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Georgia Tech Designs Its Udacity Pilot to Avoid Failure

G.P. (Bud) Peterson, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is determined not to become the next casualty of a failed MOOC experiment.

Mr. Peterson saw what happened at San Jose State University earlier this year: An experiment with Udacity, a company that specializes in massive open online courses, turned into an embarrassment for Mohammad H. Qayoumi, San Jose State’s president, after its first run, in the spring semester, produced underwhelming results.

Georgia Tech is taking precautions to make sure its own high-profile experiment with Udacity does not meet a similar fate. The experiment is a fully online master’s program in computer science that Georgia Tech professors will teach on the Udacity platform with help from “course assistants” hired by the company.

Mr. Peterson refuses to even call the Udacity collaboration an experiment. “This is a pilot,” he said in an interview with The Chronicle. “Experiments fail. I’m doing everything I can to make sure this does not fail.”

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.

The inaugural class is also neither massive nor open. The program has admitted 401 students—360 men, 41 women—out of 2,300 candidates. Those who decide to enroll will begin classes on January 15, according to Jason Maderer, a spokesman.

With exacting admissions criteria and an entering class in the low hundreds, Georgia Tech’s collaboration with Udacity seems less like a MOOC than many existing online graduate programs. Other than the low tuition—set at $6,600, a fraction of the price of the university’s face-to-face program—the difference is that these students will have the same experience as the program eventually hopes to deliver to thousands of students at once, said Mr. Peterson.

If 250 students end up enrolling, he said, the university will “approach those 250 as though they’re 2,500.”

“We believe this model is scalable,” he added.

In any case, the Georgia Tech president made it clear that he was doing all he could to make sure the Udacity pilot got off on the right foot. Mr. Peterson alluded to the beating his university took in the press last winter after it was forced to abort a dysfunctional MOOC—one about online-course design, no less—after it had started. When it comes to experiments, “being first is important,” he said. But that knife cuts both ways.

In an interview with The Chronicle last spring, Mr. Qayoumi, the San Jose State president, borrowed a bit of rhetoric from Silicon Valley to describe his approach to fostering innovation on his campus. “We want to fail fast, learn from it, and move on,” he said. By those lights, San Jose State’s experiment with Udacity delivered on the president’s promise.

Mr. Peterson is taking a more conservative attitude to Georgia Tech’s pilot with Udacity: “I don’t like doing things that fail,” he said.

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