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by Phil Stott | May 20, 2013


It's felt for a while like we're on the verge of a major step forward in how education is designed and delivered to students—and it seems like the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) may well be the future we've been waiting for.


More specifically, Georgia Institute of Technology has partnered with Udacity, an online education platform, and AT&T to deliver a masters in computer science that will be available online for just $7,000—less than a fifth of the cost of taking the course on campus. And the best part, for students, is that the degree "would be entirely comparable to the existing master's degree in computer science from Georgia Tech," according to Inside Higher Ed. The school expects to be able to scale the program to as many as 10,000 students in just three years.* Current enrolment on the campus-only program is just 300.


Even more intriguing is AT&T's involvement. The firm is underwriting the program financially, with the stated aim of helping to prepare students for careers in STEM-related fields. The company also appears to be testing out the technology as a means of providing low-cost advanced training for its employees—as part of the deal, "the first year will feature a small test run of several hundred paying students drawn mostly from the military and the corporate world, particularly AT&T."


If the experiment pays off, then, we could be looking at a brave new world where a) companies start to offer advanced degrees to employees b) said employees don't need to take a year off of work to pursue those degrees and c) the cost of advanced degrees for everyone else—and hence the levels of student debt—falls rapidly. Seems like a win-win-win situation, right?


While the development takes on a few of the key problems that have been holding MOOCs back—accreditation for the programs, figuring out the balance of work to be done by the institution and the provider (in this case Udacity), and providing tangible, valuable qualifications for students—perhaps the most important part of this equation is the school's willingness to put its own prestige and relevance at stake.


One of the commonly cited barriers to the growth of MOOCs is that colleges don't want to jeopardize the cachet of the campus experience. This is hardly surprising: providing on-campus education is clearly a lucrative business. (Of course, there are legitimate, non-financial, education-related reasons too—being able to treat students as individuals is just one of them—but much of the protest coming from within colleges bears more than a passing resemblance to the attempts at protectionism seen in other industries that have found themselves disrupted by technological advancement).


This development seems to have taken most of these factors into account. Indeed, financially, Georgia Tech seems to have a great deal to gain here, too: assuming its current 300 masters students all pay the out-of-state rate of $40,000, the school presumably takes in around $1.2 million per year for that course. If it meets its plan of enrolling 10,000 students in the next three years, meanwhile, it stands to generate some $7 million in course fees—almost double the on-campus revenue while adding just a handful of staff (Udacity will handle much of the routine student interaction, and presumably also take a percentage of the revenues).


While we've touched on the potential for jump-starting your career with MOOCs before, this development takes the concept to a whole other level. Indeed Georgia Tech's dean of computing, Zvi Galil, told Inside Higher Ed that, in launching the course "I thought we could be leaders in this revolution by taking it to the next level, by doing the revolutionary step."


While it's difficult to see this kind of treatment being applied to the undergraduate experience (see this piece for some of the reasons), at least in the short term, it seems very likely that the future of professional education is going to have a lot more MOOC in it—and that it could arrive faster than we ever thought possible.


*The Georgia Tech course is more "MOC" than "MOOC"—with capped enrolment and requirements for admission, it may well be Massive and Online, but can't technically be described as "Open".