Saturday, July 13, 2013

A provocative column on Georgia Tech's $7,000 MS in computer science

Astute industry analyst Robert Cringely says that Georgia Tech's $7,000 online MS in computer science is watered down, will cheapen the Georgia Tech brand, will earn Georgia Tech a lot of money, and may be the future of education.

The self-paced (typically three year) program is being developed with Udacity with the help of a $2 million grant from AT&T. They will start with 300 students, many of them AT&T employees, and hope to expand to 10,000 students while hiring only eight new instructors.

Cringley sees this as a recipe for a "crappy" degree, but says it will make a ton of money because professional degree students typically pay for their education while research students provide cheap teaching and research labor funded by grants. He also sees the Georgia taxpayer subsidizing offshore students -- as Cringely puts it "programmers in Bangalore will soon boast Georgia Tech degrees without even having a passport."

It is noteworthy that the courses will be offered as free MOOCs for those not seeking a degree -- only enrolled, degree-seeking students will pay and only they will get tutoring, online office hours, proctored exams, etc. We have talked of the importance of the non-degree MOOC audience in an earlier post. The business model here seems to be counting on for-credit students paying the cost of production, with a by-product of high-quality, free MOOCs.

What do you think? Is programmers in Bangalore getting low-cost degrees a bug or a feature? Will students pay $7,000 for certification from Georgia Tech when they can get the same content in a free MOOC? Will the free MOOCs turn out to be the most important part of this experiment -- particularly in developing nations? How will prospective employers value the credit and non-credit completion of the courses? Can eight faculty adequately serve 10,000 students? Will other universities follow suit?


Update 7/15/2013

Laura Gibbs pointed me to an in-depth discussion of the Georgia Tech MS CS program. Christopher Newfield challenged the economic projections in the Georgia Tech contract, and Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun answered in a blog post to which Newfield replied.

Thrun said a couple of things that caught my eye. One was that they predict that the majority of the income will come from non-degree students. We've written about the non-degree student market being potentially much more lucrative than that for degree programs. This venture will provide data on that hypothesis, but it will be a while before we know the results.

Thrun also said that data on the for-credit collaboration between Udacity and San Jose State University (SJSU) had been collected and would be released in a few weeks (from June 24). That should shed some light on the disagreement between Thrun and Newfield in spite of the fact that the students and the introductory undergraduate courses in the SJSU trial differ significantly from those of a graduate computer science degree at Georgia Tech.

We are just starting to innovate in online education after years of textbook facsimiles. Georgia Tech, SJSU and Udacity are experimenting with new models of certification and education financing, as opposed to teaching material and pedagogy. These are early, important experiments.


Update 7/18/2013

SJSU Provost Ellen Junn reported that students in three online classes did significantly worse than those in conventional classes.  A preliminary presentation showed that 74 percent or more of the students in traditional classes passed, while no more than 51 percent of Udacity students passed any of the three courses.  Junn emphasized that the results were preliminary and they plan to start working with Udacity again in spring 2014.


Update 7/29/2013

Slate takes a look at Georgia Tech’s Computer Science MOOC -- says it could change American higher education. - Slate Magazine (

Update 8/18/2013

The New York Times says the masters degree is the "new frontier" of study online (  They go on to highlight the Georgia Tech offering and discuss the future of MOOCs more broadly. Enthusiasts and skeptics are quoted. I've also revised the original post -- stressing the inclusion of free MOOCs for non-credit students.

Update 12/13/2013

Georgia Tech designs its Udacity pilot to avoid failure.
They distance the themselves from Udacity's debacle at San Jose State University.