T-shirt reading, "The Revolution Will Be Online"

Revolutionary Program Celebrates First Decade of Expanding Access to CS Education

Distance learning is nothing new. The first correspondence course was created in the 1870s. Georgia Tech has been at it since 1977 when the entity that became Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) division opened its doors. Even online distance learning isn't new. The internet has been used for decades to transmit lectures and receive assignments.

However, when Georgia Tech founded the Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program ten years ago, it was something new. Where previous programs tried to replicate the in-person experience, OMSCS has built techniques, technologies, and communities centered around the online experience.

OMSCS10_anniversary graphic

The result is a program that is extremely low-cost, at under $7,000 for the entire degree. A program that is extremely accessible, admitting anyone qualified. A program that is extremely high in quality, taught by world-class faculty at a premier research university.

As a result, OMSCS has grown explosively. In January 2024, on its tenth anniversary, it has 13,600 students and more than 11,000 alumni. About a third of its students reside outside of the U.S., in 100 countries around the world.

"Looking back at ten years ago, when I created and taught one of the first four courses in the OMSCS program, I still remember how excited my colleagues and I were about offering our courses in this new program," said Alex Orso, interim dean of Computing. "It's been a tremendous privilege to be able to contribute to a program that touched so many lives and redefined what's possible in online learning."

However, the impact of OMSCS goes far beyond enrolled students. Once an online course is produced, its materials – including instructions, assessment, and automated evaluation – can be shared for others to use. Multiple high schools around the U.S. use Georgia Tech's introductory online materials to teach their courses, for example.

OMSCS Campus Tour
David Joyner, executive director of OMSCS and Online Education for the College of Computing leads a campus tour for new OMSCS graduates and the families in 2023. Photo by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing

And OMSCS has changed the face of the Institute. The Institute has launched two other OMS degrees, one in cybersecurity and one in analytics. Tech has launched a Division of Lifetime Learning, which will add insights from OMSCS to our existing educational expertise. The result will be new technologies, policies, and practices for STEM learning from kindergarten through retirement.

"The success of OMSCS has transformed Georgia Tech, no question," said Provost Steve McLaughlin. "We now have nearly 19,000 students enrolled in three M.S. programs under the OMSCS model, and it has shown what many did not believe could happen – high quality, high student satisfaction, and no compromise in academic rigor. That's good for the students, Georgia Tech, and higher education overall – showing what really is possible."

Not too bad for a ten-year-old.

The Birth of OMSCS

The story of OMSCS began in September 2012, when Sebastian Thrun came to talk to Zvi Galil, then the Dean of Computing, about Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Thrun was a professor at Stanford and had taught the first-ever MOOC earlier that year. MOOCs were generally free and could reach massive numbers of students. However, they didn't confer course credit, and 90 percent of the students who started each MOOC never finished it.

Thrun brought Galil with a proposition: to launch a degree program with MOOC technology and to make it radically more affordable than on-campus programs.

Zvi Galil, former dean of Computing and co-founder of Georgia Tech's OMSCS program
Zvi Galil shares the OMSCS story with attendees of the inaugural OMSCS conference in 2023. Photo by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing

"We knew that someone was going to do it," Galil said. "I wanted the College of Computing to be the one. But I'm only the dean. The question was, would the faculty believe in the idea?"

After six months of study, the faculty approved the program with roughly a two-thirds majority vote. With faculty approval, Board of Regents approval, and a $2 million grant from AT&T, the program launched in January 2014 with 380 students.

OMSCS didn't make a splash in the computing education world. It was more like a tsunami. It tapped into tremendous unfilled demand for computing education. According to a Harvard study, nearly all OMSCS students would not have done a master's degree otherwise. It inspired more than 40 online M.S. programs created in its wake. Due to its explosive growth, OMSCS now produces roughly 20 percent of the computer science master's graduates in the nation.

The Community

From the beginning, the OMSCS student body saw itself as a community. They have spontaneously organized meet-ups for students in their areas. They have advised and supported each other in the online forums. And very early on, they saved their program.

OMSCS uses a lot of teaching assistants, who are vital for the success of large online classes. But by the end of its first year, OMSCS was so big that it needed more T.A.s than the campus could provide.

"We had a frantic meeting about how we could grow," said David Joyner, executive director of OMSCS and Online Education for the College of Computing. The solution was simple — and unprecedented.

In spring 2015, Joyner turned to the OMSCS student body, putting out the first call for online students to serve as teaching assistants. He got more than 65 applications for ten spots. Eventually, the College broadened the call to include OMSCS alumni as well.

"We found out they were better T.A.s for OMSCS than on-campus students because they know what it's like to learn online," Joyner said. Some of his teaching assistants have been with him for years, besides their day jobs at places like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs.

OMSCS graduates pose with Georgia Tech's Ramblin' Wreck
New OMSCS alumni pose with Georgia Tech's Ramblin' Wreck during a campus tour in 2023. Photo by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing

They're not doing it for the money. These online students and alumni keep signing up as teaching assistants because they care about the program and their fellow students.

"We have more students who want to T.A. than we have slots for them," Joyner said. "That's a good problem to have."

The Future

The College of Computing continues to expand opportunities for its online students. These days, the program has its own career services office and an annual conference for students and alumni. Some students are even working with faculty members on research projects, which Joyner hopes to expand.

Even more importantly, OMSCS has changed the way the Institute does business. The Institute has launched two additional online master's degrees, one in cybersecurity and one in analytics. The two combined now have more than 8,000 students.

The next frontier is extending online learning to other stages of students' lives. Georgia Tech has recently created a Division of Lifetime Learning, which brings together Georgia Tech Professional Education, the Center for 21st Century Universities, and the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC).

The new division integrates the Institute's K-12, university, and workforce education experts. The division seeks to find real-world solutions for education throughout a student's lifetime, building on the lessons learned in OMSCS. The ability to distribute course materials can make a difference for schoolkids around the globe, for example. Flexible and asynchronous courses are perfect for workers who need to upskill. Soon, the Institute plans to upgrade the division to a college.

"Georgia Tech has been bold in its commitment to educational innovation, but there is still much work to be done to ensure that quality education is accessible, affordable, and applicable to the needs of the future," said Nelson Baker, dean of Lifetime Learning. "We intend to create a learning environment that will develop leaders in learning, research, and educational delivery for the digital world and to serve individuals throughout their lifetime."

The Impact

In November 2023, a headline in Forbes called OMSCS "The Greatest Degree Program Ever."

"Georgia Tech's example can and should be followed by other universities," Brandon Busteed, the article's author, wrote. "In a day and age when student loan debt has reached $1.77 trillion, and the total cost of attending elite universities has reached $90,000 per year, this is a truly remarkable and desperately needed bucking of the norm."

David Joyner sees a bigger picture.

OMSCS Conference
The second annual OMSCS conference is scheduled for April. Photo by Kevin Beasley/College of Computing

"We bring together students from around the world, from different industries and companies," he said. "They're not just getting a degree; they're exchanging ideas in a way that improves the culture of computing."

Charles Isbell, provost of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, former dean of Computing at Georgia Tech, and one of the program's founders, spoke of its potential to bring computing education to those who might not otherwise have access.

"The world does not have enough professors to meet the need," he said. "It doesn't have enough campuses, frankly. But online education opens doors for students and teachers around the world to access the educational tools they need."

Galil puts it more simply. "It is the best thing I have ever done," he said. He is giving his 107th talk about OMSCS this month at Carnegie Mellon University, continuing to advocate for online education.

Ángel Cabrera, the president of Georgia Tech, said that OMSCS was the kind of program that made him proud to be an alumnus.

"I have been a big fan of OMSCS since it launched. At the time, I was serving on President Peterson's advisory board, and I was amazed by the audacity and ingenuity of my alma mater in creating a program that was a true game changer," Cabrera said.

"I saw it then, and I see it now, as the embodiment of Georgia Tech's motto of Progress and Service: an innovative program that expands access to a first-rate education to people who would otherwise not be able to enjoy it. Since I returned to Tech as president, I have come to appreciate also just how much our online alumni have enriched our community with their diversity of backgrounds and experience and their dedication to the Institute."