Talk of Tech: The Secret to Tech's Online Master's Success

This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine and is used here with permission.

Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS)—the world’s first accredited massive, open, online course (MOOC) degree in computer science—has attracted more than 15,000 applications, enrolled more than 4,500 students, garnered numerous awards and been covered in the press more than 1,000 times. Most important, the program graduated 212 students this May, and hopes to have put cap and gown on more than 1,000 total graduates by December, helping to fill the world’s critical need for computer scientists.

The appeal of Tech’s OMS CS starts with its daring, sub-$7,000 price point. Compare that to the $40,000 for a typical master’s degree in computer science at an out-of-state public university, or the $70,000 for a private university, and the appeal seems obvious. 

The idea for OMS CS was born in 2012, when Sebastian Thrun, founder of MOOC platform Udacity (now a partner with Georgia Tech on the online computer science master’s program), came to see Zvi Galil, the Institute’s dean of the College of Computing, and asked about doing a degree for $1,000. “I told him $1,000 won’t do—maybe $4,000,” Galil remembers.

But before heading toward a launch in January 2014, “the faculty had three concerns,” Galil admits. Those concerns, he says, were “quality, quality, quality.”

So Tech administrators and faculty made a philosophic and strategic choice: It would make its online master’s identical to its highly rated residential program. OMS CS students take the same curriculum as their residential peers, and both programs require 30 credit hours (specialties include computing systems, interactive intelligence, machine learning, computational perception and robotics) to graduate. 

Deliberately, the graduate diploma has no indication whether the degree was earned online or on campus. 

“The sources, homework, projects and exams are identical,” Galil says. Students watch video lectures and participate with teachers and fellow students via a variety of online forums. (Advanced computing itself will be leveraged in the future to help the program scale, and assist students and teachers. See “Artificial Intelligence Helping in the Classroom” below.) 

A related worry was the potential negative impact on Tech’s sterling, U.S. News top 10 computer science brand. Would a low-cost online degree cause it to be lumped in with the slew of noncredit MOOCs that have appeared in the last several years? 
After all, dozens of universities, as well as companies like edX, Udacity and Coursera, offer MOOC courses. (Tech itself offers 29 non-credit courses available on Coursera, which have attracted 1.6 million students to date.)

Happily, this worry seems to have been unfounded. Research by the Harvard Business Review in 2016 found that 80 percent of those accepted into Tech’s OMS CS program actually enrolled—and the majority of those denied did not pursue a different program. The takeaway is that Georgia Tech’s reputation seemed to matter—significantly. 

“Such figures indicate we are expanding the market, not ‘cannibalizing’ the on-campus MS CS program,” Galil says. 

The OMS CS has been so successful that this coming fall, Tech’s College of Engineering, College of Computing and Scheller College of Business have collaborated to launch an online master’s degree in analytics. That master’s, an online version of the degree the Institute has been offering for three years on campus, will cost less than $10,000. 

The new degree, just like the OMS CS, will duplicate the on-campus academic content, according to Associate Professor Joel Sokol, who directs both the on-campus and online Master of Science in Analytics. 

“We’ve been thinking from the beginning to put analytics online as well,” Sokol says.

The driver? Incredible demand for such an education.

“We can bring 60 to 70 people on campus [for the resident program], but this year we had about 1,000 applications for those seats,” he says. “There’s a lot of unmet demand.” 

For the online analytics master’s program, Sokol will start with 250 students, then admit more in the spring. “It’ll get bigger and bigger,” he says. 

Just like the OMS CS, Sokol and others presume that many applicants for the new online degree will be attracted because they live far from Atlanta or—even more likely—have already started their careers, and want to pursue a degree while working. 

OMS CS students have proved to be consistently older. The average age is 33-34, or approximately 11 years older than on-campus MS CS students, and a majority (75 percent) are employed full-time. In addition, nearly all of the OMS CS students (94 percent) work while enrolled. 

“In 2014, I had this feeling that [Georgia Tech’s] program was the start of something huge, and I wanted in,” says Ellie Ordway-West, an AT&T data scientist and OMS CS graduate. 

The low price was a factor, too. “It was inexpensive enough that I could pay for it myself without going into debt,” she says. Like nearly all the OMS CS students, Ordway-West kept working while pursuing the master’s, her second. She also holds a master’s in physics from the University of Missouri-Saint Louis.

An online degree also appealed to Norma Easter, who received her bachelor’s degree in computational media from Tech in 2013, and is now pursuing her master’s. Although Easter lives and works for a mobile developer in Atlanta, she wanted to get her advanced degree while continuing to work. Easter hopes to complete her degree in two to three years. 

“What drew me to Tech was that I knew, first-hand, it was very rigorous, with passionate professors,” she says, adding that the online program is “just as rigorous” as the on-campus courses she took as an undergrad. 

Tech’s own research email survey of OMS CS subscribers found that nearly 99 percent of students enrolled in the program felt it was either a “good” or “excellent” return on their educational investment.

Before the OMS in Computer Science debuted more than three years ago, there were understandable concerns that it would be somehow inferior to the face-to-face experience of the residential master’s program.

But those worries have fallen aside, and preliminary research indicates that Tech’s online master’s students perform comparably overall to the on-campus cohort. When the same course is taught concurrently for both OMS CS and on-campus students, sometimes the online students do a little better and sometimes the campus students edge them out.

“What we’ve found is the online discussion forums become a rich source of discussion and learning,” says Sokol. While a classroom experience lasts an hour “these online forums go on 24/7, and get really rich and deep,” he says.

Along with Udacity’s Piazza portal for student discussions, students themselves have created some 70 Google Plus groups revolving around their OMS CS studies.

“[These students] bring real-life experience,” says Galil, noting that classes on health informatics have attracted physicians, and classes on educational technology have attracted working teachers. 

While the current OMS CS is a partnership between Tech, MOOC provider Udacity and AT&T, the new analytics program will be a partnership between Georgia Tech and MOOC provider edX. The analytics program will also benefit from the operational infrastructure created by the OMS CS. Today at Tech there are instructional designers, videographers, simulation experts and graphic artists, all of whom mix freely with the faculty to design the online courses within the degree program.

Nelson Baker, Georgia Tech’s dean of professional education, thinks the OMS CS program’s enrollment may eventually exceed most everyone’s expectations. But he’s quick to put the OMS CS in context, noting that Tech’s remote education programs started in 1977. “This has been a 40-year journey for the Institute,” he says. 

“First and foremost we’re improving learning, growing our database about how people learn, both online and on campus,” Baker says, adding that this has placed Georgia Tech into a highly visible position among higher education institutions worldwide. 

“Others are watching and following us,” he says, pointing out that he just held a conference with a dozen universities who are eager “to learn our business model and our pedagogy.”


Ellis Booker

Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine