As universities ponder whether and how to offer affordable, high-quality instruction over the Internet, all eyes are on the Georgia Institute of Technology. The school recently announced plans to offer an online master’s degree in computer science for less than $7,000 — a fraction of what such a degree would cost in an on-campus setting. The new program will use what are known as “massive open online courses,” which are available for free to non-credit students. For-credit students in Georgia Tech’s new online degree program will get opportunities for extra help, and exams would be taken at proctored centers.
The master’s program will be available as a pilot effort in the fall of 2014 and then expand dramatically. To receive credit, a student would have to be accepted by Georgia Tech, which eventually hopes to enroll 10,000 students in the online program.
The new initiative could mark a significant change in how brand-name universities confer degrees, allocate staffing, and fund themselves. Other schools must watch closely to see how the experiences of Georgia Tech’s online students differ from those of on-campus students. Regardless, it’s important that major universities recognize the opportunities that emerging technology offers both to them and to prospective students. As college degrees become both increasingly necessary and increasingly expensive, Georgia Tech can perform a public service if it works out how to deliver trustworthy degrees at an affordable price.