Bad Judgment Magazine

Volume III, #11

There was a popular saying at one of my prior companies. Whenever someone came up with an idea that was less than grand we’d say that person was a candidate to appear on the cover of Bad Judgment Magazine.

The company was the leading organization of summer camps and boarding schools for treating childhood obesity. At one of the camps, an all-girls camp in Upstate New York, the Executive Director and her senior team were feeling creative one summer and made faux Bad Judgment Magazine covers for staff training as a vivid illustration of what NOT to do at camp.

Here is what they came up with for the new staff at this all-girls weight loss camp.

Bad Judgment Magazine covers

Another Bad Judgment Magazine cover featured the staff member who parked a large truck near the end of the zip line – completely obscured from the launch platform by treetops. The counselor who sent herself down the zip line first (always send a counselor first!) and then barreled headlong into the side of the truck was seen walking around camp stiff-as-a-board for days.

With time and experience, I've come to the conclusion that these aren't proper Bad Judgment Magazine cover stories. The cover should be the sole preserve of a very special kind of bad judgment: a great and important idea that is executed in a way that jeopardizes the entire enterprise.

So as I peruse the magnificent activity underway across the education technology landscape, I often ask myself whether a particular idea or activity might end up on the cover of Bad Judgment Magazine.


One future cover of Bad Judgment Magazine might feature Georgia Tech and Udacity.In partnership with Udacity, Georgia Tech has announced a masters degree in computer science priced at $6,630 – a healthy discount from the current onground price of $40,000. Utilizing online delivery to address affordability in addition to accessibility is one of the great and important ideas of this century and will transform higher education. Yesterday’s announcement by Coursera that it would be partnering with 10 state university systems to test new business models and teaching methods to improve affordability underscores the vast potential of online learning. Moreover, the Georgia Tech degree program could wind up being hugely successful. At the same time, several tactical errors or – you guessed it – bad judgments relative to the program’s deployment could jeopardize the entire enterprise and perhaps future similar well-meaning efforts by our leading universities.

The first instance of bad judgment is the University’s announcement that it will be hiring only eight new instructors to teach as many as 10,000 new students and may rely in part on peer grading. The “massive” component of the masters degree stems from its origin: a meeting between the Georgia Tech Dean and Sebastian Thrun at Udacity. As one of the three horsemen of the MOOC movement, Udacity is banking on “massive” despite the fact that the more Udacity tailors its approach to approximate existing online programs (with instructors and interaction, as with its partnership with San Jose State), the more it seems to gain traction.

The reality is that (1) instruction and interaction are critical to successful student outcomes and (2) the cost of instruction and interaction is not what makes higher education unaffordable. With regard to the former, while EdX’s CS50 Introduction to Computer Science attracted 150,000 students, less than 1% completed the course despite the fact that 45% of students had prior experience with computer science and 93% said at the outset that they intended to complete the course. Almost all students need support and structure – even the 58% of CS50 students with bachelors degrees or the 20% with masters or doctoral credentials. A great deal of research demonstrates that the caring attitude of faculty and staff is the most powerful retention tool. As the 2011 National Satisfaction and Priorities Report attests, “the majority of students surveyed do not feel schools are doing all they can to help them reach their educational goals; colleges do not show concern for students as individuals, and students are not notified early if they are doing poorly in class.”

With regard to the cost of instruction and interaction, at the largest online universities the per student cost of providing instruction and interaction for an entire degree program – one designed to replicate the classroom experience as faithfully as possible – is between $1,000 and $4,000. At emerging self-paced, competency-based degree programs, the cost is lower by a factor of 2-5. So while “massive” matters a lot when the product is free and hundreds of thousands of students sign up to start MOOCs, it matters not when it comes to online degree programs. In other words, there’s little upside to designing a “massive” degree program, but ample downside considering the likely faculty reaction.

Make no mistake: we believe machine learning or interactive learning online (ILO), as prophesized in William Bowen’s 2012 report for Ithaka S&R, will play the central role in addressing college affordability. But successful technology is purposeful and silent, not shouted from the rooftops. There’s little benefit to shouting – even for a CS degree. We love Apple because its technology is hidden and silent, and because it allows us to do things we weren't able to do before, like buy songs for $0.99, or learn more effectively. This – not a full-frontal assault – is how machine learning will become mainstream in higher education.

The second bad judgment stems from Udacity’s audacity. The plan here seems to be to make it clear to students that they’ll be interacting with Udacity course assistants in addition to Georgia Tech instructors. Udacity course assistants will interact with students in a variety of ways, including helping with exercises and formative assessments and providing at least an hour of support to students for each credit hour. These assistants will report to quality assurance staff at Udacity.

We believe students enrolled in the Georgia Tech masters in computer science are interested in Georgia Tech and have little interest in interacting directly with Udacity, no matter how much credibility the company has in Silicon Valley. This is consistent with the model adopted by leading service providers like Embanet, Deltak, 2U and Synergis Education which hire instructors and advisors on behalf of the university in accordance with standards and qualifications set by the accredited institution. Many service providers offer training to staff on the history and culture of the institution they’re representing, and some dress their walls with school colors and sports team memorabilia to put advisors in the right mindset. All of them ensure that their employees represent the university and as if they were university employees. Ultimately, SACS will need to ensure that Georgia Tech maintains full academic and financial control over the delivery of its degree programs. So we see little benefit to Georgia Tech or Udacity in departing from this proven and effective model, even if only in name.

The final bad judgment is Georgia Tech’s rush to gain faculty approval. Despite “significant internal disagreements” about the arrangement, the program was portrayed as a simple modification of the existing online masters program. This designation meant that the program was not subject to the new program approval process required by Georgia Tech or SACS. The faculty report certainly indicated a sense of urgency: “It is an experiment that no other institution of our caliber has embarked on (yet!) but everyone is talking about moving in this direction, so if we want to do it, we should do it right away. There is an opportunity to be a leader rather than a follower if we act quickly and thoughtfully.”

The only vote taken was among Computer Science faculty. The faculty senate had no such opportunity. At the April 23 faculty senate meeting, the agenda item was not a discussion of the Udacity partnership and new degree program, but rather to approve minutes of its various committees, including the committee that heard the reports about the deal. It was announced on May 14, the same day the state university system’s Board of Regents approved it, and after faculty had dispersed for summer break.

We’ve seen this breathless sense of urgency before. Back in the dot-com era, it is what impelled otherwise sensible institutions to spend tens of millions of dollars on a range of online learning initiatives – only one of which – MIT’s OpenCourseware – the precursor to MOOCs – generated any kind of return (but not a financial return). While times have certainly changed, the same rushed approach may lead to a similar suboptimal result.

Agreements with online service providers to launch new online programs have not been controversial with faculty or accreditors. This agreement is unquestionably different. So despite the fact that the concept for the program is important and good and could prove to be a watershed in the evolution of higher education, and despite the fact that entire state systems are now jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, we wouldn’t be surprised if the bad judgment here results in questions and controversies that ultimately delay deployment and reduce the likelihood of the program’s success. And that’s a perfect cover story for Bad Judgment Magazine. And that’s a perfect cover story for Bad Judgment Magazine.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.