The Value Proposition of the Georgia Tech-Udacity Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS)

I used to be bullish about MOOCs, i.e. massive open online courses. That was until they stopped being open by erecting paywalls, and instead of striving towards replicating university-level education online instead watered down the material, chopped up single courses into entire course sequences, and put a highly disingenious marketing spiel on them. The Georgia Tech-Udacity Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) seems to share many of the same downsides of MOOCs, while the upsides are largely imaginary. Let me elaborate.

First, I want to be clear that this article is based on a Central European background, where education works a bit differently than in the US or UK. Attending university is not nearly as common as in the US. On the other hand, we also lack thousands of insitutions of questionable reputation. This is sometimes flippantly summarized in the statement that the US may well have most of the 50 best universities in the world, but they also have a lot of the 5000 worst. In Europe, a decent Master’s degree is supposed to introduce you to research. At the very least, you will produce a lengthy research-oriented thesis, which may very well be a stepping stone to a future PhD. Coursework-only MSc degree programs, like the OMS CS, are rather unheard of.

In fact, just taking a certain number of taught courses and receiving a piece of paper in return seems like a rather dubious value proposition. After all, the value of a degree program is hardly in the sum of the courses you have taken. Particularly, if those courses only cover standard material, which you could easily have picked up yourself from a textbook, or MIT OCW. Instead, I see most of the value in getting at least some exposure to ongoing research, and maybe even having the chance of participating in research. On-campus students at Georgia Tech certainly have this possibility. However, students in the OMS CS do not. Thus, they are clearly second-rate citizens.

Obviously, research is constantly progressing. This has the consequence that beyond the undergraduate level courses are hardly static. If you taught a course on automata theory in 2016, you probably could have used the same material in 1996, and even in 2036 you or your successor would do fine with it. The reason is that this particular field is bascially a dead end for research, if I am not mistaken. In any case, there is certainly not a lot of funding in this area. To make it simpler, just take a basic course on data structures: linked lists, stacks, queues, trees and so on will be required basics for computer science majors until kingdom come.

On the other hand, at the graduate-level you are getting closer to the research frontier. In several of the courses in my CS MSc program we at the very least briefly touched upon ongoing research problems. In fact, it was not at all uncommon that professors would use at least one lecture to present their own research, which was, unsurprisingly, rather typical in courses that were advertised as joint MSc/Phd courses. Those normally included local and external guest lecturers as well. Furthermore, at least some recent papers are included in a typical graduate-level course. Sometimes you may even get access to papers that are under submission. As a consequene, the content of a graduate-level course is hardly static but will instead, albeit to varying degrees, depending on how far a particular field moves, change year after year.

In contrast, let us now look at what the OMS CS does. Frankly, it is rather off-putting, and, at least from my point of view, contradicts what graduate-level education should stand for. Instead of leading you closer to the research frontier, they instead record courses, conserve them, and broadcast them in frequent intervals, apparently with only little changes. Professors receive a one-off compensation for creating a course, and a fixed fee for each run. This alone should be reason enough to turn every intellectually curious student off. Besides, the Udacity courses I took were among the weaker MOOCs I have encountered, so the thought of having Udacity-style MOOCs as the main teaching vehicle makes me raise an eyebrow.

There are other downsides, the most important one being the lack of personal interaction. Sure, you may be able to post on a course forum, but this is worlds apart from meeting with a faculty member for a face-to-face dicussion. In fact, persoal interactions may be one of the most important aspects of a college education. No, I am not going to pretend that every student you will meet at the graduate level is highly motivated and has an IQ that is off the charts, or that every member of faculty will be a great teacher. However, you will interact with some ambitious and knowledgeable people, and you will learn a tremendous amount from them. This may be in the form of group or partner projects in regular courses, or in research projects, such as your thesis project, which will happen under the supervision of a faculty member, who may be a world-class expert in his field. A side effect is that you build your personal network. In that area, the OMS CS seems to offer very little.

During the OMS CS you will not get the chance to make many personal contacts. Consequently, you will most likely not be able to get decent references, and you won’t produce a thesis. Thus, the OMS CS will be of rather dubious value if you consider pursing a PhD at some point. Your coursework will not count for all that much in your application. Instead, demonstrated research experience is much more important, and good recommendations.

The saving grace for the Georgia Tech-Udacity Online Master of Science in Computer Science therefore seems to be that it allegedly boosts your credentials for work in the industry. Frankly, I am not even convinced that this is the case. If you want to work in a big company, then not having a degree will count heavily against you. However, the difference between an MSc and a BSc is rather negligible. In that regard, I am tempted to say that a coursework-only MSc ranks below a BSc that includes a thesis project. Further, an MSc with a clear research component surely ranks much higher than a coursework-only MSc.

Terminal Master’s programs are simply cash-cows for universities. If you are from Europe and consider it, I would wonder why you just don’t get an MSc at a decent local universtiy for free. In the US, though, the stigma is clearly that a terminal Master’s program is not leading towards research and simply repackages undergraduate courses at a steep price, even though that price tag is reduced for the OSM CS. Normally, the MSc is a consolation price if you decide to, for whatever reason, not continue with a PhD. You were still paid for it. On the other hand, a terminal MSc, particularly a coursework-only degree, signals that you had to pay for what someone else was able to get for free.

To wrap this up, let’s just look at the numbers. Of 8,000 applicants, 3,000 were admitted. Admitting such a high percentage of applicants does not look good. Sure, waive the “widening access” flag all you want. However, the problem remains that at the graduate level you need to have a higher bar, because just a few poor students will worsen the experience for the other students. For an extreme example of this, look at the discussion forums of a typical MOOC! There is so much noise that it’s next to impossible to have a decent discussion. However, if you look at the fact that Georgia Tech charges not only for each coures, but also for each semester you are enrolled, it makes perfect fiscal sense to admit even students who are not likely to graduate. In summary, the OMS CS is certaily great for Georgia Tech and Udacity, but I am not at all convinced that it is a smart choice for students. If you consider this program, then don’t be blinded by the Georgia Tech logo, but instead consider the financial cost of the program in relation to what you will gain. To me it seems like a rather bad deal.

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