The blurring between traditional universities and the new "Massive Open Online Courses" reached new levels Tuesday when Georgia Tech announced it will offer what it termed a first-of-its-kind computer science degree taught entirely over an open online platform.
Georgia Tech will charge about $7,000 for the master's degree, even though the courses that lead to the degree are available to anyone for free through Udacity, a MOOC platform currently offering 26 courses taught by partners including Georgia Tech.
But while students can take MOOCs for free, only accredited universities like Georgia Tech can award credit and degrees for such coursework. Georgia Tech is betting that students will happily pay $7,000 for such a credential, given that the cost of the on-campus computer science master's, or even the current online version of that degree, runs about three times higher than that for Georgia students, and between six and seven times higher for out-of-state and international students.
Students admitted to the program would receive services such as help and assessment not available to others taking the same Udacity courses. But some of those services would be provided by Udacity, not Georgia Tech staff and faculty.
Leading universities have provided the teaching for MOOCs, but so far, virtually all of Georgia Tech's caliber have been reluctant to award credit for taking them, out of concern over standards, the credibility of assessments and potentially diluting the value of degrees they award through more traditional means.
But Tuesday's announcement signals how difficult it is becoming for institutions to ignore the potential revenue opportunities from the MOOCs, which have attracted millions worldwide.
It also represents one of the boldest institutional claims yet that MOOCs can effectively "scale up" quality higher education — servicing exponentially more students with comparable staff, and thus reducing costs. While several universities, such as San Jose State in California, have incorporated MOOC learning into certain courses, none had yet endorsed the idea that MOOCs can be the basis for a full degree.
Notably, the university said it hoped to admit anyone who meets its admissions requirement, which it emphasized remain stringent. It estimated it could eventually enroll 10,000 students in the program, in a field facing a shortage of workers. That's nearly half the size of the whole student body on Georgia Tech's Atlanta campus.
"We're turning down people that are probably capable. We just can't handle them," said Rafael Bras, Georgia Tech's provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, who said current demand for the program outstrips supply by 10 to 1. "We're now reaching out to the world through a different medium. There's a lot of people out there that will have this great opportunity."
The question is whether the university really can maintain quality on that scale. Georgia Tech said the MOOC degree would be "no less rigorous" than the on-campus and online versions it already offers.
"This is a full-service degree," Bras said. "We have our name reputation and excellence behind it. These people will be assessed graded, take exams, have help, will have access to individuals that answer questions."
But Benjamin Flowers, an architecture professor who chairs the graduate curriculum committee, said faculty had expressed concern.
"One of the key attributes of educational distinction has always been that you control the number of people that have degrees from your institution," Flowers said. "Are we producing something that's of genuine value and in demand, or is it something we're producing because there's an arms race in place and we're trying not to be left behind?"
Bras said admissions standards will be comparable to Georgia Tech's traditional computer science master's program, though some students could be admitted without having to take the GRE exam if they get A's or B's in initial courses.
Anybody who comes to the program expecting an easier route to a Georgia Tech credential "is going to fail," Bras said with a partial laugh.
Still, the announcement places Georgia Tech at the center of a host of contentious questions that have emerged for traditional universities as they confront the MOOC phenomenon.
The university could be accused of trying to capitalize on its accreditation to merely collect a toll from students for a degree while offering little they can't get elsewhere for free. Bras says the resources admitted students will get are considerable, and comparable to what students receive on campus. But if that's true, will Georgia Tech be able to justify the higher price of the traditional program?
Another issue: How will Georgia Tech faculty and alumni greet the news that potentially thousands more students will be getting a diploma stamped with the university's name after taking all of their coursework via a MOOC?
"I don't think we're diluting value," Bras responded. "There's plenty of demand for this around the world. Remember the arena is expanding considerably." And, he said, "we'll never sacrifice anything in terms of quality."
AT&T is contributing $2 million to the initiative, and Georgia Tech said the company would offer corporate projects for credit and help provide curriculum content and guest instructors, subject to faculty approval.
The program is expected to get under way in fall 2014. The university said it has no current plans for something similar in other subjects.
Flowers said despite its concerns the faculty senate believed it was up to the computer science faculty to discuss with the administration modifying the existing degree program. He hadn't been informed the decision had been finalized, but said he wasn't surprised.
"I'm never surprised at the pace of announcements regarding online education," he said.
Follow Justin Pope on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/JustinPopeAP