Three Questions For The ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy Online Program

In April, Arizona State University and edX announced a first-of-its-kind program that will have important repercussions for the future of higher education. The Global Freshman Academy (GFA) will allow students to take their entire year of freshman courses online, and earn credit to continue on at ASU or another institution.

The courses are open to any learner, anywhere in the world, and, like other MOOCs, are free. Students will be charged only if they want to earn credit for the course, and the $200-per-credit fee is applied only after the student passes the course. As edX CEO Anant Agarwal notes, this is “the first time any MOOC provider will offer a curriculum of courses that any learner can take for free or for a small fee as a verified student and then parlay that for credit if they pass the course.”

The real test for the program and technology will be … how the technology can truly advance learning while empowering students and instructors.

The potential benefits of the program are massive and disruptive. At a time when university tuition is soaring and funding is being slashed, initiatives like the GFA offer a new vision for higher education. It opens access to begin college, while lowering the initial financial barrier.

Naturally, the program has already met with its share of skepticism and criticism. Critics still argue about the desirability of online learning versus in-person classrooms, and some worry that the program cannibalizes community college education without the aid, guidance or oversight that those institutions offer.

I believe the real test for the program and technology will be not only in how well it actually broadens access to learners, but how the technology can truly advance learning while empowering students and instructors. The potential is much greater than simply putting college courses online — it can transform the way data impacts how we learn.

In thinking about this from a technologist’s perspective, there are three essential, data-oriented questions that I believe will determine the real success of the Global Freshman Initiative. ASU and edX need to strongly consider each of these as the program gets underway next year.

How Will They Assess Students’ Readiness To Take Courses For Credit?

One of the major value propositions for students is that the GFA courses will be free. Students pay for the courses only if they want to receive the college credit for it. MOOCs are able to flip the current tuition model on its head because they are scalable, which is a wonderful new proposition for learners. But that also means that these courses need clear and consistent assessment feedback for students to identify when they are ready to pay and take a course for credit.

This is a much bigger consideration than the $200 price tag for course credit. In general, MOOCs struggle with assessment, reducing it to anything from participation and time spent watching videos, to quizzes that do a poor job of reflecting actual knowledge and learning.

Those of us working with MOOCs realize these limitations, and many of us are experimenting with a number of new models for better assessment. The GFA offers an opportunity to make assessment within MOOCs a priority and begin to set some effective standards. The answer to which assessment model might be best is still very much in flux, but it’s a much more imperative problem now.

How Do We Make The Data Most Valuable For Both Students And Instructors?

Equal to the question of assessment is how learning data will be recorded and incorporated into the courses. MOOCs are much more than just online courses — they are an opportunity to empower learners and instructors with personalized, adaptive feedback and data that reveals how students are learning best, when they truly know something and the most valuable next steps in their learning trajectory.

To be clear, this isn’t about assessment data or transforming each student into a number. It’s about a movement in quantified learning and data-driven teaching that can evolve the learning feedback loop.

Data can help identify and remediate where students are struggling, but also help outline learners’ overarching goals and the most effective paths to achieving them. In other words, data doesn’t have to simply look backwards, but also can point the various paths forward for learners.

Furthermore, the scope and attention of the GFA can meaningfully evolve personalization in online learning. This could be the first real large-scale application of personalized learning, open for everyone. Even big introductory courses can and should be personalized, and evolve to better recommendations.

To this end, the GFA courses and program will need to implement a quantifiable layer, and we should be thinking about how that data is presented in a way that is valuable and actionable to students and instructors.

How Will We Judge Success For The Program Itself?

There are a lot of details related to the structure and rollout of the GFA still in flux, and the education community will be watching intently. One of the most interesting questions will be how to determine the success of the program overall.

Comparisons to traditional academic criteria will undoubtedly be applied, but through the engagement data that the MOOCs can provide, we have entirely new feedback mechanisms on what is working in courses, and why.

Precisely because this is the first time that MOOCs are offered in place of traditional courses at such a broad scale, we need to be sure we are measuring not just by traditional criteria, but in heightened ways that weren’t previously possible. Do learners do what we expect them to do at various junctures? Which course models perform most effectively online? How does engagement data indicate students’ next steps, and are the predictive models correct?

Furthermore, on a longer horizon, we’ll be able to assess how students who started their college experience online compare to those starting traditionally. We have the opportunity to research and study what works, what models are most efficacious for different students and eventually, develop standards by which we can judge both the success of online courses and the hybrid educational experience overall.

It will take time and dedication, but it’s important that we begin asking these questions immediately as the program develops. Despite a growing perception that higher education is approaching a decline, programs like the GFA are fit to prove that with an innovative model and iterative approach, we are reaching a new frontier. We are still a far cry from the finish line, but this is the first step toward something amazing.