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Originally published Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 4:55 PM

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Master’s degree is the new frontier of study online

Georgia Tech, which has one of the country’s top computer-science programs, plans to offer a MOOC-based online master’s degree in computer science for $6,600, far less than the $45,000 on-campus price.

The New York Times

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In January, the Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a master’s degree in computer science through massive open online courses for a fraction of the on-campus cost, a first for an elite institution. If it even approaches its goal of drawing thousands of students, it could signal a change to the landscape of higher education.

From their start two years ago, when a free artificial-intelligence course from Stanford University enrolled 170,000 students, free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have drawn millions and yielded results such as the perfect scores of Battushig, a 15-year-old Mongolian boy, in a tough electronics course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But free MOOCs have not produced profound change, partly because they offer no credit and do not lead to a degree. The disruption may be approaching, though, as Georgia Tech, which has one of the country’s top computer-science programs, plans to offer a MOOC-based online master’s degree in computer science for $6,600, far less than the $45,000 on-campus price.

Zvi Galil, dean of the university’s College of Computing, expects that in the coming years, the program could attract up to 10,000 students annually, many from outside the United States and some who would not complete the full master’s degree. “Online, there’s no visa problem,” he said.

The program rests on an unusual partnership forged by Galil and Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity, a Silicon Valley MOOC provider.

Although it is just one degree at one university, the prospect of a prestigious low-cost degree program has generated great interest. Some educators think the leap from individual noncredit courses to full degree programs could signal the next phase in the evolution of MOOCs — and bring real change to higher education.

“Perhaps Zvi Galil and Sebastian Thrun will prove to be the Wright brothers of MOOCs,” said S. James Gates Jr., a University of Maryland physicist who serves on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “This is the first deliberate and thoughtful attempt to apply education technology to bringing instruction to scale. It could be epoch-making. If it really works, it could begin the process of lowering the cost of education, and lowering barriers for millions of Americans.”

The plan is for Georgia Tech to provide the content and professors and to get 60 percent of the revenue, and for Udacity to offer the computer platform, provide course assistants and receive the other 40 percent.

The projected budget for the test run starting in January is $3.1 million — including $2 million donated by AT&T, which will use the program to train employees and find potential hires — with $240,000 in profits. By the third year, the projection is for $14.3 million in costs and $4.7 million in profits.

The courses will be online and free for those not seeking a degree; those in the degree program will take proctored exams and have access to tutoring, online office hours and other support services. Students who cannot meet the program’s stringent admission standards may be admitted provisionally and allowed to transfer in if they do well in their first two courses. Students who complete only a few courses would get a certificate.

“This is all uncharted territory, so no one really knows if it will go to scale,” Galil said.

Would such a program cannibalize campus enrollment? “Frankly,” he said, “nobody knows.”

Not everyone thinks that such a degree program will be sustainable, or that it would even be a step forward.

“The whole MOOC mania has got everyone buzzing in academia, but scaling is a great challenge,” said Bruce Chaloux, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. “I have to believe that at some point, when the underwriting ends, to keep high quality, Georgia Tech would have to float to more traditional tuition rates.”

Some faculty members worry that despite Galil’s pledge that the program will match the quality and standards of the on-campus master’s program, it could dilute the value of a Georgia Tech degree. And as in California, where Udacity has worked with San Jose State University to offer three basic math courses — now paused because of underwhelming student performance — some object to the idea of outsourcing part of their work to a for-profit company like Udacity.

“If you spend a lot of money, you can make online great, and this will probably be a showcase program,” said Chris Newfield, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is studying online education. “But we in universities could do that ourselves if we had that money, and the whole history of private involvement in public education has been one of extracting resources. However well-intentioned, we don’t need a Trojan horse product that will take money out of the system.”

Higher-education officials say they will be watching closely.

“Georgia Tech is exceptionally important because it’s a prestigious institution offering an important degree at very low cost with a direct connection to a Fortune 100 corporation that will use it to fill their pipeline,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “It addresses a lot of the issues about universities that the public cares about. But how good and how transferrable it is remain to be seen.”

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