I recently complained that the MOOC party animals (aka: Udacity, Coursera and Udemy) would not be the ones to help drive down the cost of a college degree. Turns out I was wrong about that. Maybe. Georgia Tech, in partnership with Udacity, wants to offer a massive open online course-based online computer science master’s to 10,000 tech students. AT&T is underwriting the massive online degree experiment in hopes of finding more affordable ways to increase the national brain pool of computer scientists. Estimated price of the massive online computer science degree: $7,000.
There is no national shortage of online master's in computer science and IT degrees. I track 121 of them, to be exact. Turns out $7,000 is dirt cheap for an online master’s in computer science. My survey of 72 regionally accredited universities that offer 142 online master's in IT and CS reveals only a couple of graduate schools offer a better deal for an online computer science master’s than the Georgia Tech MOOC option. East Carolina University offers residents of North Carolina a master of science in technology systems/computer networking management for just over $5,000. (Others get billed $20,790.) The Dakota State university system, Minot State University, offers a deal at around $9,000 for its online master of science in information systems. Georgia State universities are generally low in cost when compared to all online options. Columbus State University offers a master of science in applied computer science/information assurance for about $7,956. Georgia Southern University has a fully developed online master of science in computer science for $12,350, open to distance learning students nationwide. So, yes, $7,000 puts the Georgia Tech online degree on my personal list of online learning steals and deals.
Most MOOCS are not courses. Most are loose collections of learning resources. They lack the instructional design, authentication procedures and assessment tools that most agree form the credible bedrock of a “college course.” As any instructional designer will tell you, it is a rut-filled ride from a MOOC, which is a collection of learning resources—readings, videos, hangouts and optional assignments—to the creation of a full-blown college course. I agree with Laura Gibbs at the University of Oklahoma, who has been digitally dedicated to teaching online these last 10 years: “A MOOC does not deliver teaching; it delivers online content (some static, some more dynamic, like videos with embedded quizzes) and asks the students to teach themselves.” MOOCs could be turned into college courses. But right now they are more an educational free-for-all encompassing whatever one curious soul decides to link up online. (See Debbie Morrison's “How Not to Design a MOOC” for some insights on the chaotic instructional state of many MOOCS.) You can’t throw a bunch of learning resources online and call it a degree program. If so, then an encyclopedia posted online might rightly be called a doctorate degree. A lot needs to happen to turn digital packets of informational resources into knowledge, and then to verify and transcript that the mastered knowledge relates to professional competencies.
Right now the Georgia Tech MOOC degree is little more than a press release. And if there is one thing VC money is good at creating, it is bee-deafening buzz about the coming higher education revolution. Also, the $7,000 sticker price is only an estimate. I imagine that number will climb a good bit higher. Maybe $10,000-$15,000. (Which would still be a steal as the real average cost for an online master's in CS is a hair under $25,000.)
This could be it. The GeorgiaTech, Udacity and AT&T experiment is the largest peephole yet into how for-profit institutions—Udacity and AT&T—may marry up to develop high-demand employment credentials in the STEM, healthcare and teacher education sectors. This is not, however, a higher education revolution. It’s more of the same old, same old that began two decades ago when money men began to see a mass market for lifelong learning and professional education. The great Phoenix has always marketed degrees to institutions—corporations and the military—where tuition assistance is rich and plentiful. Note that while Udacity plans to make this online degree program massive—seeking up to 10,000 students in the future—this program is reportedly only going to admit hand-picked AT&T folks while in beta. Note also that the low-cost of this MOOC degree is being underwritten by an AT&T subsidy AND our tax support to Georgia Tech. It is our tax dollars that shore up Georgia Tech, a public institution, and all its teaching efforts. The Georgia Tech MOOC degree: it could provide a prototype for low-cost mass STEM education OR it could be akin to a stage illusion, a way for Udacity—backed by millions in VC dollars—to mainline millions more from the public coffers. AT&T pays to develop the degree. Georgia contributes courses, faculty, testing and transcripting. Students pay perhaps 50 percent. Udacity, in the end, nets 40 percent. I wonder about the math of that.
As much as I grumble, I love the idea of this project. Fourteen years ago, when forecasting the future of online learning, which had yet to achieve public acceptance, I predicted a time when self-education systems like MOOCs might take degree programs to task:
Consumers think that higher education costs too much and delivers too little. On the Internet, the customer pulls the strings. Offer enough people a choice of 50 virtual MBA programs, instead of two within driving distance, and see what happens. Amazonian selection will create a commercial marketplace where one failed to exist before.
On the Net, education is a process, not a place. What is learned is more important than where it's taught. With online learning, people can get training and educate themselves, rather than waiting for faculty to write a costly, multiyear prescription.
Online learning can lead to high levels of educational access, increase educational efficacy and drastically lower college costs. If done correctly. Whether Georgia Tech and Udacity will do the dream right or slide off into educational chaos remains to be seen. The number one complaint online students have now about online degree programs is the lack of engagement they feel. That problem is not to going to get better once class sizes explode to 10,000. It is such a long, long journey from what are known as MOOCs to the credibility, engagement and credentialing that we expect from a master’s degree. Go Yellow Jackets! We are watching you.
About the Author: Vicky Phillips was cited in 2009 by US News & World Report as "for 20 years the leading consumer advocate for online college students." In 1989 she designed America's first online counseling center for distance learners on AOL. In 1998 she authored the first print guide to online graduate degrees - Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools put out by the Princeton Review. In 2001 she authored Never Too Late to Learn the Adult Student's Guide to College.