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The reputation of a top-tier university. The massive distribution network of massive open online courses. The real world legitimacy of a tech giant. When you combine the three, you shake the higher education world to its foundations. Georgia Tech, in partnership with Udacity and AT&T wants to expand the ranks of its Master of Science in Computer Science Degree program from some 300 students to 10,000 as a long term goal. How can they do this? Georgia Tech sees a huge opportunity. The demand for STEM field graduates has outstripped the pool of available students, and MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer a way to bring a respectable degree to an exponentially increased pool of students. The opportunity was ripe, and it was only a matter of time before a reputable university took the plunge and offered a fully online Masters degree.
Why Computer Science? If you understand how MOOCs work, then the announcement of an online comp sci degree comes as no surprise. MOOCs thrive on objective subjects such as sciences and mathematics where there is a right or wrong answer. This allows for automated assessment and marking of students work, saving time and ultimately money for the university. And while these technologies are not fully developed (Georgia Tech expects a large portion of tuition fees to be used to fund research and development of automated assessment technology), these developments in conjunction with saving money on classroom space and profs mean that tuition fees are much more accessible. In fact, all of the courses are offered free, but if you want accreditation and a nice new degree from Georgia Tech, you will have to cough up about seven grand. When compared with the current price tag of $40,000 for the “brick and mortar” degree, you can see why this is huge news for the higher education world.
When people think of online degrees, the first thought they get in their head is degree mills. Shady universities printing out worthless degrees accredited by their parent companies and laughed at by real world companies. While it remains to be seen how corporations will view Georgia Tech Masters degrees that are fully online, the fact that they have a strong reputation and the backing of a major corporation bodes well for the legitimacy of online education. AT&T is a household name. Their partnership with Georgia Tech and Udacity shows that a major corporation not only respects a fully online degree but wants to be a major player in making such degrees happen. In addition from providing legitimacy, the partnership offers Georgia Tech a huge resource in their Comp Sci degree. Corporate projects will be offered for course credit, and real world guest instructors who have proved themselves in the industry will offer tutelage.
What does this show? Maybe humans are conditioned to learn from their peers and mentors face to face. Maybe when you sit at home in your pyjamas with a nice cup of coffee its easy to be distracted by the endless instant gratification of the internet. Maybe we are team animals, and need to form groups to succeed. Or maybe Georgia Tech realizes that human interaction is one of the key components of a successful online degree, and the $7,000 price tag is enough to pay for the resources needed to get degrees completed.
This is a complicated time for higher education. Tuition is skyrocketing, and more and more jobs are considering a BA now what a high school degree would have been worth back in the day. With this in mind, universities are cutting costs by offering distance learning programs. So what is the difference between online university distance programs and MOOCs? It’s simply a matter of scale. Universities can charge huge tuition fees because they are exclusive. If they see that their program is being undermined or diluted by the amount of students that can be taught through MOOCs, they will not create programs of their own. However, if they see that students are flocking towards Georgia Tech fully online Masters, they will get dollar signs in their eyes and pump out degrees themselves.
It’s an exciting time. September 2014 could very well usher in a new era of online education, at least for objective fields such as the STEM fields. On the other hand, it could show that companies are more interested in knowing that a student went through the traditional degree process. That’s the question on everyone’s mind- will companies discriminate against fully online degrees or will they finally attain the legitimacy of traditional degrees?