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Georgia Tech’s MOOC 2.0?

Georgia Tech’s College ready to roll out online master’s program
University Business, December 2013

It won’t quite be describable as a MOOC at first. But that’s one direction that Georgia Tech’s College of Computing can imagine going with its soon-to-be-rolled-out online master’s program, which will start as a pilot in January.

The program has received national attention in part because of a $2 million investment from AT&T—and because Georgia Tech is charging only $6,600 in tuition, compared to $45,000 that traditional master’s students from out-of-state would pay.

Dean Zvi Kalil expects to start with 100 to 200 students per class, and then gradually grow the program. Beyond that, it could become “unbounded,” he says. Master’s students would remain the primary audience, but students who wish to take a small number of courses to receive a certificate could also be included. Still others could audit the course.

Those not officially enrolled in the program would not receive the full service that paying students would. “We describe what we [would] do as MOOC 2.0—MOOC plus human infrastructure,” he says, referring to teaching assistants who help students. “We have the human infrastructure to help retain them. If somebody bumps into a wall, we help them overcome it.”

The eventual costs of the program “are at most a guesswork,” Kalil says, although he believes $300,000 to $400,000 would be realistic. In addition to scaling up teaching assistants to accommodate the numbers of students, he says professors should be paid for their extra efforts. He offers professors $20,000 to prepare a course, $10,000 to teach it, and $2,500 in a royalty-like fee each time the same course materials are used in future online courses.

“Everybody is watching,” he adds. “Not everybody wants us to succeed. Some people see us as a threat.”

Senior Associate Dean Charles Isbell believes the ROI will be solid because courses can be reused from one semester to the next. The incremental costs of adding students are relatively small. Plus, the college can simply make sure tuition is high enough, even at a reduced rate from the on-campus program, to cover those costs. And the cost doesn’t scale up for everything.

For example, 200 students probably won’t ask many more unique questions than the first 100, he says. “They all have the same questions.”

Georgia Tech can’t currently accept as many computer science students on campus as it would like because it simply doesn’t have the physical space, Isbell says. With 1,300 applications per year, only about 10 percent are accepted, while at least half of applicants could qualify. “With this kind of program, we can accept all of them,” he says. “Furthermore, there’s a whole set of people who don’t apply.”

Isbell describes that group as full-time employees who would like to pursue a master’s degree as a credential.

“But you can’t because you’re married, you have two kids and a mortgage, and two car payments,” he says. “Plus, you can’t move from California to Atlanta for 18 months.” What students can do is take a single course at a time, while working, at an affordable price, he adds.