Udacity to offer Master’s degree in Computer Science

May 15, 2013, 6:53 am

Sebastian Thrun presentation.Sebastian Thrun of Udacity today announced that Udacity, Georgia Tech, and AT&T are teaming up to offer an online Master’s degree in Computer Science. Here is Thrun’s official announcement. The details are slim at this point but Thrun states that the course materials will be entirely free, that there will be a tuition charge if you want to have the actual credit-bearing Master’s degree certification, and non-credit certificates will be offered at “a much reduced price point”.

Without details, there’s not much to say at this point about all this, other than this is clearly a major advance in the reach of massively open online courses. Udacity was the first to partner with brick-and-mortar universities to offer academic credit for MOOCs, and just as others are beginning to follow suit, they have made the leap into graduate education.

What this means for traditional brick-and-mortar instutitions, especially those who offer Master’s degrees in CS, is also uncertain. Will there be some sort of thesis or original-project requirement for the Udacity/GT/AT&T degree? What will be the qualitative differences in the courses already offered through Udacity and those being offered in the MS program? Will employers really take such a degree seriously, despite the imprimatur of Georgia Tech and AT&T on the degree? This is all uncharted territory. Which makes it exciting, and as someone who has had good experiences with Udacity in the past and who has thought for a long time about pursuing an Master’s in CS — but can’t afford a traditional Master’s degree program either in monetary or logistic terms — I’ll definitely be following the developments with interest.

Despite my interest, the way Thrun has framed his announcement raises concerns. Thrun states at the beginning:

If, as a young student, I had the chance to learn from the best professors in the world, my life might have been different. I have been fortunate. Yet so many potential learners are still denied access. Education has become much more exclusive, and getting into a top–10 computer science department, like Georgia Tech’s, is still out of reach for all but a chosen few.

I think here in a nutshell is why so many educators are ambivalent about MOOCs. The way Thrun puts it here, getting a good education seems to mean sitting at the feet of “the best professors in the world”, by whom he means professors in “top–10” programs — a designation largely determined by reputation, which is in turn driven by prestige and research output. That the quality of one’s education is determined in this way is highly debatable, first and foremost because the emphasis in this formulation of education is on the professor, not on the student. This is where a lot of things in education — online and otherwise — start to go wrong.

Most of us in education also realize the fact that a good education consists not in being around smart people but in doing interesting and useful things. And in that sense a “top–10” university actually might be a terrible place to get a good education. Much better would be a CS department where professors know and interact with their students and where the curriculum is structured to provide lots of hands-on work to give students transferable, useful experiences both on the theory side of CS and on the application side. Thrun writes that the tuition cost for the credit-bearing version of the Master’s degree will be for “support services”. At my university that’s called “teaching”.

Also disappointing is Thrun’s use of the old saw about “access”. People are being “denied access” to a good education, by which he means that lots of people can’t afford to go to top–10 institutions. But this is like saying that I am being denied access to good food because I can’t afford to go to a five-star restaurant. Access to good education is as plentiful and affordable as it has ever been. It just may not come with a hugely recognizable label.

We are living in interesting times here in higher education.

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