Campus Technology 2016

DeMillo on MOOCs and College Affordability

Technology has the potential to solve the affordability and access problem in higher education, according to the author of Revolution in Higher Education.

As Richard DeMillo sees it, technology has the potential to make a college education more affordable and more accessible than ever before. The author and director of Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities spends a lot of time thinking about the past, the present, and especially the future of education, and shared his vision with attendees of the Campus Technology 2016 this week in Boston.

In many ways, higher education is at a crossroads, DeMillo explained.

"We've gotten to this state by choosing the most expensive – and least effective – way to run our universities," DeMillo said. "The cost of tuition is rising at four times the cost of inflation. And I don't think that will change anytime soon."

In order to be sustainable, universities must find new ways to deliver education, he said. "One way to think about it – you've got this fight between a method of teaching that is thousands of years old, and something that is very different." In particular, he believes massive open online courses will be a key part of the transformation.

MOOCs are certainly not new; a good number of colleges and universities offer online courses to the masses now. But what DeMillo envisions is the broader use of MOOCs to enroll more full time students than was previously possible – for entire degree programs.

Georgia Tech is doing just that. The college first began offering MOOCs in 2011 and has steadily increased its investment in the program since. Last year, the school put its most difficult degree program – the master's degree in computer science – online, at a cost to the student of $6,700.

In contrast, a campus-based student would pay $45,000 per year. That difference is significant, and at the heart of DeMillo's vision. It also represents an important way for colleges and universities to broaden their reach, but still offer a personalized experience.

"I'm a believer in the small classroom experience," DeMillo noted. "Personalized feedback to a student is the most important thing to affect their success. But there is nothing that says that personal feedback can't be delivered automatically." Thanks to technology's knack for mass customization, a student can feel he or she is receiving personalized attention without the need for a person to manually deliver that attention.

DeMillo doesn't believe the traditional college campus is endangered. He quickly confirms there will always be a need for the college campus and everything it represents. For many students, that will always be the preferred way of obtaining a degree. But for many others, traditional college tuition is cost-prohibitive.

When Georgia Tech began looking for ways that technology could help bring about change, the institution wanted to welcome more students without adding faculty. In 2011, when the college added its first MOOCs, applications shot up by 40 percent in the first year alone.

But Georgia Tech was conscious of quality control. In order to be accepted into the computer science MOOC program, a student had to meet the full criteria of being a Georgia Tech student. Quality, not quantity, was most important. This fall the school will welcome 4,000 online students. To put that number in context, DeMillo said the program increased access to graduate education in computer science by 8 percent in its first year.

The program also gave Georgia Tech a competitive advantage against local community colleges with a reduced tuition. Would-be students that had previously been shut out due to high tuition costs suddenly weren't.

Finally, DeMillo said the power of the MOOC and online learning is enabling colleges and universities to rethink how they deliver education.

"You don't change the existing order by fighting it," DeMillo noted. "You find new ways of doing things that make the old way obsolete."

About the Author

David Weldon is a freelance education and technology writer in the Greater Boston area. He can be reached at dweldon646@comcast.net.

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