10 Questions: Rich DeMillo, Ph.D. CS '72, A Disruptive Force in Higher Education

As the head of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, Richard DeMillo, PhD CS 72, oversees a living laboratory for experimenting on the ways faculty teach and students learn—all in the name of making a Tech education more accessible, affordable and acclaimed. The former John P. Imlay Dean of the College of Computing, DeMillo played an instrumental role in bringing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to the Institute. Today, nearly two million students across the world are enrolled in Georgia Tech MOOCs, including those working toward their 0nline master’s in computer science degrees.

DeMillo has worked both in academia and in industry, having served as Hewlett-Packard’s first chief technology officer, Bellcore’s head of research, and the National Science Foundation’s director of computer and computational research. His books Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities and the sequel Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable are must reads for higher-education innovators worldwide. For this special issue, the Alumni Magazine just had to pick the brain of one of the globe’s most esteemed thought leaders on learning. 

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at Tech? I earned my PhD here in 1972 before there was a College of Computing, but I came back in 2002 to serve as the [John P. Imlay] Dean. During my time as dean, I got really interested in how the college and the Institute delivers education to students—and how educational technology could vastly improve what we were doing. Several years later, in 2007, I stepped down to take a sabbatical and that’s when I started envisioning what would eventually become the Center for 21st Century Universities.

2. How did your first envision the Center for 21st Century Universities? At first, I was thinking, naively, that it was going to be a small place where I was going to be left alone to play with new technologies in my own little sandbox. But that was 2008, at exactly the time that the economy was undergoing all these seismic shifts and a lot of them were negatively affecting higher education. 

3. What seismic shifts? Beyond technologies and the transfer of knowledge that’s core to higher education, I had to also start thinking about the economics of universities, where higher education fits into American society and how the politics of educational policy works. And that turned out to be the basis for this center. Georgia Tech needed an entity that would think deeply about the economic and social and political disruptions that were awaiting higher education and help find ways, in turn, to disrupt age-old educational models.

4. Why was Tech the right place to house the Center? Georgia Tech has long been a place where you can do things in a very entrepreneurial fashion—where you don’t have to ask for a lot of permission to try things out. In fact, I’ve never been at a company or an educational institution that allows you the broad latitude that the Institute does, which is surprising considering that Tech is almost twice as large as it was when I was a student. It’s a rare university where anyone on faculty can send an email to the president and get a response within a day. But that’s exactly what happens here and I’m not sure people realize how extraordinary this is. With the Institute’s leadership, faculty and students aligned so closely to each other, both socially and organizationally, I think it’s one of the secret sauces that makes Tech so successful. In such an environment, the Center for 21st Century Universities was designed to be a place where we would be allowed to try out new things without the fear of failure. But if they succeeded, they would matter not only for us but probably for higher education nationally—such as what we’ve done with the Massive Open Online Courses offered at Tech.

5. Besides their increased reach of instruction to students around the world, what’s so special about Tech’s MOOCs? It’s not just the online technologies, but also the rethinking of how courses are delivered. It starts with something called “mastery learning.” American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom of the University of Chicago conducted research that showed that if students were taught using mastery learning techniques and provided personalized, 1:1 tutoring outside class, students performed up to two standard deviations better than those taught using traditional methods. 

6. What exactly is mastery learning? Instead of relying on formal lectures that a student may or may not pick up on, mastery learning provides smaller chunks of information, frequent assessments as to whether or not that material is being mastered, and then adaptations along the way bridge the gap. Since the technologies behind MOOCs allow faculty to increase their productivity and reach more students, we were able to implement mastery learning at scale and make it very affordable. It’s turned out to be a huge development that’s changed the conversation about the costs of higher education, the means for educational delivery and the roles of instructors and students. 

7. Beyond MOOCs, what educational innovations loom on the horizon for Tech? I’ll say the thing that’s got us most excited at the moment is the idea of new kinds of degrees and certifications. If you’ve been looking at LinkedIn or any of the places that are providing some form of endorsement for people’s knowledge, skill or expertise, you see the market place is thirsting for more granular information about what students have learned when they get through a particular program. However, LinkedIn allows anyone to endorse you for being an expert in project management, whether or not you actually are. Faculty members provide endorsements for students, but they never show up on an official transcript. 

8. How can you make such endorsements or labels of expertise stick? We don’t really have a mechanism at Tech for providing endorsements and badges and certificates that will be recognized by employers and other universities. However, a technology like Blockchain—which is the backbone of digital currency BitCoin—allows both producers and consumers of a value or rating to plug into the same infrastructure and contribute to it. I could see a day when Tech students would sign their emails with a Blockchain ID, and it would act sort of like a Facebook profile, but one validated by Georgia Tech, and assigned value by employers and other institutions.

9. What else do you see changing at Tech? There’s a lot more that I can’t talk about, that’s still under wraps, but generally Tech will be shifting its focus to meeting the needs of lifetime learners. I envision a whole new class of educational products that few have ever talked about before—not degrees, not anything that would be familiar as an educational product—that would represent Georgia Tech’s lifetime investment in the success of our students. We want to be able to better serve students coming back into Georgia Tech at various points in their lives and, of course, deliver very different experiences than they had as undergraduates.

10. Any last ideas that are clearly outside-the-box? One idea we think about a lot is: What does it mean for Georgia Tech to have a presence in the world? A physical campus model doesn’t make a lot of sense because you can’t stand up brick-and-mortar schools every place that there’s a congregation of Tech or wannabe Tech students. But there are different ways to think about how learners can be networked and to give them access to a Tech education and Tech facilities. We’re not exactly sure what the model would be, but it could dramatically change the Institute’s master plan.

Contact: 

Roger Slavens

Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine