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Making the GradeAn Investment in MOOCs Pays Off in Talent

Creating a financially viable, degree-granting program via MOOC made a powerful impact on Georgia Tech.
e-learning, moocs

Since I began writing this column, I’ve been roving the crossroads of higher education and business to chronicle real-world advice and success stories for CLOs. Georgia Institute of Technology’s online master’s degree in computer science has received a lot of media attention. CLOs should care because Georgia Tech’s program may be the first financially successful credit-bearing MOOC in the world.

That credit-bearing part is good news for employers looking to build up their employees’ skills as talent gets tougher to find. The online degree program came about through a partnership between Georgia Tech, AT&T and Udacity. It’s a hybrid between a free MOOC and an on-campus master’s degree. The price tag for the latter is significantly more than the approximately $7,000 Georgia Tech charges for its online master’s in CS.

I asked Nelson Baker, Georgia Tech’s dean of professional education, why the university launched the program and what need it was trying to fill. Baker said Georgia Tech has been offering distance learning for 40 years, beginning with courses transmitted by satellite. As technology developed, he said Georgia Tech felt it could unequivocally identify interested learners – in the same way a key logger measures each student’s typing pace — and verifiably issue credit for a course and, in turn, issue a degree.

“When we looked at our master’s level CS program, we could admit about 100 folks per year,” Baker said. “But when we thought about that 101st applicant, we realized the reasons they weren’t admitted were negligible.”

Baker estimated there were many other competent individuals who administrators might be able to admit to the program if Georgia Tech could build something to scale. So, the university approached the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia in 2012 after looking at QA, pedagogical support and cost.

“Our president [G.P. Peterson] had the foresight to call the program a pilot because pilots don’t fail,” Baker said. “The regents were excited and gave the pilot approval.”

Georgia Tech was able to enlist support from AT&T for the pilot, in part, because the company has a critical need for people with the latest, greatest STEM credentials. Communications and technology are changing so rapidly new skills are paramount for success and competitive advantage, according to AT&T CLO John Palmer. Georgia Tech also had a history with BellSouth Mobility, a forerunner of AT&T Wireless Services, which had given philanthropically and funded research. Further, AT&T executives like Palmer believed the pilot was a way to seed the education space and create a pool of workers. For these reasons, the company helped launch the pilot with a $2 million investment.

Since launching the program in 2014, Georgia Tech has plenty to boast about: The university has just shy of 4,000 online master’s degree CS students; 80 percent of these learners are from the U.S.; and the program is cash flow positive according to Georgia Tech’s president in a 2016 interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Of course, there were MOOCs prior to the Georgia Tech program. But the ones that existed were searching for a business model and a way to credential learners, which led to rising enrollments but a steep fall off in completions. Creating a financially viable, degree-granting program via a MOOC made a powerful impact on Georgia Tech, students and AT&T, Baker said.

“When you’re a company our size you can’t hire external talent with critical tech skills at the volumes we need,” said AT&T’s Palmer. “The partnership with Georgia Tech delivers a master’s in computer science available to our employees at a fraction of the cost of what a bricks-and-mortar degree would cost.”

Palmer said Georgia Tech’s online master’s program is cultivating a development pipeline for AT&T and other companies. “We are transparent about what we think our jobs of the future will look like,” he explained, “so employees can take control of their own development and careers. Georgia Tech’s program helps our people align their skills with our needs.”

I asked Baker if he would’ve changed anything about the pilot; he said, “We were too cautious; we could’ve moved faster.”

Lee Maxey is CEO of MindMax, a marketing and enrollment management services company. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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