What may be the most successful online graduate degree program in the United States – the Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) – has begun its eighth year of operation.
The program started in January 2014 with an inaugural class of 380 students and five courses. It’s enjoyed steady growth every year since, and now has more than 11,000 students enrolled in more than 50 courses. making it the largest computing master’s program in the nation – and probably the world. Its total number of graduates now tops 5,000.
One of the noteworthy features of the OMSCS is that it’s shown how successful MOOCs – the massive open online courses generally believed to have not lived up to their initial hype and promise – can be. Although something resembling MOOCs existed earlier, the MOOC movement is typically thought to have begun in 2011 when Stanford University launched three such courses, the first of which was Introduction To AI, by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, a course that attracted an enrollment of 160,000 students.
Initially, MOOCs were regarded as an instructional method that would revolutionize and democratize higher education, but they’ve been plagued by several problems, most notably high rates of student attrition. As a result, doubts about their future have lingered, even as major platforms such as Coursera and Udacity continue to evolve their business models, enabled in part by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and major mergers like the one this week between 2U and edX point to a robust online potential.
Georgia Tech’s OMSCS has managed to overcome those problems, serving as an example of how a combination of faculty quality, high academic expectations, a modest price tag, and strong student support services can make MOOC-based higher education successful.
The development of the program is a story in itself. It’s the result of a discussion between Dr. Zvi Galil, who served as the John P. Imlay, Jr., Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech from 2010 through 2019 and Sebastian Thrun. With $2 million in support from ATT, Galil began the Online Master of Science in Computer Science and oversaw it for its first five years, making it into what is generally regarded as the first affordable fully online Master’s degree in the U.S. You can hear Dr. Galil’s highly engaging description of the program in his own words here.
Born in Tel Aviv, Galil earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in applied mathematics from Tel Aviv University before being awarded a PhD. in computer science by Cornell University in 1975. A world-recognized expert in theoretical computer science, he has particular expertise in string algorithms and graph algorithms. He coined the broadly used terms, stringology and sparsification.
Prior to coming to Georgia Tech, Galil served as chair of the computer science department at both Tel Aviv University and Columbia University. For more than a decade he was dean of Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (1995 – 2007).
In 2007, he was named president of Tel Aviv University, a position he held until his resignation in 2009. A member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Galil was recently named one of the 10 most influential computer scientists in the last decade by Academic Influence.
One might assume that with that distinguished career Galil would regard the development of an online master’s program to be a bit anticlimactic. To the contrary, he believes OMSCS is the “biggest thing I’ve done in my life,” pointing to the fact that OMSCS runs on a model that challenges the prevailing brand of most elite universities, who take pride in their selectivity and exclusiveness.
OMSCS accepts all applicants who meet the program’s basic qualifications. So far, it’s accepted 74% of those who’ve applied. By contrast, the acceptance rate for Georgia Tech’s on-campus program is about 10%. Students from all 50 states and 124 countries have enrolled in the program, which earns rave reviews from its alumni.
Affordability is key to the program’s popularity. OMSCS is the most affordable degree of its kind. Tuition runs just a bit over $7,000 for the entire program, about 10% of the cost of the average on-campus MS in computer science at private universities. As Galil says, “Our motto is accessibility through affordability and technology—we are making a Master’s degree in computer science available to thousands of students.”
Other major universities have followed the OMSCS lead, and now there are about 40 MOOC-based online graduate programs offered by about 30 U.S. universities. But the question remains – particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic-driven pivot to online instruction – whether MOOCs can effectively serve a larger undergraduate market, particularly given the lukewarm reception online learning received from students and faculty this past year.
In an interview this week, I asked Dr. Galil, recently named by the Wall Street Journal as “the man who made online college work.” whether he believed MOOCs could be scaled to deliver an affordable, high-quality undergraduate education. He told me he was convinced that not only was it possible, but that it could bring an excellent education into reach for far more students.
That optimism is based, in part, on Georgia Tech’s successful expansion of MOOCs to its own undergraduates. In 2017, the College of Computing offered an online section of its introductory computing course to on-campus students. Over half of the 300+ students taking the course have enrolled in the online section ever since. Student performance in the online and the in-class sections has been comparable; in some cases, the online section has scored slightly higher. In 2019, George Tech opened up two more introductory computing online courses to on-campus students.
Galil’s vision is that adding more online course options can help students earn a degree at a lower cost. Prospective students can take introductory courses online during or immediately after high school. Enrolled students can take online courses on campus or while on summer breaks, or during internships or co-ops. Upper-division students can complete their degrees by taking online courses while already working. “And all of this can be done at a lesser tuition rate, reducing the overall cost of college,” he said.
Galil advocates for “a pivot towards an integrative undergraduate curriculum – part on-campus, part online” that he believes can be comparable in academic quality and learning outcomes to on-campus classes.
The key ingredients to students embracing that pivot are “quality, quality, quality,” according to Galil. It takes time for faculty to develop high-quality, engaging online courses, and time was one resource that universities did not have during the almost-overnight, pandemic-forced conversion to online instruction.
As a result, reliance on zoomed classes resulted in a drop in student engagement, putting the wrong kind of “distance” in distance education. But Galil believes well-conceived online courses can actually promote student engagement, particularly when accompanied – as they have been at Georgia Tech – with the sprouting of student groups who affiliate through social media.
Galil remains bullish on the future of MOOCs and their potential for undergraduate education. “They will provide access to high quality education to a wider student population, unserved by the current system of exclusion and escalating tuition. The idea and role of higher education institutes is to contribute to society through education. As technology provides the means to place higher education within reach of a greater number of people, our colleges and universities can fulfill their mission.”