In January, the Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a master's degree in computer science through massive open online courses for a fraction of the on-campus cost, a first for an elite institution. If it even approaches its goal of drawing thousands of students, it could signal a change to the landscape of higher education.
From their start two years ago, when a free artificial intelligence course from Stanford enrolled 170,000 students, free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have drawn millions and yielded results like the perfect scores of Battushig, a 15-year-old Mongolian boy, in a tough electronics course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But free MOOCs have not yet produced profound change, partly because they offer no credit and do not lead to a degree. The disruption may be approaching, though, as Georgia Tech, which has one of the country's top computer science programs, plans to offer a MOOC-based online master's degree in computer science for $6,600 far less than the $45,000 on-campus price.
Zvi Galil, dean of the university's College of Computing, expects that in the coming years, the program could attract up to 10,000 students annually, many from outside the United States and some who would not complete the full master's degree.
"Online, there's no visa problem," he said.
The program rests on an unusual partnership forged by Galil and Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity, a Silicon Valley MOOC provider.
Although it is just one degree at one university, the prospect of a prestigious low-cost degree program has generated great interest. Some educators think the leap from individual noncredit courses to full degree programs could signal the next phase in the evolution of MOOCs and bring real change to higher education.
"Perhaps Zvi Galil and Sebastian Thrun will prove to be the Wright brothers of MOOCs," said S. James Gates Jr., a University of Maryland physicist who serves on President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. "This is the first deliberate and thoughtful attempt to apply education technology to bringing instruction to scale. It could be epoch-making. If it really works, it could begin the process of lowering the cost of education, and lowering barriers for millions of Americans."
The plan is for Georgia Tech to provide the content and professors and to get 60 percent of the revenue, and for Udacity to offer the computer platform, provide course assistants and receive the other 40 percent.
The projected budget for the test run starting in January is $3.1 million including $2 million donated by AT&T, which will use the program to train employees and find potential hires with $240,000 in profits. By the third year, the projection is for $14.3 million in costs and $4.7 million in profits.
The courses will be online and free for those not seeking a degree; those in the degree program will take proctored exams and have access to tutoring, online office hours and other support services. Students who cannot meet the program's stringent admission standards may be admitted provisionally and allowed to transfer in if they do well in their first two courses. And students who complete only a few courses would get a certificate.
"This is all uncharted territory, so no one really knows if it will go to scale," Galil said. "We just want to prove that it can be done, to make a high-quality degree program available for a low cost."
Would such a program cannibalize campus enrollment? "Frankly," he said, "nobody knows."
Not everyone believes that such a degree program will be sustainable, or that it would even be a step forward.
"The whole MOOC mania has got everyone buzzing in academia, but scaling is a great challenge," said Bruce Chaloux, the executive director of the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education.
"I have to believe that at some point, when the underwriting ends, to keep high quality, Georgia Tech would have to float to more traditional tuition rates."
Some faculty members worry that despite Galil's pledge that the program will match the quality and standards of the on-campus master's program, it could dilute the value of a Georgia Tech degree.
And as in California, where Udacity has worked with San Jose State University to offer three basic math courses now paused because of underwhelming student performance some object to the idea of outsourcing part of their work to a for-profit company like Udacity.
"If you spend a lot of money, you can make online great, and this will probably be a showcase program," said Chris Newfield, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is studying online education. "But we in universities could do that ourselves if we had that money, and the whole history of private involvement in public education has been one of extracting resources. However well-intentioned, we don't need a Trojan horse product that will take money out of the system."
The three leading MOOC providers, Udacity, Coursera and edX, have grown at a remarkable rate, adding hundreds of courses with dozens of college and university partners. But the path ahead is less clear, and all three are now working with universities to find ways in which their courses can be used for credit. Some state universities, leery of ceding control to outside organizations, lean toward developing their own online programs and platforms.
For-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, whose tuition generally falls between state institutions and private not-for-profit universities, were the first to offer large online degree programs. But for-profit enrollment has declined because of the recession, increased government scrutiny and congressional hearings finding that their students had low graduation rates and high loan default rates. And with so many traditional institutions now offering online degrees, the for-profit colleges may have a tougher time attracting students.
Many public universities have recently expanded online degree programs costing as much as their on-campus programs. But if the Georgia Tech program attracts thousands of students a big if that pricing model may be vulnerable.
The Florida Legislature has directed the University of Florida to start fully online bachelor's degree programs and set the price for residents at three-quarters of the campus in-state tuition, or about $4,700. But Bernie Machen, the university's president, said he had not yet decided whether to charge out-of-state online students the full $28,000 tuition they would pay on campus, in part because he wondered if online pricing models were changing.
"Most of us got into online graduate programs more from the revenue side than the service side," said Machen, whose university brings in $75 million annually from its more than 70 online graduate degree programs. "It was an untapped market."
Machen, like others, said he was puzzled by Georgia Tech's optimistic financial estimates for its program, and was not sure they would work out.
Higher education officials say they will be watching closely.
"Georgia Tech is exceptionally important because it's a prestigious institution offering an important degree at very low cost with a direct connection to a Fortune 100 corporation that will use it to fill their pipeline," said Terry W. Hartle, the senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "It addresses a lot of the issues about universities that the public cares about. But how good and how transferable it is remain to be seen."