May 20 2013

Georgia Tech’s CS Degree and the MOOC End Game

Last week, Georgia Tech Announced that they will provide a Massive Online Master’s Degree in Computer Science by partnering with MOOC provider, Udacity. Computer Science (CS) is an obvious choice for a Massive Open Online Course. (I assume that the rationale for the master’s rather than a bachelor’s is that there is a level of specialization in the graduate program that isn’t shared in the undergraduate one. That is, you don’t need to worry about those pesky general education requirements – and count on other departments playing along with your MOOC strategy – if you simply eliminate the need for them.) The program is going to be watched very closely, both inside and outside academia. Not only does Computer Science fit into the MOOC scheme particularly well, the choice of this area of study raises several questions:

  • If a student is successful in the program, what is the qualitative difference between a Georgia Tech degree and a Udacity certificate of mastery?
  • Employers (read: those in the ‘real’ world) care more about the ability to apply knowledge than the existence of knowledge. This points to the promise and potential of MOOCs, but also the clear threat that they hold to traditional academic institutions. I don’t know the specifics of Georgia Tech’s CS program, except that it is highly ranked and, like other Georgia Tech programs, is well-regarded. I would expect that they would have a focus on ‘real-world’ applicability. How will Georgia Tech’s measures of mastery compare with those of Udacity, particularly as they relate to skills that employers covet? Or will they be identical?
  • Long term, how will Georgia Tech’s traditional CS degree participants compare with those attending through the MOOC? How will they compare with those who hold Udacity certificates? I will be very interested in seeing this analysis in a few years.

Admittedly, these questions generally relate to a fundamental premise; college – what is it good for? Or, alternately why do employers require a bachelor’s degree?

  • Skill and Knowledge acquisition. College provides the foundation for mastering complex skills (medicine, law, computer science) and hones analytic abilities (mathematics, philosophy, political science). These are not clean distinctions. Solving a differential equation requires both knowledge and some skill. Similarly, writing a program to solve the differential equation also requires both. As mentioned above, however, I would expect the greater emphasis for CS majors to fall toward the application of the knowledge – i.e. demonstration of skill.
  • Networking and personal brand. Most relevant to business schools or institutions with a strong brand, there can be significant value depending on the industry (or the established relationships).
  • Exploration and direction. College can provide the opportunity to discover where one’s interests or talents lie. Obviously, this is directly related to vocational choices on the part of the job seeker, but the fact that you changed majors when you discovered that you hated organic chemistry doesn’t matter to an employer looking for an application developer or QA engineer. This is another interesting element of Georgia Tech’s MOOC experiment. For most students enrolling in Georgia Tech’s graduate-level CS program it is safe to assume that students already know that they want to learn about computer science. For those coming to the program through Udacity and the MOOC, however, there could be a significant level of exploration. This is certainly the experience of other MOOCs where the majority of participants decide that the course (either format or content) aren’t right for them and dropout rates exceed 90 percent. An even higher rate of participant loss should be expected with Georgia Tech’s program (at least on the Udacity side).
  • Demonstration of persistence. A co-worker of mine summed it up nicely: “We require a college degree because it shows that you’re willing to do something that you don’t really want to do. And that’s what we look for when we hire an employee.” If you hold a degree, it demonstrates that you were not only able to navigate the often labyrinthine bureaucracy of an institution of higher learning, but more importantly, were willing to attend the classes, do the homework, write the papers, and study for the tests. You were able to successfully complete assignments from a variety of managerial analogues (professors) and deal with schedules and deadlines. Higher education is a ‘do it to yourself’ process. Initiative and being a ‘self-starter’ are implied when listing a bachelor’s degree on a resume.

If a Udacity certificate can be used as a barometer of mastery in computer science and an indication of an ability to persevere through a multi-year MOOC experience, then I would have no hesitation interviewing someone with a Udacity certificate but no college degree.

The idea of a longer MOOC experience is itself somewhat new. In general, the focus of MOOCs has been centered on the course. There is an entirely new level of content curation required when assembling a collection of related courses into something like a degree program.  Georgia Tech’s experiment is welcome and just a little daring because of what it offers in content scope.

Of course, the truly daring bit isn’t the content. Nor is it offering an online degree program. Or providing for-credit courses with dual enrollment (through the school and through the MOOC provider). Much of this has been done before. Georgia Tech’s willingness to create a program that surely foreshadows the MOOC end game and has the potential to make permanent the crease in traditional education that began as the MOOC wrinkle: that’s the truly daring bit.

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