3 Reasons $2 Million Is a Bargain for AT&T

OMS CS: The new Georgia Tech computer science master's.

May 15, 2013

The Georgia Tech / Udacity $7,000 online master's in computer science program is big news for any number of reasons.

  • Quality education at scale:  Check.
  • Credentialing and degree program at scale:  Check.
  • A MOOC with a business model:  Check.
  • Low cost / high quality:  Check.
  • A connection between the MOOC world and the online degree program world:  Check.

The thread of this story that I want to discuss is the AT&T partnership.

Two numbers stand out from the FAQ about OMS CS are:

"AT&T will be the founding corporate collaborator of the program, contributing $2 million to the initiative, in addition to providing technology access, connectivity and products at inception, as well as evolving service and platform support. "


"While the actual cost remains to be seen and can vary from course to course, Udacity typically budgets about $200,000 per class."

$2 million dollars goes a long way in the education world. How much marketing, brand awareness, corporate or corporate good will could AT&T buy with this money outside of education?   In 2013 $2 million dollars would buy you half a 30 second Super Bowl ad. Forgoing a few TV ads (in a sea of mobile carrier advertising) to invest in higher education will buy AT&T many multiples of that investment in increased brand awareness and free advertising (not to mention a deeper relationship with all the students that eventually participate in the programs).

The reasons that AT&T is being so smart to invest in underwriting low-tuition, high quality education at scale go beyond the return on investment they will receive on the marketing front.

I see 3 big reasons why AT&T is getting excellent value for their money:

1. Learning, Connectivity, and Mobile Communications are Tightly Coupled:

A mobile carrier is a logical player to be partnering to advance education. Mobile learning will move from a complement to a substitute for online courses.   The dominant online paradigm of today remains the laptop and the browser, but the future belongs to the phone and the app. AT&T has the opportunity to achieve real leadership in mobile learning.  

This partnership between AT&T, Georgia Tech and Udacity will all the mobile carrier numerous opportunities to bring what they learn into their services and products.     

2. The Emerging Economy Mobile Education Opportunity:

The stories of post-secondary education in the 21st century will be authored in India, China, Africa, and the emerging economies. These countries will leapfrog the residential model, skip over the computer and browser, and land firmly on the smart phone.   We will see the demand for post-secondary education rise globally at unparalleled rates - a growth that will make the post-War jump in U.S. higher ed enrollment look like the merest blip in the long run higher education story.

Building mobile platforms for education, and offering educational services, will be as important in the mobile phone story as mobile banking, entertainment, and shopping.   AT&T has the opportunity to be at the ground floor of this global transition to mobile learning with its OMS CS investment.

3.  The Tech, Publishing, and Communications Incumbents are Systematically Under-Investing in the Post-Secondary Education Business

The leadership of AT&T deserves credit for recognizing the opportunity to invest in the future of higher education. Why is it that AT&T is entering this partnership rather than Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Oracle, Pearson, or Verizon? I bet that every one of these companies would claim that education is a big part of their businesses - but who is doing what AT&T is doing and putting up significant resources and commitment to engage as a true partner in this space?

The good news is that the opportunities to invest in higher education are not scarce. I'd like to see other partnerships like this Georgia Tech and Udacity degree, with corporate partners adding their expertise, brand, global reach, and dollars to the efforts.   

For now, we should join in giving AT&T full credit for their investment in helping to bring degree granting, high quality, and low-tuition higher education to scale.


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