Georgia Tech will offer master’s degree online

In what is believed to be a first, Georgia Tech will use the growing massive open online course market to offer a master’s degree.

This movement, called MOOCs, started almost two years ago as a way to provide people all over the world with access to quality online college courses from elite schools. Tech already offers MOOCs, and more than 300,000 people have signed up for the 13 different classes.

This offering will be different. While MOOCs traditionally are free, students in Tech’s new program will pay $134 a credit hour. Such courses normally don’t count toward college credits, but students in Tech’s program can graduate with a degree after completing 36 credit hours. And while these class are normally open to anyone, students seeking credit will have to meet Tech’s admission requirements.

MOOCs have created a lot of buzz, and in the past year more than 2 million students worldwide have signed up for such classes.

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“Why now? The rationale is we can really have a tremendous influence,” Georgia Tech Provost Rafael Bras said. “We are leaders. We are not followers.”

Tech will partner with Udacity, a leader in providing the online platform for MOOCs, to offer a master of science in computer science. AT&T pledged $2 million to cover start-up costs. The program is scheduled to start no later than January.

The combination of Tech’s reputation and the fact that it will be an entire degree program makes it intriguing and “an important step forward,” said Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois.

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While Tech’s degree is the first of its kind, Schroeder expects to see others.

“The marketplace will decide if students find the degree to be worth the investment,” he said. “I suspect many will.”

Bras didn’t think the MOOC format would work for all subjects or degrees. Computer science, he said, lends itself to this design.

Tech has offered the degree since 1991, but cannot admit all interested students. The school received about 1,300 applications for fall and can only admit about 10 percent of those.

Bras estimated about 200 students would sign up for the online program’s first term, and about half are expected to be AT&T employees, he said.

Enrollment is projected to reach about 5,800 by year three. Bras predicted that figure will include international students, members of the military, working adults and others who were not admitted to the traditional in-person program.

As a MOOC, Tech’s program design will address the shortage of people with degrees in this field by making the degree more affordable and accessible worldwide, said Scott S. Smith, senior vice president of hiring operations for AT&T.

Part of what will make this program different from the other online degrees Tech offers is the sheer number of students. Existing online degree programs couldn’t handle that many students, officials said.

Tech will continue to offer the master’s degree on campus, President Bud Peterson said. That could change if the MOOC structure works as well as the school thinks it will, Peterson said. Both program designs will offer the same material.

Students may be attracted to the online course’s cost-savings. The MOOC degree will cost $6,630, while students pay nearly $20,500 for the traditional in-person classes.

The cost is still more than those associated with most MOOCs, however. The classes now generally involve a $50 to $200 charge per course for the certifying exam or equivalent.

AT&T's donation will cover the first-year costs. After that the program will be self-sustaining, Bras said. Georgia Tech and Udacity will split any gains, or losses, 60 percent to 40 percent.

MOOCs aren’t perfect. In February Tech suspended one class because of technical and design problems. Udacity and the other providers have canceled a handful of classes because of quality concerns or other issues.

Bras said Tech learned from these problems and will closely monitor the classes. He expects there will be some challenges, as the process is new.

There has been some backlash against the rapid growth of MOOCs. Faculty at Amherst, Duke and San Jose State universities, as well as other schools, have raised objections and in some cases forced their schools to pull out of the movement. They were concerned that collaborating with outside parties could threaten academic freedom, the quality of courses, and other key principles.

Some have questioned whether these classes will replace those offered at less prestigious schools. Others wonder if the online courses will provide students with enough support.

Bras said Tech will support online students. The student-to-faculty ratio for the program will be on par with what students get in the traditional program.

There also are concerns about cheating. Supporters say that can be prevented by requiring students to go to a location for a proctored exam. Or, when students take tests on their computers, require them to show ID and keep the system’s video camera running.

Schroeder said the infrastructure and procedures will need to be worked out.

While some MOOC experiments will fail, some will survive and become viable, he said.

“That makes this one of the most interesting times in the history of higher education,” Schroeder said.