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Will Georgia Tech's $7K online M.S. in computer science program make the grade?

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August 25, 2013

Georgia Tech to offer MS in Computer Science via MOOC (Photo: Mathieu Plourde)

Georgia Tech to offer MS in Computer Science via MOOC (Photo: Mathieu Plourde)

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
  • Networking
  • Social Computing
  • Systems

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.

Source: The Georgia Institute of Technology

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
4 Comments

I suppose this means I'll have to go back for a PhD to compete with all the cheap MS degrees that will be out there.

MBadgero
26th August, 2013 @ 11:38 am PDT

This is an interesting topic. Daphne Koller gave a TED talk about online education ( Coursera) and peer reviewed quizzes: http://www.ted.com/talks/daphne_koller_what_we_re_learning_from_online_education.html

One of the more interesting things she covers is large scale test grading after around 9:45. Their research shows that peer grading and self grading can actually produce surprisingly accurate results.

Academia moves slowly but its ripe for disruption and its happening. Places like Khan Academy, EdX, Coursera, and Udacity are hot right now.

Right now online education is mostly broken up into 2 camps. Free stuff that has the potential to reach lots of people and more traditional stuff that costs the same as attending in person and uses the same books/materials as the classroom. MOOCs are kind of that middle ground and have a lot of potential to make waves in terms of getting costs down.

Daishi
27th August, 2013 @ 08:11 am PDT

Great post, and it is so true that the potential of the internet as a revolutionary force in education has long been touted! Online education is great when you want to either have the flexibility to study at your own pace, just want to learn something new, or physical attending an education institute is not practical. I believe the internet have come to stay.

Rune
24th October, 2013 @ 12:28 pm PDT

@MBadgero how much someone paid for their MS degree doesn't necessarily have to be significant to the quality of the education they received. There is a large demand for CS professionals that is simply not met by the total of graduates every year in the US. If more people capable of completing a degree actually have access to the education, it can only be a good thing. More experts in the field will help accelerate the pace of innovation. Sure, there will be more competition in the job market, but maintaining an artificial shortage of professionals is not sustainable long-term, it will just hinder the country's ability to stay ahead in the space. The key here is to keep the quality standards high, and companies will find out in the interview room whether this degree is worth anything.

Amaury Rodriguez
7th January, 2014 @ 01:30 pm PST
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