In an unprecedented arrangement that involves aspects of MOOCs and a major technology company's support, the Georgia Institute of Technology will soon begin offering an online master's degree in computer science at an unusually low cost.
Georgia Tech announced on Tuesday that it would work with Udacity, a company that runs massive open online courses by well-known professors, to offer a series of online courses that students could complete to earn a graduate degree from the university.
AT&T is donating $2-million to help get the program started, and the company will play an active role in some courses, if professors agree—offering guest speakers or suggesting class projects.
Courses in the program will be free through Udacity's site, made up of video lectures and computer-graded homework assignments. Students who want the possibility of credit or a degree will have to apply for admission to the university and pay tuition, and those students will get access to teaching assistants and, in some cases, have their assignments graded by people.
The fees put a top-ranked computer-science program at a price point more comparable to a typical community college—about $134 per credit, compared with the normal rates at Georgia Tech of $472 per credit for in-state students and $1,139 per credit for out-of-state students, said Rafael L. Bras, the university's provost. The program is expected to take most students three years to complete, and cost less than $7,000.
The university and Udacity will split the revenue from the paying students, with 60 percent going to Georgia Tech and 40 percent to Udacity, said Mr. Bras. "Udacity and Georgia Tech split the net income of this and, obviously, the net losses, if we have any—which we hope we don't," he said.
A partnership between San Jose State University and another MOOC provider, edX, has sparked complaints from professors there, who worry that the university is headed down a path that could lead to fewer faculty members and lower-quality education.
Georgia Tech believes its project is different. "San Jose State is a different situation, and I'm not going to comment on it," said Mr. Bras. "We're talking about a professional master's degree."
He argued that technology can help reduce the cost of instruction without reducing quality. "This is not going to be a watered-down degree," he said. "It's going to be as hard and at a level of excellence of a regular degree."
Students on the degree track will have to take tests in person at one of 4,000 proctored testing centers run by Pearson VUE, but most of the students probably will never travel to the campus itself.
Georgia Tech officials are betting that there are plenty of students willing to pay to get a computer-science degree from the well-known research institution. By the end of the three-year pilot, officials hope to have thousands of students enrolled.
A New Approach
Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said that while other colleges offer online computer-science degrees, the program at Georgia Tech is unique in that it is trying to reduce costs by adapting teaching for an online setting rather than simply transferring traditional methods online.
"The toughest part typically is overcoming some of the politics around that," said Mr. Poulin, whose organization promotes online education as part of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
Officials at Georgia Tech say they have won all the necessary signoffs. "This program has been approved at every relevant level of the University System of Georgia, up to and including the Board of Regents," says a fact sheet about the project.
Mr. Poulin said that the involvement of AT&T could raise concerns, though.
"They'll need to be open in how much influence AT&T has in the curriculum and faculty, and what is taught—and in how much dependence does Georgia Tech have on that," said Mr. Poulin. "That would be the concern as far as keeping the academic integrity of the program so it doesn't just become a training program for AT&T."
But Mr. Bras, the provost, dismissed such worries. "I don't have any concerns of that," he said. The program will use the university's existing curriculum, he said, and AT&T employees will get no special consideration in the admissions process.
AT&T says one of its goals is to preserve a pipeline of qualified applicants. The company is also signaling its willingness to take seriously those who study online.
"These students will never have to set foot in a classroom to earn degrees on par with those received in traditional on-campus settings—degrees that will be equally valued by their future employers," wrote Scott S. Smith, senior vice president for human resources at AT&T, in a blog post. "By harnessing the power of MOOCs, we can embark on a new era for higher education and for the development of a highly skilled work force."
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the project is how quickly it all came together. That troubled Mr. Poulin, who said that many recent online-education efforts have learned things by trial and error that they could have guessed by reading previous research reports.
"If you run headlong into the forest," he said, "you're probably going to run into a few trees, rather than stopping along the side and saying, Oh, there's a map here; we could probably go through the forest without hitting trees."