Georgia Tech Teams Up With Udacity, AT&T To Offer $6K Master’s Degree In Computer Science, Entirely Online

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If there was any question as to Sebastian Thrun and Udacity’s resolve to re-imagine higher education in a more affordable, accessible virtual classroom — or their ability to actually make any real headway among the Ivory Towers of academia — we should probably just go ahead and put that to bed. This morning, Udacity continues to push forward with its plans to bring higher education online — and not just in bits, pieces and homework assignments.

Following 2U’s lead, Udacity has partnered with its first graduate program to apply the MOOC model not just to individual courses, but to an entire master’s degree program.

Granted, 2U has been doing this for several years with graduate programs in nursing, education, law, business and international service. However, Udacity’s partnership is significant because it’s the first to take MOOCs not just to graduate programs, but to computer science.

In what is no doubt an important symbolic moment for STEM education — which has seen a growing number of advocates over the last few years thanks to poor performance in the U.S. and the perception that the country is falling behind on creating the “next-generation” workforce — Udacity announced today that it has partnered with Georgia Tech to jointly offer an accredited master’s degree in computer science — completely online. Not only that, but thanks to support from AT&T, the program will be offered for less than $7,000. So, really, this is not just an important moment for STEM, but for MOOCs and online education as a whole.

The other point of note here is that Georgia Tech ain’t no safety school. According to U.S. News’ rankings of the best engineering schools in the U.S., Georgia Tech is tied for fifth place with Carnegie Mellon. So, it looks like Coursera and EdX aren’t the only ones providing online educational experiences with content from elite universities.

Furthermore, tuition (full-time, out of state) for Georgia Tech is $26,860 — which makes Udacity’s online degree look more than a little appealing in comparison. However, while anyone will be able to sign up and take Udacity’s Computer Science courses for free, only those actually enrolled at Georgia Tech will be able to earn credits towards a degree. The companies plan to launch a pilot of the program in the fall of 2014, beginning with a couple hundred students.

As for AT&T, it’s not exactly crystal clear what the company’s role in the partnership is, other than providing what the announcement calls “generous” support. Naturally, of course, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson thinks the partnership has transformative potential. He said:

We believe that high-quality and 100 percent online degrees can be on par with degrees received in traditional on-campus settings, and that this program could be a blueprint for helping the United States address the shortage of people with STEM degrees, as well as exponentially expand access to computer science education for students around the world.

Again, while the idea itself isn’t new, and Udacity isn’t the first to partner with an elite graduate program to provide quality education and an actual, graduate-level degree to students online, the quality of the academic program (and presumably its content), its focus on Computer Science, combined with its relative affordability and the ability to receive credit and complete a full, graduate-level degree online, is absolutely huge. Sure, the launch is still quite a ways off, which is at once makes the announcement perhaps a little bit premature, but is also evidence that they’re taking the development of this program seriously. No status quo.

Screen shot 2013-05-15 at 8.59.02 AMThis is also refreshing news, because, over the last year, there’s been a huge amount of buzz around massive open online course (MOOC) platforms, particularly around Udacity, Coursera, EdX and 2U, among a few others. With how much play MOOCs have gotten in education and in the media, it’s as if MOOCs are expected to employ some kind of techno-voodoo magic to totally “save” higher education from collapsing under its own weight.

Of course, since online courses are far from being new, some questioned just how innovative, effective (and collaborative) MOOC platforms actually are at the end of the day. And for good reason. Porting a lecture hall to YouTube or putting your professor in a Google Hangout probably won’t end higher education. At least, not on its own.

Is accessibility important? Yes, of course. But even in the traditionally offline world of higher education, “scalable” and “cloud” can only act as stand-ins for real “innovation” for so long before schools will want to see more. There still needs to be substantial proof that MOOC platforms offer a better learning experience (improve outcomes and retention rates), before higher ed simply turns over the keys to the kingdom.

Reservations aside, what Thrun and Udacity have done in a relatively short amount of time is impressive and everyone — not just teachers — should be keeping tabs. In January, Udacity already played a part in a potentially key symbolic moment for higher ed, as California Governor Jerry Brown approved a partnership with San Jose State University to create Udacity-powered, low-cost and lower-division online classes.

This was significant because it was really the first time a MOOC platform has been tapped to build a complete, automated (remedial) class experience online — let alone state-wide at the largest university system in the world.

As of April, the pilot had seen 85 percent retention going into midterms. At time time, EdSurge noted that it’s not the 100 percent retention rate Thrun has boasted about previously, but it’s not a bad start.

In the big picture, it may not seem important, but retention rates are critical for online courses and course platforms. If entire remedial classes are being automated/flipped, they need to be more effective than their offline counterparts. (Un)fortunately, our current education system has set the bar pretty low on this one, which will hopefully make it easy to leap over it.

But, on the other hand, universities have limited resources, and class sizes continue to grow as more and more people go (or return) to universities, community colleges and continuing education programs. Online platforms take the scale issue out of the equation, but droves of students now matriculate with little to no grasp of fundamental concepts, San Jose State Provost and Vice President Ellen Junn told TechCrunch in January.

If technology and online education are going to truly transform education, maintaining the status quo isn’t acceptable, especially if these automated courses replace or curb the need for real, live human teachers. So, not to be party pooper or anything, but while this program has significant implications, it’s still all about quality content/presentation, improving retention, outcomes and ye olde learning experience. Without that, scale and affordability don’t mean quite as much.

Find Georgia Tech’s announcement here and Sebastian’s blog post here.

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