Are open online education and quality online education mutually exclusive?

In the past, I’ve touched on a distinction I see in the landscape of higher education. It is this distinction that leads me to say that programs like Coursera and edX and programs like Udacity and the Georgia Tech OMS are not competitors, but rather represent two largely different goals of education: openness and quality.

Of course, I hate using the word ‘quality’ because it implies that open education cannot be high-quality, which is not what I mean to suggest. Rather, what I mean to suggest is that openness and quality often get in the way of one another. Developing open courses for a platform like Coursera almost inherently dictates that costs must be extremely limited. Offering a course through Coursera does not bring in a tremendous amount of money; even the Verified Signature track, I would speculate, barely pays for the human effort required to grade assignments and verify identities. Developing open courses can be an act of either marketing or altruism, but in either case, there is a natural impetus to keep costs low. The outcome, of course, is nonetheless fantastic: the world’s knowledge presented by the world’s experts on that knowledge in a venue that everyone can access. Even if the cost pressure demands that this information can only be presented in the traditional lecture model, the outcome is nonetheless incredibly desirable.

That openness is largely driven by the internet’s ability to deliver content to massive audiences for low costs. However, that’s not the only thing that the internet can do in service of education. The internet also has features and frameworks that can create educational experiences that go beyond what we can do in traditional classrooms. Many traditional college classes are delivered in the same lecture model as the aforementioned Coursera courses, but pedagogically we know that this model is largely ineffective. It is not chosen because it is effective, however; it is chosen because professors’ time is valuable, professors are very often experts in the subject matter rather than in teaching itself, and the lecture model is arguably the easiest way to present material. There are exceptions, of course, but I don’t think I’m being controversial in suggesting these ideas as generally true.

What the internet gives us, however, is a mechanism by which content can be produced once to be consumed by millions. This is part of the reason the openness initiatives work: professors can film the course once and make it available to the masses rather than having to reteach it semester to semester. But while in some places that is an impetus for openness, we may also use that as an impetus for quality. Let’s invent some numbers to make it clearer. Let’s imagine that a class of 50 students are each paying $100 to take a class; this means that the class must cost no more than $5,000 to deliver each semester. However, if the class could be developed once and re-used ten semesters in a row, that means that the same class now can cost up to $50,000 to develop, allowing for much more investment into the quality of the class.

This, of course, is a gross simplification, but it is intended to portray an elegant truth: when we use the internet to deliver content to a much larger population with the same amount of work, we can either pass on the savings to the students (the openness route), or we can reinvest the money into the development of the courses themselves (the quality route). We can ask less investment of the students, or we can give the students more for the same price.

Coursera, edX, and the traditional MOOC community take the former, providing content for a fraction of the cost because it can be delivered to so many people. Udacity, the Georgia Tech OMS, and other more expensive programs take the latter approach, reinvesting that money into creating higher-quality programs in the first place. Both these sides are critical. I don’t like living in a world where education is gated by such a massive monetary investment, and MOOC services are doing a world of good to reduce the barriers to education. At the same time, I love education itself, and I recognize that there are phenomenal things that the internet can do to improve education — but they come with a significant development cost.

Of course, this hasn’t actually answered the question: I’ve shown how openness and quality are distinct and often conflicting goals in online education, but can we accomplish both? Is it possible to create high-quality education that is also openly available for little to no monetary cost? It may be. At present, this is in some ways what the Georgia Tech OMS is doing: nine Georgia Tech courses are available for free to the world, and they are infused with a more significant initial investment that pays significant dividends in the quality of the instruction. This is accomplished because, in some ways, this free offering is “subsidized” by the students taking the actual Masters. This model is incomplete, however, as there is still valuable education locked within the for-cost program. OMS students are not paying for the videos; they are paying for the access to professors and TAs, the access to projects and assignments, and the ultimate “verified certificate”: the Masters diploma at the end of the program. However, this direction at least illustrates that it may be possible to use one offering in service of the other and improve both openness and quality at the same time. For now, however, I regard the two as distinct, exclusive, and desirable goals.

What’s the difference between online learning and distance learning?

At the Georgia Tech OMSCS, we talk a lot about how our program is the first of its kind. The homepage for the OMSCS states, “the first accredited Master of Science in Computer Science that students can earn exclusively through the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery format and for a fraction of the cost of traditional, on-campus programs.”

However, that description might not be entirely accurate. Georgia Tech OMS courses are neither massive (although they’re getting there) nor open (admission is still required). At the same time, the OMSCS is far from the only online Masters offered at Georgia Tech. So is all the hype just hype?

In my opinion, this speaks to the difference between distance learning and online learning, and the difference is critical. Distance learning has been around for ages through correspondence programs and other similar structures. Some of them are very good. Most online Masters programs today are simple extensions of distance learning programs. In previous years, one would receive course materials in the mail, and mail completed schoolwork back; now, students receive course materials over the internet, and upload completed assignments back. The internet makes distance learning easier, and at times can improve the experience through features like forums, but it does not inherently fundamentally change its structure.

The majority of online Masters programs are distance learning programs of this kind. With Georgia Tech’s online Masters programs, students in the distance learning sections view live or filmed lectures, upload the same assignments, and are graded by the same TAs. The only major difference is geographic: rather than being physically in the room of the lecture, the students are distributed. This is, in my mind, the heart of the distinction between distance learning and online learning: distance learning as nearly as possible identically recreates the in-person process. It may use the internet to do so, but the fundamental structure between distance learning and in-person learning remains the same.

Online learning, on the other hand, aims to leverage the internet not to duplicate the in-person experience, but rather to improve it. Improvement, of course, can come in many ways. Online education can be developed to reduce costs by leveraging MOOC principles, and in fact, this is one of the general guiding principles of the OMSCS: leveraging the internet to deliver an experience that is just as good as the in-person experience at a fraction of the cost. Online learning does not stop there, though. Automated feedback, communities of practice, and several other pedagogical techniques find unique places in the online medium. I’ve talked about a few of these unique benefits in the past, like the ability to transfer course ownership to the students and the natural emphasis on positive activity rather than negative, and I believe we’re only scratching the surface of the ways in which online education can actually improve on the in-person classroom experience.

I, of course, can be accused of bias in that, as an instructor and developer of the Georgia Tech OMS, I want to see it succeed. However, the inverse is true: I work on the Georgia Tech OMS because I believe it will succeed. I’m excited to work on it because while most programs out there are using the internet to improve on distance learning, the Georgia Tech OMS is about using the internet to create new and improved educational experiences altogether. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with distance learning, and it presents some very rich opportunities of its own. Distance learning is all about increasing access to the same quality education, and that is an incredibly important. I’m excited, though, to work on online learning and find ways to use the internet to make higher education more affordable, more accessible, and more effective.

So, if you’re ever asked why we ballyhoo the Georgia Tech OMS so much when online programs, even from highly reputable universities, are becoming common, the reason is that the OMS is about online learning, not distance learning. It’s very different, and it may lead to great things.

Now Available for Free: Knowledge-Based AI: Cognitive Systems

Starting today, the course that Ashok and I developed — Knowledge-Based AI: Cognitive Systems — for the Online Masters of Science in Computer Science can be viewed for free at You can find it here. You do need an account to view the material, but they’re free to create.

The public free listing contains all of the video lectures, as well as all of the interactive exercises and nanotutors built into the course. What’s not available in the free Udacity version are the assignments, projects, and tests. If you’re interested in taking the class for credit, check out either Georgia Tech Professional Education (to take the course a la carte for a certificate) or the Georgia Tech Online Masters of Science in Computer Science (to complete an entire Masters).

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post a series of blog posts pointing out particular elements of the course’s design, grounded in actual lessons.

The conflicting functions of universities

I alluded to this in my previous blog post, but I think it deserves some explicit attention. In some of my recent conversations about the direction of the Online Masters of Science in Computer Science at Georgia Tech, I’ve come to believe that this question is at the core of many of the questions we wrestle with when developing courses in higher education.

What is the function of college? In other words, what goal does college accomplish? That’s a big nebulous question, so let me narrow it down a bit: what is the function of undergraduate education at research universities?

I see two competing functions. First, I see the function that higher education sees in itself. As seen by many professors and administrators,  I would argue that the function many see in higher education is the creation, maintenance, and dissemination of knowledge. Research institutions are called ‘research’ institutions for a reason, after all, but research is not merely about uncovering knowledge; it’s also about communicating knowledge so that a new generation can grow that knowledge. Thus, I would argue that teaching is well within the function of universities, as seen by universities themselves (despite data indicating the contrary).

That’s the function I would argue universities see in themselves. However, I would argue that there is a conflict between that function and the function that students derive from college. For the most part, students attend college to get a better job. To be somewhat unscientific, a quick Google search on “why go to college” corroborates this: the majority of the top results focus on the increased earning potential of individuals who attended college. Other benefits come up as well, but given the massive investment in getting an undergraduate degree, it’s certainly reasonable to expect a sizable return on investment.

So, to summarize that, on the one hand we have universities that are focused on the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and on the other we have students focused on job training and placement[1]. That Venn diagram may sometimes have an intersection, but I would argue that most often, it does not. The things we learn in undergraduate classrooms often have very little applicability to the real world. Getting an undergraduate education is less often about what you learn and more often about proving that you can do so; a person that can graduate from Georgia Tech with a degree in Computer Science can learn the skills necessary to do a particular job, but simply having that degree does not suggest they already have those skills.

This is often a point of contention for students in my experience. Students often ask when they will use something in the real world. In our Knowledge-Based AI class, we do often receive feedback from students that they would like to see examples that are more applicable to their job. While this feedback is understandable, it doesn’t fall into the function most of us attribute to the Masters degree. Others will disagree with me, of course, but I would argue that few research universities view their degree programs as job training, and thus, few would be eager to revise their curricula to bring them more in line with the demands of the job market.

So, we have students treating higher education as job training, while higher education does not regard itself as job training. Is this a problem? I would argue yes; the massive cost of higher education is associated with the cost of the creation and dissemination of knowledge, not with cost of job training. Getting a Bachelors degree to get a good job is like buying house just to have a front lawn. If job training is the goal, we can accomplish it more cheaply and efficiently, while also allowing research universities to focus on the types of knowledge creation that they were built to do.

Ultimately, I would argue that the goals of research universities and the goals of students at research universities are remarkably misaligned. Moreover, I would argue that universities shouldn’t modify themselves to come more into alignment with what students are using them for; alternative, more affordable solutions are necessary to allow job seekers to get job training and knowledge seekers to get knowledge.

Full disclaimer: I work for Udacity, and Udacity’s Nanodegree credentials are a step in the direction of streamlining the function that I claim students are deriving from higher education. You wouldn’t be off-base to believe I’m simply biased in favor of the company I work for. In actuality, however, initiatives like the Nanodegree credentials are why I work for Udacity; I wholeheartedly believe in its mission to make it easier for students to get what they’ve wanted all along.

[1] I don’t mean to claim this distinction is purely black-and-white; there are certainly students that go to college to learn and grow knowledge, and there are certainly departments and individuals at the college level that are concerned with their graduates’ job placement. When thinking about the primary goals these groups have in mind, though, I’d argue my distinction holds: students primarily use college as a step toward a career, and universities generally consider themselves to be bastions of knowledge.

Activity perception in an online classroom

As part of the first week of KBAI this semester, we posted our Brown Bag talk for new students in the class to watch. This spawned an excellent discussion of what explains my perception of how engaged and motivated OMS students are to drive the classes and program. Is it that OMS students are more motivated entering the program due to demographic or experiential differences? Or does the design of OMS classes actually improve students’ engagement compared to in-person classes?

During this discussion, however, a third idea emerged, based in large part on suggestions from two students (whose names are temporarily withheld until I find out if FERPA would allow them to consent to having their names disclosed here). It might not be either of the above: OMS and traditional students could be equally engaged both before and during the class, but the specific elements of the construction of the online section may better channel that engagement and motivation into visible results.

From past feedback and common sense, we know that activity breeds activity: students are more likely to be engaged when they perceive that other students are engaged as well. Similarly, when students perceive that others are bored, they are more likely to become bored themselves. How do students pick up on this engagement and boredom? In-person, students can read body language, attendance percentages, and enthusiasm during interactions, and all of these can be read either positively or negatively.

Online, however, something interesting occurs. When Piazza is the classroom, it seems to become more difficult to have these negative perceptions of activity. In-person, for instance, we can very quickly evaluate attendance percentage; online, however, there is no straightforward way to gauge how many students are participating, and thus it is more difficult to perceive that a significant portion of the class is failing to participate. Online, we tend to lack the type of “null” participation that often characterizes in-person interactions: students who would not be enthusiastic about discussions or activities simply don’t participate, and what is left over is a superficial impression of high engagement and motivation. Why? Because only the engaged and motivated individuals are participating visibly.

Of course, this may be a double-edged sword. We as instructors may perceive a class as active and engaged when in reality, only 10% of the class is interested; that 10% is simply the only 10% that we see, and there are no “empty chairs” continuously reminding us of how many students are not engaged. As instructors, we need to be aware of the activity of the class as a whole, not just of the superficial perception we get when we login each day. However, if we believe the idea that the perception of enthusiasm and engagement begets more enthusiasm and engagement, then the tendency of an online class to only show the active individuals can have a tremendous positive impact.

This idea actually builds on the ownership angle I’ve described in the past. I mentioned then that there are certain things, like proposing their own discussions, sharing articles or life experiences, and maintaining conversations that target multiple levels of aptitude, that are uniquely common in an exclusively online classroom. Those same behaviors are also visible indicators of engagement and enthusiasm that have no (in my opinion) direct traditional analogue, furthering the impression that engagement and enthusiasm is higher online. Thus, it might not be the case that online students are ever more engaged and enthused than traditional students: instead, it might simply be the case that the online environment better facilitates the expression of that engagement and enthusiasm. Of course, if that is the case, it further stands to reason that engagement and enthusiasm will increase online due to the prior note that motivation breeds motivation.

Ownership in the OMS

In our talk to the GVU Brown Bag a few weeks ago, one thing I mentioned was the amazing level of ownership that students in the OMS seem to have in the program. I’m basing this only on my perception, of course, but my experience with these students has been fantastic. Any college or program develops its reputation largely based on the students it generates: Georgia Tech’s strong reputation comes from decades of strong graduates reflecting well on the university. The OMS program is new and unproven, but the students appear ready to give it a great reputation.

But what do I mean by ownership? In some ways, it’s superficially obvious. OMS students have created their own communities surrounding the program; the Google+ and Facebook groups for the OMS are entirely student run, and we’ve started interacting with students in those communities simply because students developed them into great places to reach one another. From student-run resource sites to unofficial surveys on course and instructor quality, it’s remarkable to me how much OMS students are doing that has traditionally been the responsibility of staff. This is great for scale as well: if we want to grow the OMS program to far beyond its current size, we’re going to have to leverage the size of the community rather than traditional ways of supporting a growing student body.

But in administering a course, what was interesting to me is that ownership takes on a different form. The ownership I’ve seen in OMS students isn’t just over the program as a whole, but also over the pedagogy and teaching of at least our individual course. Students propose their own discussions, carrying them out over several weeks. Students bring articles, news stories, and research in from external sources separate from any suggestion by the instructor. Students introduce the ways in which their real-life experience helps them think about the material of the class; numerous times in our class, students commented with how their families or kids displayed principles we talk about throughout the course. All of this is self-driven: while we do create discussions on our own from time to time, the vast majority of the discussion in the class is student-initiated, student-maintained, and student-owned. On a personal level, I can say that when I advise other TAs to check Piazza multiple times a day, it’s not because it’s a chore: during the Fall semester, checking in on student discussions was earnestly the best part of most of my days.

So where does this come from? Without a doubt, it comes in part from the students themselves: they are a motivated, self-selected group of students with enormous industry and life experience. In my opinion, however, a lot of it comes from the unique affordances of the medium as well. In our Brown Bag talk, I recounted an event in our class where a student introduced a discussion topic that spun up into a conversation involving over 40 students and 10,000 words of well-thought out posts with no coaxing from the instructors. In an in-person class, it’s difficult for a student to propose these kinds of discussions: class time is limited, and online forums like Piazza tend to be seen as complements to in-person discussions rather than replacements for them. Online, however, time is relatively unlimited, conversations occur asynchronously, and discussions can splinter. In an online class, a forum like Piazza becomes the classroom rather than complementing a separate classroom, and because of this, the unique types of discussion it can facilitate shine through. Put simply, the structure of this online course allows students to take ownership of the course in a way that is difficult to do in person.

Of course, this requires a great deal of comfort and confidence on the part of the instructors. We must be willing to loosen the reigns a little bit and let students teach one another. We must be willing to let our classes develop into communities of practice rather than “sage on the stage” instruction. This can be intimidating: what do you do when a student in the class you’re teaching knows more about some of the material than you do? But by loosening our grip and allowing our classes to be communities more than isolated students, we can truly start to leverage the size and diverse backgrounds of our students.

GVU Brown Bag video now available online

The video of our talk at the GVU Brown Bag on December 4th is now available online at the following address:


How will Georgia Tech OMS students change over time?

This morning, Ashok and I presented our talk at the GVU Brown Bag titled “Putting Online Learning and Learning Sciences Together”. You can watch the talk in its entirety here.

In the talk, one of my main reflections is that the student body of the OMS are incredibly engaged, driven, and invested. They’ve really taken ownership over the success of the program in a way that, in my opinion, in-person students don’t. Perhaps I’m wrong about the students, but I can earnestly say interacting with them has been the most satisfying and stimulating experience of my educational career.

In the Q&A afterward, however, we received a good question: the current OMS students are a highly self-selected group. They were willing to apply and pay to join an experimental (although accredited) program. It’s not surprising that a group of students that is willing to be the “early adopters” are more engaged and driven to participate.

Over time, however, will this change? On the one hand, it is easy to see how the shine of the early adopters could fade as the program becomes more routine and respected. In my opinion, the early adopters feel (and rightfully so) that they reflect on the program as much as the program reflects on them because they’re the first cohort of students that will advertise the OMSCS’s greatness to the world. Five years from now, however, will the 10,000th student feel as much ownership of the program as the 10th student did? It’s reasonable to think they won’t, and that the students in the OMS will come to resemble in-person students over time.

On the other hand, could it be that the excellence of the OMS students is not due to their status as early adopters, but rather due to their demographics and industry experience? The OMS students are largely professionals with families, and it is reasonable that this will remain the target audience as time goes on as well given the undergraduate prerequisite for the program. This audience, with its superior industry and life experience, may be what is leading to this increased engagement and  sense of ownership. These are students that are used to have responsibility and influence rather than just being pushed through a system to get a degree, and it is entirely possible that this audience will remain this invested as time goes on.

But there are other possibilities as well. Maybe the excellence of students in the program is actually a product of the medium itself. The asynchronous online interface provides some rich opportunities for students to ownership over the class. In person, for example, it’s rare for a student to pose a discussion that dominates the class period; after all, the professor typically enters the class with a lesson plan in mind that ought not to be entirely derailed by student questions. Online, proposing a discussion does not take away class time from the lessons. Thus, perhaps it’s simply the online medium that brings out the best in the students. If that’s the case, then the online environment may have a powerful opportunity to not only be a useful alternative to traditional education, but may even provide some advantages over it.