Evolving Higher Education

Recently, Udacity announced that it would be offering an Online Master of Science in Computer Science, in collaboration with Georgia Tech and AT&T. Just another stage in the nascent world of the Internet.

When I mentioned it, my mother asked me a question:

Does this dilute the prestige of a Master's in CS if 10,000 people do it, as they say? You do not need to take the GRE? It will cost less than $7,000 total? So you can still work and make money and end up with a Master's from Georgia Tech! Gee!

Here was my response to her (emphasis added).

Ahem... you mean an Online Master of Science from Georgia Tech. That is to say, OMS is different from MS.

Still, degrees are like fiat currency, in that if enough people believe that they mean something, then they mean something. So OMS could come to mean the same thing as MS, in time. And that might mean that an MS becomes cheapened, or it might mean that an OMS becomes stronger, or they meet somewhere in the middle.

We should try to view this with some perspective. As I understand it, MAs and PhDs have been around since medieval times, but they were mostly a license to teach until the last 100 years or so. And they've seen a huge burst in popularity in the past few decades. I could easily imagine a world without them. Not to mention, there are already dozens of different types of Master degrees—just check out the Wikipedia page for "Master's degree." Schools are often inventing new degrees, but since you and I are outside academia we aren't aware of it most of the time. This one just happens to get a bit more publicity because of the format.

I also often forget that there are already a vast number of OMS programs. The only thing that's new here is that this is the first one in MOOC format. So you could equivalently ask, does the fact that someone can get a cheap degree from Phoenix Online or Drexel University dilute my degree from UBC? Do people believe there is any difference between these three programs?

I'd love to discuss this some more the next time we talk. It's very interesting. A professor whose blog I've been following just touched upon some of these issues. You should read that too.

I look forward to seeing how my opinions on the business of pedagogy evolve and deepen throughout the course of my MS/PhD (which is now fast approaching!). I'll certainly be writing more about this in the future.

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