Georgia Tech’s online MS in Computer Science continues to thrive. Why this is important for the future of MOOCs


What may be the most successful graduate program in the United States – the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) – has started its eighth year of operation.

The program began in January 2014 with an inaugural class of 380 students and five courses. Since then, it has grown steadily every year and now has over 11,000 students enrolled in over 50 courses. making it the largest computer science master’s program in the country – and arguably the world. Its total number of graduates now exceeds 5,000.

One of the remarkable features of the OMSCS is that it has shown how successful MOOCs – open and massive online courses that are generally thought to have broken their original promises – can be. Although something resembling MOOCs existed before, it is generally believed that the MOOC movement started 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 160,000 students.

It was quickly followed by two more MOOCs, developed by Andrew Ng and Jennifer Widom. Thrun quickly launched Udacity, and Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng launched Coursera.

Initially, MOOCs were seen as a teaching method that would revolutionize and democratize higher education, but they have been plagued by several problems, including high rates of student attrition. As a result, doubts about their future have persisted, 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 that of this week between 2U and edX point to strong online potential.

Georgia Tech’s OMSCS has successfully overcome these issues, illustrating how a combination of quality faculty, high academic expectations, modest cost, and strong student support services can ensure successful teaching. higher based on MOOCs.

The development of the program is a story in itself. This is the result of a discussion between Dr. Zvi Galil, who was John P. Imlay, Jr., Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech from 2010 to 2019, and Sebastian Thrun. With support of $ 2 million from ATT, Galil began the online Master of Science in Computer Science and supervised it for its first five years, making it what is widely considered to be the first affordable Master of Science fully in line in the United States. Galil’s very engaging description of the program in his own words here.

Born in Tel Aviv, Galil received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in applied mathematics from Tel Aviv University before earning a doctorate. in computer science from Cornell University in 1975. A world-renowned expert in theoretical computer science, he has particular expertise in string algorithms and graph algorithms. He coined the widely used terms, stringology and sparsification.

Prior to joining Georgia Tech, Galil served as chair of the computer science department at both Tel Aviv University and Columbia University. For over a decade, he was Dean of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia (1995 – 2007).

In 2007, he was appointed President of Tel Aviv University, a position he held until his resignation in 2009. Member of the National Academy of Engineering and Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Galil was recently named one of Academic Influence’s 10 Most Influential Computer Scientists of the Last Decade.

One would assume that with this distinguished career, Galil would view the development of an online master’s program as a bit of a disappointment. On the contrary, he thinks that the OMSCS is the “greatest thing I have done in my life”, pointing out that the OMSCS operates on a model that challenges the dominant brand of most elite universities, who are proud of their selectivity and exclusivity.

OMSCS accepts all applicants who meet the basic qualifications of the program. So far it is accepted 74% of those who have applied. In contrast, the program acceptance rate on the Georgia Tech campus is approximately 10%. Students from 50 states and 124 countries have enrolled in the program, which has received rave reviews from its alumni.

Affordability is the key to the popularity of the program. OMSCS is the most affordable degree of its kind. Tuition is just over $ 7,000 for the entire program, or about 10% of the cost of the average on-campus master’s degree in computer science at private universities. As Galil says: “Our motto is accessibility through affordability and technology. We make a master’s degree in computer science available to thousands of students. ”

Other major universities have followed the OMSCS lead, and there are now around 40 MOOC-based online graduate programs offered by around 30 US universities. But the question remains – particularly in the wake of the pandemic’s pivotal online education – whether MOOCs can actually serve a larger undergraduate market, especially given the mixed reception it has received. they received students and teachers last year.

In an interview this week, I asked Dr. Galil, recently appointed by the the Wall Street newspaper as “the man who made the online university work.” if he believed that MOOCs could be tailored to provide affordable, high-quality undergraduate education. He told me that he was convinced that not only was it possible, but that it could make a great education available to many more students.

This 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 Computer Science course to students on campus. Since then, more than half of the 300+ students taking the course have enrolled in the online section. Student performance in the online and classroom sections was comparable; in some cases the online section scored slightly higher. In 2019, George Tech opened two more introductory computer science online courses for students on campus.

Galil’s vision is that adding more online course options can help students earn a degree more cheaply. Prospective students can take introductory online classes during or immediately after high school. Enrolled students can take online courses on campus or during summer vacation, or during internships or co-ops. Students in the upper division can complete their degrees by taking online courses while already working. “And all of this can be done at a lower tuition rate, which lowers the overall cost of college,” he said.

Galil advocates “a pivot to an integrative undergraduate program – partly on campus, partly online” which he says can be comparable in terms of academic quality and learning outcomes to courses on campus.

The key ingredients for students to embrace this backbone are “quality, quality, quality,” according to Galil. It takes time for faculty to develop high-quality, engaging online courses, and time was a resource that universities did not have during the almost overnight forced conversion to online education.

As a result, the use of enlarged classrooms has resulted in decreased student engagement, putting the wrong kind of “distance” into distance education. But Galil believes that well-designed online courses can really promote student engagement, especially when accompanied – as they have been at Georgia Tech – by the germination of student groups who affiliate through social media.

Galil remains optimistic about the future of MOOCs and their potential for undergraduate education. “They will provide access to high quality education to a larger student body unserved by the current system of exclusion and escalating tuition fees. The idea and role of higher education institutions is to contribute to society through education. As technology provides the means to make higher education accessible to more people, our colleges and universities can fulfill their mission.


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