The Georgia Institute of Technology, in partnership with Udacity and AT&T, is preparing to offer an accredited online master of science (M.S.) degree in Computer Science. The instruction will be via Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC), which will be open to anyone at no charge, but will also be available as for-credit courses leading to an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS). The total cost of instruction fees and tuition for those taking the M.S. route is expected to be less than US$7,000.
The potential of the internet as a revolutionary force in education has long been touted, but actually developing a formula that works for all stakeholders seems elusive. The most recent wave of enthusiasm is focused on MOOCs. A MOOC is an online class structured and presented to be accessible to large numbers of students, with materials for a MOOC available without cost to anyone having an interest in the subject.
While learning for its own sake is an important part of the human condition, the decision to commit to large expenditures of time and effort is often based on a cost/benefit analysis. At present, although it is possible to earn a certificate of completion for many MOOCs, college credit is usually not available. The significance of completed MOOCs to an employer is still an emerging quantity, but currently appears to be lukewarm at best.
If a candidate for a computer science position presented an accredited online comp sci M.S. degree from a major university, would that degree produce the same level of respect and perceived employability as would the equivalent bricks and mortar degree? Obviously, the answer isn't known, as no employer has yet been faced with this situation.
The Georgia Institute of Technology, however, seems intent on finding out. Together with MOOC provider Udacity and AT&T, it is preparing to offer a totally on-line MOOC-based Master of Science degree in Computer Science.
Georgia Tech is a state university based in Atlanta, which is ranked as one of the top ten engineering schools in America. Its on-campus computer science M.S. program, which presently has an enrollment of about 300 students, is offered through three paths: a course path, a project path, and a thesis path.
Each degree program is fine-tuned to the needs and interests of the student by providing fifteen program specializations whose subjects range from computer architecture to interactive analysis. The cost for tuition and fees for this M.S. program totals about $25,000 for students from Georgia, and about $60,000 for non-residents, figures already moderate by Ivy League standards. The program's graduates are eagerly gobbled up by industry.
The plan for the Georgia Tech online degree is to prepare a set of MOOCs that replicates many of the classes available on-campus, together with a support system to provide the additional structure and guidance required to successfully negotiate a coherent collection of courses leading toward a degree. Udacity has been a leader in developing such robust MOOCs (called MOOC 2.0), achieving nearly 100 percent student retention compared to the three to 10 percent retention typical of stand-alone MOOCs. AT&T has supported the start-up costs to develop the program with a $2 million grant.
Initially, the Georgia Tech online degree program will be tested starting in January 2014 with a group mainly consisting of students from the military and AT&T. Improvements and polishing based on the experiences of this shakedown cohort will hopefully allow the first external students a smoother ride when they are admitted to the program in the 2014-2015 academic year. Enrollment will initially be a few hundred students, and is expected to grow into the five to 10 thousand range over the next few years.The M.S. degree will initially be offered in eight specializations:
- Computational Perception & Robotics
- Databases & Software Engineering
- High-Performance Computing
- Interactive Intelligence
- Machine Learning
- Social Computing
It appears that the online M.S. will initially follow the courses-only option. While one can imagine ways to carry out the project or thesis options online. it is not clear if this is in Georgia Tech's plans for the future.
Where might such a program be weak? The most obvious area is in student support. It is true that Udacity and Georgia Tech will both be providing some resources to guide students through the course material and assignments, a big question is if such support will be enough. There is clearly a role for online student groups as forums for interaction with one's classmates, and a way for more advanced students to help out newer students. A great deal of value can be added to such forums by adding some level of response from instructors, who can address issues that are presenting roadblocks to progress. Now if they could just figure out how to share beer and pizza for marathon online study sessions.
The most important issue returns to the question of credibility. Until a significant number of M.S. graduates from the online program are tested in the job market, recruiters will be taking risks on unknown factors, as will students who elect this educational route. On the other hand, it will well behoove companies having significant needs for computer science professionals to take on some Georgia Tech online graduates to perform their own evaluation of quality and performance in the context of a job.
The Georgia Institute of Technology is clearly taking a brave step into a possible future for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Hopefully market forces will be flexible enough to find out if this is a step in a useful direction before pronouncing doom on a risky business.