Aug 20, 2013

    Elite varsity eyes low-cost master's

    IN A first for an elite institution, the Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a master's degree in computer science through massive open online courses (MOOCs) at a fraction of the on-campus cost in January.

    Should it approach its goal of drawing thousands of students, that could signal a change in the landscape of higher education.

    Following their start two years ago - when 170,000 students enrolled for a free artificial-intelligence course from Stanford - free 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 the courses have not yet produced profound change, partly because they offer no credit and do not lead to a degree.

    Still, change may be on the way as Georgia Tech, which has one of the United States' top computer-science programmes, plans to offer the MOOC-based online master's degree in computer science for US$6,600 (S$8,400) - far less than the US$45,000 on-campus price.

    Dr Zvi Galil, dean of the university's College of Computing, expects that the programme could attract up to 10,000 students annually in the coming years, many from outside the US and some who would not complete the full master's degree.

    "Online, there's no visa problem," he said.

    The programme rests on an unusual partnership forged by Dr Galil and Mr Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity, a Silicon Valley provider of open online courses.

    Although it is just one degree at one university, the prospect of a prestigious low-cost degree programme has generated great interest.

    Some educators think the leap from individual non-credit courses to full-degree programmes could signal the next phase in the evolution of MOOCs - and bring real change to higher education.

    "This is the first deliberate and thoughtful attempt to apply education technology to bring instruction to scale. It could be epoch-making," said Professor S. James Gates Jr, a University of Maryland physicist who serves on President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

    "If, it could begin the process of lowering the cost of education."

    Dr Galil said: "This is all uncharted territory, so no one really knows if it will go to scale. We just want to prove that it can be done, to make a high-quality degree programme available for a low cost."

    Would such a programme cannibalise campus enrolment?

    "Frankly, nobody knows," he said.