ASU’s Global Freshman Academy Is a Complete Bust. Is Anyone Actually Surprised?

Education Dive [] is a very good source of news about innovations and initiatives in digital education, but it does have a very pronounced bias in favor of the pedagogical potential of digital technologies.

Sometimes that bias leads to analyses that border on the absolutely ludicrous.

Each item from Education Dive includes a bulletted summary called the “Dive Brief” followed by a succinct “Dive Analysis.”

Here are the summary and the analysis on the first-semester results of Arizona State University’s much-ballyhooed use of MOOCs in its Global Freshman Academy:


Dive Brief:

–Arizona State University’s massive open online course experiment in partnership with edX was supposed to give thousands of students free access to freshman-year courses they could take online and pay for only if they passed.

–Inside Higher Ed reports, however, that just 323 of 34,086 people who registered for the Global Freshman Academy MOOCs — less than 1% — actually completed the courses with a C or better, making them eligible for the reduced-cost first-year credits.

–While Arizona State was hoping more students would enroll when it announced the Global Freshman Academy, it sees the small first year as a positive first step.

Dive Insight:

Justin Reich, a MOOC researcher at MIT, told Inside Higher Ed that many more students than those who qualify for credit may have had positive learning experiences in the Global Freshman Academy or become more familiar with ASU—two reasons why the experiment could be considered successful. With just one semester of data, it could be far too early to criticize. MOOCs historically have had very low completion rates. The promise of cheaper course credit may not have motivated a substantial portion of these early adopters to complete the Global Freshman Academy courses, but in future semesters that could change. The key will be watching to see what happens next.


Although it is always possible that this “experiment” in enrollment growth and curriculum delivery may prove more successful in the long run, just about any project that has an initial success rate of less than 1% is doomed—not doomed to failure, but simply doomed because a 1% success rate is already a colossal failure.

I find Justin Reich’s analysis very revealing because it, or Education Dive‘s elaboration on it, is very clearly based on the assumption that ASU and edX will continue to offer this program.

And so the real issue is why that would not just be so, but why it would even be possible.

If some comparable initiative delivered on-site had had these initial results, there would be no question whatsoever that it would be terminated as quickly and as quietly as possible. Indeed, it would stand as such a spectacular boondoggle that some administrative careers might even be derailed (and we know how much it takes for that to occur).

But, when digital technologies are involved, the usual parameters by which we measure success and failure almost never apply. Consider how long it took to deny federal funding to the massive online for-profit colleges and universities when it was very apparent how ruthlessly exploitative their business model was. Consider, too, how long it is taking for the parallel situation involving corporate-operated charter schools to be acknowledged as a national scandal.

It is notable that most MOOCs have previously had somewhere between a 3% and a 9% “completion” rate—meaning that that percentage of those enrolled simply opened all of the course modules. So, based on that available baseline of statistical evidence, the less than 1% of students who completed the MOOCs offered as part of the Global Freshman Academy might, very arguably, represent a ceiling, rather than a very modest starting point, for this program.

Someone needs to argue very pointedly that the resources devoted to this program can be used elsewhere more effectively, if less glamorously, to serve actual, pressing student and faculty needs.


The Education Dive piece is based on an article written for Inside Higher Ed by Carl Straumshelm, which is available at:



2 thoughts on “ASU’s Global Freshman Academy Is a Complete Bust. Is Anyone Actually Surprised?

  1. Pingback: NYEE Links! A Whole Lot of Them! | Gerry Canavan

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