The vision statement of Tech challenges us to “define the technological university of the 21st century.” It is in that spirit that Tech has embarked in a series of new experiments with online education, most recently joining fifteen other top universities of the United States and the world to develop courses on the Coursera (www.coursera.org) platform. The new Center for the 21st Century University, the Council for Educational Technology and Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) have spearheaded this new foray into online education.
It is important to note that online education is not new to Tech. Many of our professors have delivered online courses to our students and others all over the world. Tech Professional Education (www.pe.gatech.edu) offers a spectrum of online programs in both asynchronous and synchronous formats. Last year GTPE served 3,100 companies and 13,000 individuals, covering diverse subjects from basic calculus and foreign languages to advanced systems engineering.
So what is different? The answer is MOOCs, or massively open online courses. Entities such as Coursera, Udacity and EdX are involved in developing platforms capable of providing access to hundreds of thousands around the world – so far for free. These are truly massive experiments, yielding a wealth of data on how people learn. They are also are proving to be very popular; the approach is, after all, predicated on satisfying a world hunger for knowledge and education. Despite the fact that thousands around the world have performed satisfactorily in these courses, so far nobody has received university credit, except for students at campuses like Stanford that took the MOOC version of their courses.
Many questions have been raised about MOOCs: confidentiality and security, credentialing, loss of the benefits of personal contact, assessment and grading, adaptability to laboratory and hands on oriented courses, acceptance by employers and ultimately sustainability (sooner or later somebody must pay). Not all the answers are available – although they are quickly evolving. For example social media concepts can create communities of learners that communicate, help each other and even provide assessment methodologies. Confidentiality and security is approachable the same way that college entrance exams and AP exams are handled as well as using advanced cyber security technologies. Employers are commonly interested on outcomes and frequently test for knowledge on their own. Hybrid approaches could allow personal contact, tutoring or even hands-on experiences.
Time will tell if all the answers to the foreseen (and unforeseen) problems with MOOCs will emerge. What is clear, though, is that many of our residential students welcome online access to academic instruction. There is also clear evidence that many learn very well online and even better if the classroom is inverted, leaving contact hours reserved for in-depth discussion and exercises as opposed to the traditional lecture format. The fact is that students’ relationship with technology is advancing faster than traditional institutions can anticipate. Tech must be different and make every effort to anticipate their needs.
Tech and its students have nothing to fear in MOOCs. A premier research university like ours provides far more than simple content to our students. Our mantra is engaging the student in challenging the status quo, in generating new knowledge, in engaging in the creative process – we do far more than lecturing. And whatever lecturing we do may be improved with online delivery, or hybrid approaches.
In experimenting with these new online education approaches, we hope to gain insight into how people learn, to improve on our delivery of content to our students and make learning more interesting and engaging to the modern young person. We are also eager to make the Tech content a globally valuable and recognizable product. Whatever we do must have our characteristically high quality. We must develop new educational delivery methods and pedagogy that will bring reputation, value and resources to Tech. If that occurs, all of us will gain, for our employment and degrees will be far more valuable.
This is an exciting time in higher education and with excitement there comes risk. But I will posit that the risk of action is far less than the risk of inaction. There is no doubt that a revolution in online education is in the making and many very capable and significant institutions are driving that revolution. We can be part of the revolution and share the risk that may entail or we can be followers, betray our vision and run the risk, alone, of becoming second class.