Georgia Tech's May 14 announcement of a fully online master's degree in computer science sparked a lot of discussion across the Internet. The massively online open course (or MOOC) format used by sites like Coursera and Georgia Tech partner Udacity has been gaining traction over the last few years, but GT's program expands on it by adding the option to earn credit and ultimately a degree, for an expected cost of just $7,000. Some commenters on sites like Hacker News and Reddit heralded it as the next major advance in online education, while others expressed concerns about its legitimacy. We asked a group of current and past Georgia Tech students for their opinions on the new program and its possible future impact. The overall response was positive but guarded - people were excited about the announcement but are waiting to see if the reality can match expectations.
Opinions of the MOOC program are more negative as the less tech-savvy respondents reported themselves to be. Alumni tend to view the program more positively.
Positive viewpoints of the effects of MOOC were that Georgia Tech's program can be seen as groundbreaking for the future of education. The program could gain publicity. Online courses are also more flexible and can reach a much wider audience.
Negative viewpoints were that more CoC resources may be spent on MOOC and therefore be detrimental to the normal CS program. This may dilute the CS Masters degree as a whole. Concerns were that MOOC may lessen the value of the degree.
Respondents expressed mixed views when asked about Georgia Tech's name selection for the new program. Some were pleased with the distinction between the online and standard program, while others felt that granting the program a separate name would potentially lower its value. An undergraduate Computer Science major not in favor of a separate name responded, "The fact that the institute made a distinction gives legitimacy to the concern that having an online program might devalue the original MS program. They risk devaluing the online degree to retain the prestige of the traditional program; it's an interesting commentary on the institute's perspective." Another student, studying in a major outside of Georgia Tech's College of Computing, was less interested in the institute's viewpoint and more in the opinion of his future boss and felt that the program would not "look as good on a resume". Most negative responses were formed based on a fear that offering the program a separate name would in some way lower the program or the institution in value or prestige.
Other respondents were more positive about the name choice- either just for the sake of naming the new program something different, or because they felt that the two programs would have different levels of prestige and their names should reflect that difference. One Computer Science student, pleased with the distinction, responded "I'm glad that the programs will be considered distinct during the formative years of OMS. This allows employers to develop an opinion on the pedigree of OMS independently of the normal Georgia Tech MSCS degree." This view represents the opinions of many of the survey's respondents- a distinction is necessary, particularly in the program's early years and during a time when many are skeptical of these online programs.
Overall, sixteen of the respondents replied, for one reason or another, that the program's name should be distinguished from the standard MS program. The other nine were against the new name.
When asked about the program's entry requirement of a bachelor's degree in CS or a related field, most respondents supported the restriction. A bachelor's degree, they said, ensures a basic level of competence in the field and could reduce dropout rates that might otherwise threaten the program's reputation. Some supported it simply for consistency - they argued that a traditional master's degree has similar requirements and relaxing them could give the impression of a less rigorous program. Others thought the requirement made the program less accessible to the audiences that would most benefit from it. "I think the whole point of having it online is so that people who are otherwise occupied or do not have enough money to spend are able to pursue a degree," said one second-year computer science student.
Opinions on the option to apply without submitting a GRE score were more divided. Those who thought the GRE should be required cited similar reasons as above - it would help to create a baseline that ensures accepted students are actually able to complete the program, and by keeping the application process close to the existing one would calm fears that it will be less valuable than a traditional degree. Of particular concern were verbal skills, which several respondents felt were not necessarily assessed by the other requirements. More people agreed with Georgia Tech's decision than dissented, although some thought an alternative test should be required. "This is another availability discussion. I think that if the person is capable of doing the work involved, there is no reason they shouldn't be able to complete their Master's degree," said a third year undergraduate. "There isn't a limiting factor on admissions like there is in physical degree programs," another third year CS student argued in favor of the relaxed requirements.
While the majority of respondents viewed the program in a positive, optimistic light, a few did express concern that the MOOC program may devalue the Georgia Tech Computer Science Master's degree. Of the 24 people surveyed, 4 of them felt that MOOC would be detrimental to the overall Computer Science degree at Tech. Concerns from these respondents included skepticism over the authenticity of online degree programs versus traditional programs and opinions that online courses do not help improve vital verbal and social skills of students. Another concern is that the university's reputation will suffer as a result because online degrees are sometimes viewed as not as prestigious as a traditional degree.
A survey on the new program certainly generated some interesting responses. All but three of the respondents were current Georgia Tech students, so some bias based on a desire to protect the institution's high reputation may have affected some of the results. Even still, the reviews were mixed, as this has recently been a widely debated topic in the world of higher education. Several responses included commentary on the experimental nature of this program, since it is the first of its kind at Georgia Tech. Some respondents even used this as their reasoning for why making a distinction in name was important; an alum responded, "There's a lot of doubt and speculation about the effectiveness of online education, so by having that distinction, it preserves the reputation of the regular degree." The views were generally varied, however most seemed to find justification in the fact that Georgia Tech is making a move forward with this program, that will likely be altered and replicated by other institutions in years to come.