Georgia Tech Figures Out This MOOC Thing

One of the arguments made in favor of MOOCs and other forms of online education is that they will “democratize” higher education, offering knowledge to the poor, benighted denizens of the antipodes. (Of course, “knowledge” is to be translated as “America,” but that’s a different story.)

Udacity’s Sebastian Thrum, for example, has said, “So many people can be helped right now. I see this as a mission.” And University of the People calls itself the “world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, degree-granting online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally for all qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints.”

That’s a lot of adjectives. The implication, of course, is that digital ed. will save higher education from becoming a two-tier system: one level, featuring live instructors and brick-and-mortar institutions for the privileged few, and MOOCs, for the rest of the mooks.

I always knew this was backwards, that MOOCs would only appeal to–and work for–the upper echelon of students, high performers with access to the technology and the experience needed to succeed in that environment. In fact, that’s pretty much what the recent Udacity kerfuffle at San Jose State University suggested.

And now, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education shows the next logical step. Georgia Tech, which offers an online master’s program through Udacity, has figured out a way to avoid San Jose State’s fate:

Georgia Tech’s cautious approach starts with enrolling students who are likely to succeed. One of the variables that sank San Jose State’s initial experiment with Udacity last spring was including at-risk students in the experimental trials. Courses offered to a broader mix of students during the summer, however, had better outcomes—possibly because more than half of them already held college degrees.

Georgia Tech’s experiment plays it relatively safe. Because it involves a master’s program, the students will have already earned undergraduate degrees, and many of them already have jobs in the industry. And the students who were admitted have an average undergraduate GPA of 3.58.

It’s not surprising to see the “democratization” mask fall off completely. But here’s a new wrinkle I hadn’t thought of:

The inaugural class is also neither massive nor open. The program has admitted 401 students—360 men, 41 women—out of 2,300 candidates.

The two-tier system is proceeding apace, but now it’s the happy few who will benefit from the well-funded MOOC tsunami, while everyone else—even women, apparently—will have to scramble for seats and pay the costs of traditional institutions.

This must be what they mean by “the flipped classroom.”

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