edX-ASU Global Freshman Academy: Will It Work?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

I really wanted to get excited about this Global Freshman Academy (GFA) idea of completing first-year college courses via MOOCs. It presses all the right buttons. You don’t need to go through the tedious process of applying, submitting transcripts, waiting for a letter of acceptance, etc. And it’s free, in the finest MOOC tradition. That is, if you don’t want college credit. For credit, you pay $200 per credit. Not cheap, but affordable. But it gets even better. You “only pay when you know you have passed the course.”1

But clicking into the details quickly reveals some shortcomings. First, the link to the How It Works video doesn’t work.2 However, the Try the GFA Orientation Course button, directly below, does. In the “About this course” section, clicking on the See more button takes you to a Q&A list, where you finally find some answers to basic questions.

To take the orientation course, you need to click on the Enroll Now button, which takes you to the Create an account page. I didn’t register, but the process seems simple and quick. You have the option to create an account via your FaceBook or Google accounts.

As it stands, the GFA is really just a single course, Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy, which “is now open for enrollment, and starts in August 2015. Two additional courses will be offered starting fall 2015, with the remaining courses scheduled to be released within the next 24 months.” I’ll let you decide whether this lives up to the hype of a global program that “reimagines the freshman year experience” and “creates a new path to a college degree.” Even after all the courses are in place, there’s no guarantee that the aggregate will form a typical freshman year experience that will allow students to move directly into their second year.

Costs are a bit fuzzy. You have to pay an upfront $45 fee to enroll in the “Verified Track,” required “to ensure you are eligible for credit once the course is over.” And this, I assume, is in addition to the $200 per credit if you decide to go that route. I’m also wondering if the verified track registration is just a ploy for the usual tedious college application process. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether the $45 fee is required for every course and not a one-time fee, but the implication is that you need to pay the $45 upfront for every course to reserve the option to convert to credit. Again, I’ll let you to decide if this is or isn’t a variation on the old bait-and-switch. 

The phrase “eligible for credit” is another red flag, an indication that “acceptance” is still a part of the college entry process. Thus, technically, not everyone who signs up for and does well in the unverified track would be theoretically eligible for credit conversion.

Perhaps the fundamental weakness of GFA is its lack of continuity, which implies a lack of understanding of the disruption principle that’s embedded in the online student population. The vast majority are nontraditional, and a path to a bachelor’s degree that ends abruptly after a bunch of freshman courses isn’t a path at all. Nontraditionals are attracted to online because they can’t, for whatever reason, take F2F on-campus classes.

Thus, In its current configuration, GFA is probably geared for high school students looking to jumpstart their college career or for traditional college freshmen interested in supplementing their onground courses with online alternatives.

Andrew Smith Lewis, in “Three Questions for the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy Online Program,”3 raises some questions about GFA. However, his statement that GFA “will allow students to take their entire year of freshman courses online” may be a bit premature, at least for now, and unconfirmed, based on the information on the GFA website.

Lewis’s concerns are legit. For example, he says, “These courses need clear and consistent assessment feedback for students to identify when they are ready to pay and take a course for credit.” However, this issue may be moot since those on the verified track can proceed with credit and grade conversion up to a month after receiving a certificate of completion, which signifies satisfactory performance.

Beyond the cost factor, however, is the issue of ongoing or formative feedback in MOOCs. From the information available on the GFA website, personalized one-on-one communications with professors or instructional staff at key points during the course is not a part of the design. From what I understand, the $200 per credit fee covers a summative evaluation only, and the purpose is to determine letter grade and credit eligibility.

This exposes the soft underbelly of MOOCs, where large enrollments preclude personalized attention from staff. However, as Lewis reminds us, there are “a number of new models for better assessment.” Peer feedback and self-evaluation procedures are currently being developed, tested, and refined. Hand-in-hand with these new approaches is a reinvention of the college student from passive to active learner, from reactive to proactive, from group-paced to self-paced. Through MOOCs, students learn to take greater responsibility for assessing their classmates’ and their own progress, becoming both learners and teachers in the process. This is both the MOOC challenge and the MOOC promise, and the successful student gradually transforms into an empowered, independent learner capable of managing her/his personal program of lifelong learning.

Lewis’s second question goes to the heart of the issue of formative learning assessment in MOOCs. How can we harness the seemingly infinite and high-speed data gathering and crunching capacity of the digital learning environment to individualize and guide learning? He says, “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.”

This is the primary obstacle. This is where MOOCs need help in the form of expert programmers who are able to create or tweak platforms that respond to students on-demand by (1) gathering, crunching, and reporting data from student and student-to-student performances and (2) suggesting follow-ups and future directions. These platforms would need instructor and student interfaces that are interactive, intuitive, and user friendly.

Needless to say, advances in smart peer- and self-assessment procedures will have ramifications for MOOCs as well as education in general, at all levels and in almost every field. For example, they will hasten the migration to online learning, where unprecedented levels of instant formative feedback would be available, giving professors more time to focus on other matters that require the human touch.

This is much too early to determine the potential of GFA. It’s an interesting concept, and I can see how it might become a funnel for campus-based programs, providing an extremely wide opening to suck students into a narrower traditional baccalaureate program. If this is the case, then the question remains: If it’s good enough for first year students, then why not extend it into their second, third, and fourth year? The implication is that, as far as GFA is concerned, it’s not good enough — or, more than likely, it’s not cost effective.

Considering the growing trend of colleges offering complete bachelor’s programs online for about the same cost per credit for residents and non-residents, the GFA model loses some of its appeal. Its critical advantage over the competition is its MOOCness, but it has incorporated features that undermine this advantage.

Foremost among its anti-MOOC features is the upfront $45 fee to reserve the option to convert to credits at the end of the course. This violates the first O in MOOC — Open. It could be argued that the fee is optional, but an option that guarantees no credit, regardless of actual performance, is not an option.

I’m sure there are reasons for the fee, and chief among them may be the cost of data tracking. However, since certificates are awarded to all successful completers, we have to assume that at least some data tracking is already in place. If it’s completely automated, then the fee is superfluous. If it’s not and requires labor-intensive effort, then the data processing system is flawed and needs to be improved.

MOOCs rely on ever-expanding networking among participants. Thus they’re basically learner-centric, not instructor-centric. They’re not so much an army of students marching to commands from a single teacher but a community of independent learners collaborating with other independent learners to attain a shared goal. Thus, the professor-led model that defines most college-level MOOCs is an anachronism, a carryover from traditional onground pedagogy.

The heavy reliance on professor-based evaluation in the GFA model implies a teacher-centric approach. The medium is the message, and the medium is the MOOC, not the classroom, and the message should not be a professor at a lectern but one that reflects the community of learners in the MOOC.

It remains to be seen whether this GFA version of the MOOC will work. Considering the nature of MOOCs, my guess is that it may attract large numbers in the beginning but most will balk at the fees. To succeed as MOOCs, the upfront $45 fee needs to be eliminated, the $200 per credit needs to be drastically reduced to $33 or less, and the program should provide a MOOC-based continuum of courses that leads to bachelor’s degrees.

Still, the developers of GFA are to be commended for their courage and imagination in bringing the MOOC into the fold of credit courses, giving it a legitimacy that is really only the first step in radically altering the university. GFA is a new page in the evolution of online courses, opening them up to MOOC features such as massive and open, which translates to accessible and affordable, two attributes that will define the enlightened 21st century university.

1Announcing Global Freshman Academy” (edX, n.d., accessed 24 June 2015).
2 The link wasn’t working when I tried it on 24 June 2015 at 7:30AM, Hawaii time.
3 TechCrunch, 23 June 2015.

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