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US varsity tests waters with cheaper online Master’s

world Updated: Aug 19, 2013 23:26 IST
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In January, the Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a master’s degree in computer science through massive open online courses for a fraction of the on-campus cost, a first for an elite institution. If it even approaches its goal of drawing thousands of students, it could signal a change to the landscape of higher education.

From their start two years ago, when a free artificial intelligence course from Stanford enrolled 170,000 students, free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have drawn millions and yielded results like the perfect scores of Battushig, a 15-year-old Mongolian boy, in a tough electronics course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But free MOOCs have not yet produced profound change, partly because they offer no credit and do not lead to a degree. The disruption may be approaching, though, as Georgia Tech, which has one of the country’s top computer science programs, plans to offer a MOOC-based online master’s degree in computer science for $6,600 - far less than the $45,000 on-campus price.

Zvi Galil, dean of the university’s College of Computing, expects that in the coming years, the program could attract up to 10,000 students annually, many from outside the United States and some who would not complete the full master’s degree. “Online, there’s no visa problem,” he said.

The program rests on an unusual partnership forged by Galil and Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity, a Silicon Valley MOOC provider.

Although it is just one degree at one university, the prospect of a prestigious low-cost degree program has generated great interest. Some educators think the leap from individual noncredit courses to full degree programs could signal the next phase in the evolution of MOOCs - and bring real change to higher education.

“Perhaps Zvi Galil and Sebastian Thrun will prove to be the Wright brothers of MOOCs,” said S. James Gates Jr., a University of Maryland physicist who serves on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “This is the first deliberate and thoughtful attempt to apply education technology to bringing instruction to scale. It could be epoch-making. If it really works, it could begin the process of lowering the cost of education, and lowering barriers for millions of Americans.”

The courses will be online and free for those not seeking a degree; those in the degree program will take proctored exams and have access to tutoring, online office hours and other support services. Students who cannot meet the program’s stringent admission standards may be admitted provisionally and allowed to transfer in if they do well in their first two courses. And students who complete only a few courses would get a certificate.

“This is all uncharted territory, so no one really knows if it will go to scale,” Galil said. “We just want to prove that it can be done, to make a high-quality degree program available for a low cost.” NYT