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Georgia Tech's CS Degree Puts Some Certified Beef Into MOOCs

The launch of an accredited MOOC degree by a major university may be risky, but it almost certainly changes the landscape of higher education for good.

"Where's the beef?" was the famous campaign slogan from the 1984 Presidential campaign. For two years, MOOC watchers have been asking the same question, as hundreds of thousands of students participated in free online courses that delivered knowledge but no certification of any real value. The Georgia Institute of Technology recently changed all that: Its May 14 announcement that the school would offer a fully accredited Online Masters of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) for less than $7,000 suddenly brought the abstract potential of MOOCs into stark relief.

Launched in partnership with Udacity and with a $2.1 million grant from AT&T, the university will offer the degree program to select students during a pilot phase, set to begin in the next academic year, with enrollment gradually expanding over the next three years.

Parity in CS Degrees
Given how polarizing MOOCs have been in the higher education community, it's not surprising that Georgia Tech's announcement has stirred up a hornets' nest. Online forums have been buzzing with vitriolic accusations and competing visions for the future of higher education. Much of the attention has been focused on the university's claims that the online degree will be of equal value and rigor as the traditional computer science degree offered on campus for about $40,000.

If that's true, say critics, why would anyone pay for the face-to-face version? The university itself has put out conflicting announcements on this point. "The most important thing to keep in mind is that they are the same degree--they will be of the same quality," explained Charles Isbell, senior associate dean of the College of Computing, in a video released by the school. At the same time, the OMS CS website recognizes shortcomings in the online version: "The Institute acknowledges that certain aspects of on-campus programs simply cannot be replicated at present through the massive-online format. There will always be a premium value on close faculty-student interaction, the ability to work directly with fellow students in groups, and to perform hands-on research projects, to name just a few examples."

The suggestion that face-to-face instruction is a premium service that does not otherwise affect the educational outcome worries some educators, who fear that MOOC-centric degree programs will result in both a lesser educational experience and a diminished faculty. Nevertheless, the new degree was approved by an overwhelming majority of Georgia Tech faculty: three-quarters of the 60 College of Computing faculty members voted in favor of the new online degree.

Faculty Concerns
According to Tucker Balch, an associate professor of computing and a member of the working group that created the proposal for the MOOC degree, faculty opposition generally fell into three categories. The first was based on a philosophical difference about the role of the public university. Several faculty expressed concern that Georgia Tech's new mass-market degree program might negatively impact smaller institutions offering similar degrees in a face-to-face format.

A second concern involved the idea of partnering with for-profit providers and "commoditizing" courses. In the view of some Georgia Tech faculty, such partnerships could result in a "misalignment of values." The partnership with Udacity also raised broader questions outside the school about whether Georgia Tech negotiated a fair deal for itself. Under the terms of the agreement, Georgia Tech keeps 60 percent of the revenue, while Udacity retains 40 percent. Given that Georgia Tech provides the intellectual property for the courses and shoulders much of the work, questions have been raised whether the Udacity platform--which some feel could just as easily have been built by Georgia Tech staffers--is worth the money.

The third area of friction involved the timeline of the program. According to Balch, some faculty members feared that the university was moving too quickly, given the lack of empirical evidence validating the MOOC as an effective educational model. While most elite universities have dipped their toe in the MOOC waters to some extent, no high-profile universities other than Georgia Tech have been willing to risk their brand equity on an educational delivery system that is still unproven.

Balch, a champion for the program, acknowledged that these faculty concerns are valid. In the long run, however, he is optimistic that the OMC CS program is moving Georgia Tech in the right direction, and "will make education better, more accessible, and improve job opportunities."

Strategic Alignment
The school's launch of an accredited MOOC degree certainly didn't come out of the blue. For starters, the OMS CS initiative aligns with the school's strategic goals. Its "Strategic Plan Goals and Institutional Initiatives" document lists five overarching goals and 10 institution-wide initiatives, including a goal to "expand our global footprint and influence".  

And the Udacity partnership is not Georgia Tech's first foray into the world of MOOCs. Last year, it partnered with Coursera to offer MOOCs to students around the world. Yet the school's track record with MOOCs is somewhat rocky. One of the first courses offered through Coursera in January 2013, Foundations of Online Education, was shut down after the first week due to technical difficulties.

Balch was adamant that Georgia Tech's Coursera courses are not representative of the courses that will be part of the OMS CS program. In his view, the Coursera courses, including Computational Investing, Part I which is taught by Balch, are approximately "one third of the rigor" of a traditional Georgia Tech credit-bearing course.

But is there merit to claims that the school is moving too fast to create a MOOC degree worthy of the school's reputation? Vicky Phillips, founder of, a consumer website that ranks colleges according to affordability and credibility, compared the challenge facing Georgia Tech with "putting a man on the moon." Phillips, who has more than 20 years' experience analyzing the online education sector, sees the sustainability of the program as the most significant issue. "It's not grounded in reality," says Phillips, referring to the 10,000 students expected to be enrolled in the OMS CS program in year three, according to the financial projection document obtained following an open records request.

Do the Numbers Add Up?
The financial aspects of the program have come under as much scrutiny as the pedagogical components, most notably in an analysis by Christopher Newfield in Insider Higher Ed titled "Where Are the Savings?" The online degree program is a new venture, so the numbers are always going to be guesstimates. Nevertheless, concerns have focused on two areas: Will the school cannibalize its existing on-campus program? And is there enough demand globally to satisfy the school's revenue projections?

Georgia Tech believes that its on-campus degree program appeals to a different demographic, especially students working toward Ph.Ds and foreign students wishing to experience life in the US. Its new online degree program is intended to capture a much bigger, global pool of students who do not have the ability--or the cash--to move to Atlanta for a few years.

By choosing computer science as its test MOOC degree, Georgia Tech also hopes to benefit from the growing demand for CS degree holders in industry. Indeed, the need for qualified employees was a driving factor behind AT&T's decision to contribute $2.1 million toward the program's startup costs. In a video message, Bill Blase, senior VP of human resources at AT&T, notes that Georgia Tech's program is a "pipeline of potential applicants."

Yet just how big is the demand for holders of Master of Science degrees in computer science? According to Georgia Tech's OMS CS website, "160,000 Master's degrees are bestowed in the United States every year in computer science and related subject disciplines; the worldwide market is almost certainly much larger." This data conflicts with the numbers reported by the National Center for Education Statistics showing only 19,446 Master's degrees of computer and information sciences conferred in 2010-11. Considering that OMS CS is anticipating enrollment of 10,000 students by year three, the program would have to capture the lion's share of the US market for advanced degrees in computer science to meet its projections.

Demand from Abroad
But what the figures from the National Center for Education Statistics do not show is the demand that exists outside the United State. India, for instance, is a likely market given its vast population and demonstrated interest in technology. "Online degrees based on MOOCs have all the right ingredients to make it big in India," noted Rahul Choudaha, director of research and strategic development at World Education Services. "Technology, affordability and reputation." Georgia Tech is a respected brand in India, according to Choudaha, but added, "The acid test for the degree will be how Indian employers reward and accept the degree."  

It's too early to tell whether Georgia Tech's bold new venture will succeed, but the university certainly recognizes the risks involved. It already has a documented exit strategy for "gracefully" withdrawing and folding the experiment should the program falter. Even if this were to happen, though, the ramifications of Georgia Tech's experiment will resonate through higher education for a long time. The potential of a low-cost Master's degree offered by a leading university will have entered the consciousness of students, parents and other degree providers. If it's not Georgia Tech offering such a program, it will almost certainly be another school.

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