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An Online Education Breakthrough? A Master’s Degree for a Mere $7,000


Charles Isbell at Georgia Tech in Atlanta this week. A senior associate dean at the College of Computing, he helped lead the university’s online education effort. CreditJessica McGowan for The New York Times

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The master’s degree business is booming. College graduates looking for a leg up in the job market are flocking to one- and two-year programs that promise entry to lucrative careers. Top colleges are more than willing to provide them — for a price. Tuition for a 30-credit master’s in computer science from the University of Southern California runs $57,000. Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon charge over $43,000 for the same degree.

But one highly ranked program, at Georgia Tech, has taken a very different approach. Its master’s in computer science costs less than one-eighth as much as its most expensive rival — if you learn online. And a new study by Harvard economists found that in creating the program, Georgia Tech may have discovered a whole new market for higher education, one that could change the way we think about the problem of college costs.

Georgia Tech rolled out its online master’s in computer science in 2014. It already had a highly selective residential master’s program that cost about the same as those of competitor colleges. Some may see online learning as experimental or inferior, something associated with downmarket for-profit colleges. But the nation’s best universities have fully embraced it. Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, U.S.C. and others have also developed online master’s degrees, for which they charge the same tuition as their residential programs.

Georgia Tech decided to do something different. It charges online students the smallest amount necessary to cover its costs. That turned out to be $510 for a three-credit class. U.S.C. charges online students $5,535 for a three-credit class. (Both programs also charge small per-semester fees.)

With one of the top 10 computer science departments in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report, Georgia Tech had a reputation to uphold. So it made the online program as much like the residential program as possible.

Charles Isbell, a senior associate dean at the College of Computing, helped lead the effort. Mr. Isbell has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and machine learning from M.I.T., and he teaches those subjects at Georgia Tech. He translated his lectures into well-produced online videos while administering the same homework assignments, midterms and final exams. Tests are proctored by a company that locks down a student’s computer remotely and uses its camera to check for cheating.

Would be wonderful if actually true. 

Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS)

The Georgia Institute of Technology, Udacity and AT&T have teamed up to offer the first accredited Master of Science in Computer Science that students can earn exclusively through the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery format and for a fraction of the cost of traditional, on-campus programs.

This collaboration—informally dubbed "OMS CS" to account for the new delivery method—brings together leaders in education, MOOCs and industry to apply the disruptive power of massively open online teaching to widen the pipeline of high-quality, educated talent needed in computer science fields.

If only I believed an online masters were useful for getting a job. 

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