Moving the Needle on Higher Education's Triple Threat

By Matt Lisle, Director of Digital Learning Technologies, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities

Matt Lisle, Director of Digital Learning Technologies, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities

The Triple Threat

Our team at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) spends a great deal of time thinking about the alliterative “triple threat” faced by higher education: affordability, accessibility, and achievement. We lead initiatives that strive to ensure all potential students can attain an affordable, quality education. That’s a big charge that will not be accomplished overnight, but we have seen some movement in recent years thanks to the infusion of technology-enhanced learning experiences.

"Education technologies, when deployed effectively, can make an impact on affordability"


This isn’t news to most: college costs are rising faster than family incomes. According to the 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis Report, low- and middle-income families are particularly strained when it comes to paying for students’ higher education. In Georgia, families making less than $30,000 can expect to spend 66.7 percent of their income on college expenses at public four-year institutions.

Education technologies, when deployed effectively, can make an impact on affordability. Georgia Tech offers an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) program for a total cost of about $6,600. For the sake of comparison, residential master’s programs in computer science often cost between $30,000 to $60,000 at most universities. This low cost is made possible by the use of web-based technologies (via Udacity) that increase Georgia Tech’s productivity.

Rather than attending in-person lectures, students watch short videos on a MOOC-based platform. Students (and instructional teams) crowdsource answers to student questions on a web-based discussion forum. Exams are proctored virtually using student’s web cameras and browser lock-down technologies. These types of innovations allow faculty to reach more students with fewer resources without sacrificing quality–which leads us to the remaining threats.


No one disputes the value of a small faculty-to-student ratio–student outcomes almost always improve in smaller classrooms. However, the benefits of a small classroom do not reach those who are not in one. Higher education needs to consider how to reach similar outcomes as those found in small classrooms, while educating a larger, more diverse, and increasingly demanding group of students in the future.

There are many examples of how technology enables educating at scale. Predictive analytics, adaptive learning, and MOOCs are a few buzzwords commonly associated with this challenge. However, one innovation that is often discussed in today’s political landscape will also play a large role in higher education: artificial intelligence.

Ashok Goel, a Georgia Tech professor, and his team of graduate assistants built a virtual teaching assistant for his OMS CS course. The virtual assistant is implemented on IBM’s Watson platform, which explains the robot TA’s original name: Jill Watson (she has since been given less robotic-sounding names). Jill answers common student questions on a web-based discussion forum called Piazza, which frees living-and-breathing TA’s to spend more time offering personalized assistance to students.

When Goel first introduced Jill in his course, he did not reveal her true identity until the end of the semester–much to the surprise of his students. They were receiving timely answers to common questions, so they didn’t question the humanity of the source of help. Virtual teaching assistants like Jill Watson might enable faculty to teach more students with the same number of instructional team members. It could also lead to other solutions that foster scalability, such as personalized learning and virtual graders.


Unfortunately, a common misconception within higher education is that increased affordability and accessibility results in lower achievement levels. This explains the poor reputation of online learning as sub-par education. However, the effective use of technology doesn’t just maintain the same level of quality found in universities’ lecture halls, it can often improve student outcomes. For example, the use of discussion boards in the Online Masters of Computer Science program resulted in richer peer-to-peer interactions, more organic student-instructor interactions, and self-documented collaborations.

Another example of pedagogical benefits from the use of educational technologies is a shorter feedback loop. In many traditional courses, students take an exam after weeks of work and receive feedback days (if not weeks) later. Often, that feedback consists of a grade and little else. Technology can enable faculty to provide immediate and meaningful feedback to students.

David Joyner, a lecturer at Georgia Tech, recently taught an online, undergraduate-level course titled “Introduction to Computing using Python.” Throughout the course, students were asked to complete short programming assignments, learning concepts such as variables, operators, loops, conditionals, and more. These assignments used a web-based technology that automatically scored students’ code and allowed them to experiment with solutions in a low-stakes environment.

Data shows that this type of distributed practice benefits long-term retention, but it isn’t sustainable in large classes if manual grading is required for each assignment. Tools like those used in Joyner’s class could enable instructors to more regularly offer formative assessments and practice opportunities, resulting in higher achievement levels for students.

Two Out Of Three Isn’t Enough

In order for higher education to thrive in the future, all three threats must be addressed–it isn’t enough to solve two out of three. Nothing will be accomplished by offering an education that is:

1. Accessible and affordable, but low-quality. This scenario leads to cheap online degrees that hold little value.
2. Accessible and high-quality, but not affordable. This scenario leads to expensive programs that could scale to a large number of students, but only if they’re lottery winners who can afford the tuition.
3. Affordable and high-quality, but not accessible. This scenario leads to the exclusion of many qualified students.

The shift in higher education to focus on this triple threat is being driven by the use of technology. As Rich Demillo, Executive Director of C21U, explains it, “You don’t change the old order by fighting it. You change it by finding new inventions that make the old way obsolete.” Whether it’s online degrees, virtual teaching assistants or auto-graded programming assignments, higher education is moving the needle one innovation at a time.