What Georgia Tech Learned From Its First Online Master’s Degree

We are still riding the wave of MOOCs; however, with the evolution of MOOCs, universities are closer to figuring out where technology marries education.  Georgia Institute of Technology is leading the way with what some are calling a revolutionary move.

In January of this year, Georgia Tech teamed up with Udacity and AT&T to offer an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (or OMS CS) taught through a MOOC platform.  This is the first time an elite institutional offered such a degree.  What’s even more incredible is the student pays a mere $7,000 compared to the residential price of $45,000 at the institute.

Dr. Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at Georgia Tech, said after using a MOOC platform, Georgia Tech is now asking itself how it changes the audience and population it reaches and how to deal with issues that go beyond the delivery of material and content.

Bras said he doesn’t only want to provide the content, but the atmosphere, philosophy, and values of the institute. As far as the technical side goes, it may be unsurprising to learn that Georgia Tech has had a smooth transition into offering digital classrooms. Georgia Tech has been providing online education of different types for thirty years.  “We’ve been in this business for quite a while,” Bras said.  “That’s why we’ve been able to react so quickly.”

The criticism MOOCs received because of low completion rates does not dishearten Bras. “Any amount of people completing the courses for free is extraordinary,” said Bras.  “It shows a hunger for learning.” The Internet helps feed this hunger. Bras said MOOCs are an extension of what the Internet has done for us.  “We can now find information at anytime and anywhere; this is just another expression of that revolution,” he said.

The idea that the Internet and MOOCs will help level out the playing field when it comes to education is something many MOOC advocates are excited about. Bras agrees that global access to top tier education is something of a motivator. “I think a tremendous value will come in addressing populations that want education, are willing to pay for education, and that otherwise couldn’t do it,” he said.

Zvi Galil, dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech said in an email that the biggest lesson they learned is that a degree is much more than just a collection of courses.  “Students need ancillary services and support for things like advising, career services and development, etc.,” Galil said.  “This is related to technology in that technology will have to play a role in scaling these services up to a much larger student population, but it also involves significant human resource questions. The technology can only take us so far.”

“Another lesson is that we need to set expectations for students,” Galil said.  “Our first cohort is overwhelmingly comprised of students who work full-time, and many have not been enrolled in college for years. This program is difficult — and it should be difficult — because it’s a Georgia Tech master’s program.” Galil and the Georgia Tech team are now looking to answer questions about how to help students understand the commitment involved and they are working to adjust their curriculum and degree schedule accordingly.

Bras said that people are waiting for the failures to come from the experimental online degree.  “When you’re doing things that no one has done before, the risks are high, things are apt to go wrong somewhere.” he said.  However, Bras is confident that they will overcome anything that comes their way.

For a further look into how higher education has shifted its use of MOOCs, check out the 2014 Technology Outlook for Higher Education.

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.