared to $38,000 for the bricks-and-mortar version, and Agrawal continues pulling in a salary.

Little wonder that Georgia Tech’s Isbell says it wouldn’t surprise him if in three years from now the program will be enrolling 10,000 students. Says he: “This is sustainable and this is scalable.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here in Virginia, tuition and fees are still rising faster than inflation and incomes. A generation of students is agreeing to a life of indentured servitude in order to obtain a college degree (all too often, never even completing the degree requirements). There will always be a market for the four-year “residential” experience with football games, face-to-face interaction with professors, tossing frisbees on the quad, drunken frat parties and kvetching about racism and the rape epidemic on campus. But the residential experience, which seems so distressing to so many, is increasingly becoming a luxury product for the affluent classes. It is not a viable alternative for hundreds of thousands of Virginians. Something has got to change — and it will.

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23 responses to “The Revolution in Online Education Nearing Takeoff

  1. Jim, who if anyone is leading the charge in Virginia?

  2. I’d like to offer a different view of this story and online ed in general.

    I have received an online ed certificate in corporate finance from Harvard. As most on here probably know, “online ed” is not new to the corporate world. “Distance MBAs” and “Executive MBAs” have been utilized by F1000 corporations for years, and all of those programs have had a large online component for at least 5 years. My experience was generally positive, but all of my classmates were pretty sharp corporate types who generally had an enormous incentive to complete the coursework b/c their employers were paying for most (if not all) of the coursework. However, they would be forced to foot the bill if they did not successfully complete the course.

    There is a huge gap in that type of “online ed” and what seems to be this idea that online ed can compete with academic curriculum in a residential setting.

    First of all, the corporate programs are heavily incentivized by the payment structure. Second, the coursework itself is highly tailored for corporate execs in those certificate and Executive MBA programs. Third, look at the students around you in those courses. These are some of the most highly organized, professional people in the world. They’re not an 18 y.o. kid right out of high school or a 22 y.o. just finishing undergrad.

    I’d actually look at Georgia Tech and say that it is pretty indicative of what “online ed” will turn out to be for most major universities…a cash cow that will subsidize the residential experience and leave most of the online students holding the bag. If you read between the lines, notice GT isn’t giving out the success rate. And notice that progression is “slower” than expected. And think about this: this is one of the best computer science schools in the world with an online student body of very successful tech folks and teaching the most desired skill in the world. And GT’s online program isn’t exactly bursting with success in just one measly discipline.

    This mirrors what the UC system found in California. Massive failure for online courses in terms of completion of courses. GT’s experience sounds very familiar. Even with a world class faculty, bright online oriented student body, incentivized by a degree that can mint money in this day and age….what’s the actual completion % compared to the residential program?

    I suspect that if you tried this with most academic disciplines (STEM, undergrad business, liberal arts) and with lesser schools than GT and the UC system, you’d find startling amounts of failure. 95% of 18 year olds simply don’t have the discipline or skills to complete an academic degree online. I certainly know my 18 y.o. self would have been a joke if I tried to obtain a degree through online courses.

    And that’s where it’s a cash cow for universities if they decide to start this trend. If online students simply pay to watch a Skype feed of the teacher, but don’t engage with the university’s resources (which is very typical when you look at the UC system’s experiment), really, they’re just handing money to the university which ends up subsidizing the residential experience.

    As LarryG often points out, the best way to lower higher ed costs for middle class families is to upgrade community colleges with better faculty and curriculum. That’s going to give Virginia’s middle class families a greater bang for their buck than investing in online ed.

    • C’ville, I very much differ with your assessment of the Georgia Tech program.

      I don’t remotely think that it will leave the online students “holding the bag”, as you put it. If you read the article, or related articles, the “difficulty” is that people in highly demanding technical jobs are taking one graduate level CS course – at a top CS program – per semester.

      Frankly, I think Georgia Tech was loony thinking that someone working 50-60 hours per week could take more than that in the first place. However, the feedback I’ve seen consistently is that people are happy with the program and intend to continue with it. I haven’t, to date, seen evidence that the program is failing. It’s not a standard MOOC – it’s a moderate-sized hybrid program that is online only, but not truly massive.

      This is not similar to generic MOOCs, which have different issues – good and bad. MOOCs can serve a number of different purposes – flipped classrooms, replacement for brick and mortar, and, most commonly, continuing ed. From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of users use it for the last – and that means they don’t care if they “complete” the course or not, and they’re not trying for a degree.

      MOOCs aren’t a Skype feed of the teacher – you probably need to sign up for one or more to understand how it works, and its strengths and weaknesses – and the vast majority of MOOCs are free. The best way to organize them depends on what you’re doing – full degree, like Georgia Tech? Continuing ed and just auditing? Want a certificate and to create a portfolio of work? These are not all the same need.

      I’ve taken standard online classes – non-MOOC and applied to a degree – and have taken multiple MOOCs and am enrolled in some now. Each is a little bit different model.

      Personally, I think, done right, there’s far more upside potential to online than to spending more money on community colleges – but I do think they have to be done right.

  3. not disagreeing with Cville resident but have a slightly differing view although I much agree about the difference between employed professionals and 18yr newbies.

    I see online education on a similar track as as the infamous dot com bubble where basically investment in the internet kind of got ahead of itself and people imagined things it was going to do – before it was actually ready to do.

    since that time – virtually all the companies that “failed” have essentially come back from the dead – and then some.

    Online education started out with folks believing it was going to quickly revolutionize bricks and mortar education and that’s not happening nearly as quickly as folks envisioned but make no mistake – it WILL…

    two further things I’d note.

    one is pointed out by Jim – and that is that employed people are using online to improve themselves… to get that better job… to change careers…etc.. kind of like “working your way through school” !!!

    the second point is that in today’s environment where folks can and do fake their credentials… there is a real concern on the part of employers as to what exactly one did learn (or not ).. “online”.

    The claimed course work might get you in the door but if you really did not learn the material and truly have the background -your days at that new job might be numbered unless you have other wonderful undiscovered skills!

    So I think testing – certified testing from independent providers is probably going to become an industry like SAT has become.

    And I think Virginia’s Gov McAuliffe initiative to focus on Cyber Security as an education goal is smart… and in tune with the times – and a sure fire way for those with good academic fundamentals to succeed…

    And I’d like to see Virginia’s high schools further partner with the Universities offering online to save money on AP and IB and even electives to offer all kids – no matter where they live geographically or their economic status a genuine opportunity for a good education and a good job.

    but it’s not going to happen overnight with a sonic boom… it’s going to be more like a flood tide… slowly but surely coming.

    • For most actual online degrees, there isn’t anything distinguishing whether you got the degree online or in a classroom. I belive that is, for example, the situation with Georgia Tech – same degree and same teachers for online versus clasroom. I know it’s the situation with Maryland’s continuing ed program (UMUC) – the degree does not say online versus classroom, and they offer both.

      MOOC certifications already have various methods to verify you are you. They also tend to focus on creating a portfolio of work that you’ve created, which you can provide an employer. I think that portfolio is more likely to be the model rather than certification testing.

  4. A comment and a question.

    Many years ago my Econ 101 class was held in a W&M auditorium and attendance sheets were passed around for checking off your name. There was no way to detect class cutters or to interact with the prof. So this is nothing new.

    Question: Can online classes generally be audited at a lower cost per credit hour for those only wanting a broadening or refresher experience?

  5. one of several…

    anyone anywhere can learn anything.

    the most neat and perverse thing today is that it is you that decides how much you …. don’t want to know… and choose to remain ignorant about.


    • So true.

      Again, it’s so much more about discipline than “disruption.” But that’s always been the case with education. I’ve met self-taught coders. But for every self-taught coder, there’s probably 100 who thought they could teach themselves and didn’t have the discipline to follow through. And that’s my main point: it’s not that online education “won’t work.” It has been “working” for years for large corporations and elite executive MBA programs. But it’s only going to “work” for a certain, driven type of person who has the discipline to stick with it. I think that cohort of people is tiny compared to the people who can learn through the brick-and-mortar residential/community college experience.

      • I agree discipline is a big part of it – but online education definitely helps people who can’t do traditional classes. UMUC is huge, for example – lots of service people use it – and it’s a huge program and has been so for years. Liberty U is also a very large program.

        People working full time can’t easily also take classes. Online offers options if you want to change careers and pick up new skills. MOOCs do too. Look at Coursera and Udacity – both have tracks or nanodegrees or whatever you want to call it – the equivalent of an expensive code camp, to pick up a specific technical skill – except it’s a few hundred dollars instead of tens of thousands.

  6. so… Cville Resident… what kinds of “services” do those who are not “disciplined” need … to learn?

    what should taxpayers be paying for … in the name of education?

  7. Would JB or anyone on this discussion have their child attend an online university (as opposed to a traditional residential university)?

    Similarly, if you had two applicants for a job, both with the same degree, but one was from UVA/W&M and the other was from ODU online, who would be selected?

    • Not if I could afford it. But my family is better off than most. I would prefer him to take a Georgia Tech-quality online program than see him pile up $100,000 in debt upon graduation.

    • Exactly. There’s not a poster on this blog who would have their child turn down U.Va. or William and Mary for an online program.

      Considering Darden was just ranked the second best business school in the entire world by the Economist, good luck with that online ODU degree!

      • Not everyone can get into Darden (to say the least). The choice isn’t between Darden or an online ODU degree. It’s a choice between attending a four-year residential college from a middle-ranking institution or getting an online degree from that same institution — and cutting your student indebtedness by $50,000 upon graduation.

  8. How about on online Degree from UVA Darden taught by the same professors?

  9. I do not think “online” is an either/or proposition – but rather as Jim says, an “option” just like living off campus verses in a dorm is an option.

    UVA and other Universities are going to see Online as a way to increase their revenues rather than a threat to their residential campus.

    If the same course using the same instructors and the same course content – and a verified and validated testing regime has a money-paying demand then it’s going to happen.

    I’d asked earlier if we can quantify what the “on-campus” experience offers that is better/superior to online and there are those who do believe that the “experience” even if not precisely definable is “worth” it for their kids.

    For others – that experience may not be worth the costs but the value of a degree from UVA is – and is worth more than a degree from Phoenix or even other State-supported institutions.

    In time – some University’s online products are going to gain a reputation themselves…so that perhaps , for example, UVA’s “online” may be considered “better” than Liberty – or vice versa….

    The key is whether UVA will insist that anything with their name on it – is consistent with the quality of their existing programs – and not become a bad reflection on their name.

    Finally – despite the view of some that less serious or committed are drawn to “online” – I think that is still playing out and that the online courses that gain a reputation as rigorous and demanding – will, in fact, attract those who want to add that to their credentials – even if they live a thousand miles away.

    An online degree from a high reputable UVA Darden School of business could be a significant advantage to a student who lives in rural SW Virginia and wants to get a job in NoVa or Charlotte but cannot afford the on-campus cost.

    such students may well seek internships to provide a prospective employer to evaluate them as a worker – while they are working to gain their academic degree and some employers will see the UVA Darden Business “degree” as the relevant credential not whether it was earned online or on campus ….

    In fact – if someone actually pursues a “tough” online degree – employers will consider them to be proven performers without having to have someone ride herd over them… i.e. someone who will have the self-discipline to pursue tasks on their own.

    Much of this will fall back on UVA itself and how serious and committed they are about UVA “quality” in their online consistent with their on-campus reputation. And that quality will be apparent to people who want UVA online and employers who hire UVA online-educated grads.

    These are things that will require UVA to carefully go about online which I think they WILL DO… but with more care and purpose than others

    • Attending a prestigious brick and mortar school signals something about you as a job candidate, which signal is entirely separate from anything you did or did not learn during the experience.

      Attending a school in person does also mark the milestone of independent living, introduce you to people of a similar skill level, and provide you with connections and friends.

      Devils advocate here – so would moving out and working.

      Down side is that a lot of people spend four years partying, hooking up, and not necessarily studying. There are relatively few courses that have deep Socratic discussions – much of it is trying to learn the topic, not deep thought.

      BTW, for many universities, you can’t tell online or not online by the degree.

      I think online is harder in that you have to try – you can’t just sit in class and listen to a lecturer like you listen to a TV – you have to click to listen to the lecture, write notes to participate in the forums and online discussions, and no one takes attendance to make sure you do it.

      It’s on you – and you have to act like an adult to pass.

  10. LarryG,

    As to skills that would benefit online learning: better concentration, executive function skills development, and metacognition improvements.

  11. so we agree – if the online course is rigorous – successful folks who pass probably have those important skills – something you may not find out in a residential campus environment, eh?


    so what is it again about the physical campus experience that is “better” than online?

    I mean heckfire in the first two years – freshmen and soph are attending classes in auditoriums with hundreds of others, right?

  12. We all need to wake up about what is going on our nation’s campuses. For window into that action at Yale, for example, see:

    This is not a joke. It is as real as a heart attack.

    It shouldn’t be a surprise. Garbage in, Garbage out. That rule has been spewing garbage out of our “elite” Universities now for many decades. So now we reap what we sow.

    And that garbage is far more than Duke Lacrosse. That sort of squalor is only the most visible. Most damage reeked on the campuses of our elite universities today happens below the radar. It corrupts our youths’ ability to learn, to think, to discern and act with confidence, clarity and wisdom that is only acquired by hard work under great teachers. There are few great teachers left. Most of the rest in the liberal arts spew garbage. Much of that garage is now increasingly endorsed, indeed mandated, by ever more intrusive college deans and administrators.

    This is not to say that there are not great professors of the liberal arts at great universities. Fortunately pockets of them remain, battling on.

    Six of the best books I have read in the past five years were written by UVa. professors in English Literature, in Religion and Ethics, and Education. Each one made plain the corruption going on at our best universities. Each one told how that corruption despoils the culture on the campuses of our universities. Each one told how it despoils the learning going on at our universities. Each one told how it despoils the character and conduct of many students on campus. The hook up culture is only the tip of the iceberg.

    How can a culture, a republic, individual rights and liberties survive when forced to live in an intellectual and moral cesspool? They cannot.

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