Aug 2, 2013 at 12:00am ET By

Imagine obtaining a Master's degree in computer science for $6,600. The Georgia Institute of Technology College of Computing has collaborated with AT&T and Udacity Inc. to offer the first professional online Master of Science degree in computer science (OMS CS). The same degree costs $45,000 for out-of-state students and $21,000 for Georgia residents when offered in their traditional on-campus setting. With the majority of Georgia Tech's students coming from out-of-state, the online program makes obtaining a Master's degree in computer science convenient and affordable. It also has other universities taking notice as it offers solutions to two major problems with higher education: access and affordability.


Access and Affordability

Georgia Tech has offered online learning for 30 years and now with its massive open online courses (MOOC) is a leader on a national level of offering affordable, quality, university level education. MOOC is not new. Even Harvard offers courses online and for free. Obtaining online degrees is not new. Many universities offer online degrees, but at the same high price as courses taught on-campus. Offering MOOC leading to a degree with the same prestige as one earned on campus at an affordable price is what is groundbreaking. This degree is not being offered by some shady or shoddy organization that barely qualifies to call itself an institute of higher learning. This is Georgia Tech, ranked 7th for best classroom experience according to the Princeton Review, and 10th for best Master's in computer science program according to U.S. News and World Reports. Georgia Tech's competitors may find themselves struggling to keep up and more importantly, to justify the increasing prices they charge for tuition.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have quickly become one of the most significant catalysts of innovation in higher education. As parents know all too well, America urgently needs new ideas about how to make higher education accessible and affordable. This new collaboration between Georgia Tech, AT&T, and Udacity, and the application of the MOOC concept to advanced-degree programs, will further the national debate—pushing from conversations about technology to new models of instruction and new linkages between higher education and employers.”


Trained Graduates All Over the World

AT&T decided to lend support ($2 million) to the program because creating an affordable online computer science degree will help the United States' shortage of qualified workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Zvi Galil, John P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech explains, "The OMS CS will set a new agenda for higher education—real, rigorous, and marketable graduate education in computer science will now be available to tens, even hundreds of thousands of additional students around the world. Computing is the catalytic field of the 21st century. Now we could potentially double the number of trained computing professionals worldwide in as little as a decade.”

Georgia Tech will begin with a pilot program, made possible by AT&T's generous gift, in the fall of 2014. They will test the program with a few hundred students taken largely from AT&T's employees and corporate affiliates of Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech expects enrollment to gradually expand over three years. The program will ultimately include students from around the world. The pilot program will allow the inevitable kinks to be worked out of the system - hardware, staffing, and policies. Issues likely to need addressing are ones such as how to handle cheating, how to staff teaching assistants, and how to handle increased bandwidth demand.

Slate.com reports that "currently, Georgia Tech receives about 1,400 applications for its computer science Master’s program and accepts less than 15 percent. Galil insists that more than half of the applicants, however, could actually handle the work. He says there is no reason why the online program, by its third year, shouldn’t be able to admit all the applicants who meet the minimum standards. Many applicants are from overseas. With the new MOOC-style program, hurdles such as obtaining student visas melt away."


Game Change

If Georgia Tech's pilot program goes well, it has the potential to be a game changer. There has always been the feeling that online learning is somehow inferior to learning obtained in a traditional classroom setting. A similar issue exists in discussions about allowing employees to telecommute. Can employers get what they need from employees who work from home? Turns out they can and in many cases employers get more and better work from telecommuters than they do from their in-office counterparts. The expectation and hope is that similar positive experiences will be reported out of Georgia Tech's online Master's program and that it can remove the stigma associated with online learning.

With students literally marching on campuses against rising tuition costs and with demand for high tech skills increasing, Georgia Tech's offering comes at a critical time. If successful, Georgia Tech's online degree program could be the blueprint other universities use to offer affordable, accessible education to students and older adults all over the world.

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