It all started with a radical idea: Use technology to make a top American university graduate degree more accessible to more people, and make it more affordable.
The idea became a reality five years ago with Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program. It was the first degree of its kind to operate entirely on the massive online, or MOOC, platform for course delivery.
The program started with 380 students and today numbers about 8,600 — representing all 50 states and nearly 120 different countries.
The success inspired Tech to launch two additional degrees. The OMS Analytics degree began in Fall 2017 with 250 students; this semester’s enrollment is 1,500. The OMS Cybersecurity degree program started in January with about 250 students.
These programs are a testament to the importance of partnerships. OMSCS is offered in collaboration with Udacity and AT&T. OMS Analytics is supported by AT&T and Accenture and produced for online delivery by Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) via edX. And the new OMS Cybersecurity is supported by Accenture and also delivered in collaboration with edX.
“OMSCS has been successful beyond our imagination,” said Zvi Galil, dean and John P. Imlay Jr. Chair in the College of Computing. “Our success really has rested on the faculty, who overwhelmingly approved OMSCS and then enthusiastically executed the program.”
“This was all uncharted territory,” he added. “But Georgia Tech has achieved accessibility through affordability and technology.”
Though new for Georgia Tech, it was built on a strong foundation. The Institute began offering distance learning more than 40 years ago and issued its first distance program degree in 1987.
Traditional on-campus programs can’t grow much bigger. The need for additional faculty and classroom space makes it nearly impossible to enroll thousands of new students in a physical setting. Those limitations don’t exist online.
The OMS format also acknowledges that many people can’t just pick up and move for graduate school. It recognizes that many adult learners are also caregivers and full-time employees.
Meet the Montgomerys
Take Malikah and Victor Montgomery. They both work and are raising three children, ages 2 to 12. Although they live in Atlanta, they needed the flexibility to study anywhere. Now, they are on track to graduate in December, with prestigious and affordable degrees.
The Montgomerys and their three children.
Most OMSCS students will pay less than $7,000 for their graduate degree, compared to more than $40,000 for a traditional on-campus program.
“It has been great for encouragement and accountability to have a partner in the journey,” Malikah Montgomery said. “There have been difficult times when we both had to work on assignments and take care of the kids. We would take turns with the youngest strapped to us in a baby carrier while studying.”
New Markets, New Students
Students like the Montgomerys are why OMSCS is expected to raise the number of computer science master’s degrees by about 7 percent each year, according to a Harvard University study.
Researchers from Harvard and Georgia Tech found that many OMSCS students were not applying to other traditional computing programs. If not for Georgia Tech’s online program, they would not have enrolled in any program at all. In that way, the program is helping address the nearly 500,000 unfilled computer science jobs in the country.
“Georgia Tech has shown it’s possible to offer elite graduate education online and that doing so opens up entirely new markets of previously underserved students,” Galil said.
Just as important, Georgia Tech is showing others how to do it. Since the launch of OMSCS, more than 20 similar programs have started across the country.
In October GTPE hosted its third Affordable Degrees-at-Scale Symposium. The gathering offers an inside look into how OMS programs work, and attendees leave with a better understanding of how their own institutions can offer similar degrees.
“The students are the most important part of what makes OMSCS go,” said Charles Isbell Jr., an instructor in the program and executive associate dean for the College of Computing. “It’s their willingness to participate and support this program, not just as students but as part of the larger community.”
Students hold meet-ups in cities around the country and help each other with assignments. They volunteer as teaching assistants. They maintain active networks on Facebook and LinkedIn and have formed more than 70 Google+ groups.
A Whole New Life
Before OMSCS, Samantha Campo was an elementary school teacher. She took a year of fundamental computer science courses through a distance program before applying to Georgia Tech.
“With such a non-traditional background, I did not have the qualifications to apply to an on-campus program,” she said. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude that Georgia Tech decided to take a chance on me.”
Samantha Campo at Commencement.
She graduated last May with a 4.0 GPA. During the program, Campo completed two internships, both of which resulted from referrals from fellow students. She is now working for the machine learning research group at Oracle Labs in Burlington, Massachusetts.
“I will never forget the opportunity,” she said. “I have a whole new life, and none of it would have been possible without OMSCS.”
Henry Shi also graduated from OMSCS last May. The flexibility of the program allowed him to co-launch a startup while earning a graduate degree.
“Everyone with the program was so passionate about what they were teaching and the mission of making public education affordable,” Shi said.
Henry Shi, co-founder of SnapTravel and an OMSCS alumnus.
He and his company created the SnapTravel Fellowship Awards: one to recognize students exhibiting entrepreneurial spirit, and a second to benefit students who are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The first winners were announced in July.
“OMSCS is a mission I wanted to get behind,” Shi said. “This is an easy way to get started.”
Shaping the Future
In some ways, even after five years, Georgia Tech is just getting started.
Students’ experiences with the OMS programs are influencing how Georgia Tech is shaping the future. While students enjoy the flexibility of studying online, they also crave contact with one another and with the Institute. They attend alumni and networking events across the country. They form meet-ups and study groups with those who live nearby. Some come to Georgia Tech for Commencement; often it is their first and only time on campus.
This desire for an in-person connection is a recurring theme in Tech’s Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education report. Using 2040 as a vantage point, it envisions an educational experience that can be personalized as professional interests and needs shift during a person’s lifetime. It also imagines the changing products and services that future students will need.
Among the recommendations is the creation of “atriums,” physical spaces where anyone can connect with Georgia Tech and one another. Atriums could be located anywhere from corporate offices to shopping malls and give learners access to one another and other members of the Georgia Tech community.
More and more OMSCS graduates are traveling to campus each semester to participate in Commencement. A highlight of their visit is a campus tour.
Lessons from OMSCS can also be seen on Georgia Tech’s campus, specifically in the way the College of Computing is teaching some undergraduate courses.
Two years ago, the college started offering an introduction to computing (the first course for undergraduates in computer science) as an online option for on-campus students. About 175 students are taking the online option this semester, and surveys show that students overwhelmingly enjoy it.
Because of the online format, students are able to program about four times more than in the on-campus version. This is important because practice is crucial for beginning students. Two more online-optional classes are being developed for on-campus students.
“My dream, my vision, is that more undergraduate courses will be given online and it will lead to some meaningful cut in tuition,” Galil said.
Computing for All
The vision doesn’t stop with undergraduates — it’s also changing the way that Tech works with the state’s high school students.
Georgia has more than 500,000 high school students, but fewer than 100 certified computer science teachers. The lessons from OMSCS can be used to expose more students to computer science, Isbell said.
Isbell is executive director of Tech’s Constellations Center for Equity in Computing, which is working to ensure that all students have access to quality computer science education.
“You can support the teachers who are already there and make it so they can use this technology to deliver the content,” Isbell said. “They understand the students. They understand how to get to them and how to bring them in. We can make them more effective through technology.”
The Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech is bringing computer science education to students in six Atlanta Public School's high schools.
Preliminary work is already taking place with Atlanta Public Schools. It could take a few more years to reach schools across Georgia, including those in rural communities.
“There are students in high school today who will be affected by what we’re able to do before they graduate,” he said. “Our mission has to be to not just reach up to graduate students but to reach down and prepare high school students so they can come to a place like Georgia Tech and succeed.”