You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the 21 online master’s programs that top universities are now offering in collaboration with edX and Coursera.  

My list of 21 left off some low-cost online programs outside of edX and Coursera, such as Georgia Tech’s $7,000 online Master of Science in Computer Science, which is now in its sixth year and has enrolled 8,700 students.  

If a few highly regarded universities can offer low-cost online master’s programs, why aren’t more schools launching these sorts of programs?

The low-cost online graduate degree program remains the exception.  Even as professional master’s programs are transitioning from residential to online delivery, the norm is to have costs for online degree programs match their face-to-face counterparts.

What would need to happen to move low-cost online graduate programs from the margin to the center?

An excellent place to start would be with the stakeholders of the current high-cost model of graduate professional education.  A move to offering low-cost online programs will not happen until we understand their goals and their constraints.  These stakeholders include a) university leaders, b) faculty, c) non-faculty educators.

University Leaders:

The Coursera and edX model for partnering with universities to produce online graduate degree programs depends, I believe, on scale. I’m still trying to get my head around how low-cost online degree education works, and any information that you have to share with our community would be helpful.  But from what I understand, the economic logic of these programs is that they can admit enough students in their online programs to spread the costs across many students.

What I don’t understand, and what I think all of us need to figure out, is how educational quality can be maintained at scale?

We think of a high-quality learning experience as one that is relationship based.  The best educational experience is one where educators get to know learners as individuals.  The concern with online education as it scales is that it will move from a relational to a transactional model.  An educational model that privileges content and testing, over dialogue and mentoring.

Both edX and Coursera need to figure out how to address this quality at scale question head-on.  There needs to be an honest and critical dialogue about both the potential and limitations of a different educational model.  We need to understand how learning science-based design, coupled with investments in personal coaching, can overcome the challenges of quality at scale.


We will not see a rapid shift towards lower-cost online graduate degree programs unless this shift is aligned with the needs and goals of faculty.  A move towards low-cost online education needs to benefit the professors, as well as the students.

If you believe, as I do, that the quality of a university degree is a function of the quality of the educators - then you will want to do everything you can to increase institutional investment in professors.  Low-cost online graduate degree programs should be a way that faculty can teach more students.  This should be a strategy to grow the educational pie, and therefore create more opportunities for educators.

Growing the number of low-cost online graduate degree programs has the potential to expand access to the master’s degree significantly.  The development of affordable online degrees could do to the master’s program what the GI Bill did for undergraduate education.  Expanding the number of students should also grow opportunities for professors.  Low-cost online programs should contribute to institutional resiliency.  If professors don’t benefit, then we shouldn’t be doing this.

Non-Faculty Educators:

The third campus stakeholder that the enablers of low-cost online graduate degree programs need to better connect with are non-faculty educators.  I’m thinking of the professionals who have worked for decades on developing and running online programs, as well as those working in academic technology and continuing education units.   

It is essential that the expertise of non-faculty educators be recognized, and integrated, into efforts to scale online programs.  The decades of experience gained in developing and running traditional online programs needs to be integrated into this new form of online education.  There is a vibrant community of practice around online education, one that proponents of low-cost, scaled online learning should be better integrated.

There is deep suspicion among both faculty and non-faculty educators about the quality of large-enrollment online programs.  These concerns need to be listened to and addressed with data, transparency, and humility.

The idea of dramatically lowering the cost to students of access to quality online master’s degree programs is hugely exciting.  These programs can be engines of opportunity for thousands - and even millions - of adult working professionals.  Low-cost, high-quality online programs would enable many more people to pursue a graduate degree.

This evolution of the master’s degree will not arise, however, unless all of us in higher education work together.  Faculty and non-faculty educators, as well as university leaders, will need to have a seat at the table.

Who are the other stakeholders in this conversation?

What opportunities and threats do you see in low-cost online graduate degree programs?

Do you have any insights on the question of how large-scale online programs might be based on a relational - as opposed to content-centric and transactional - educational model?

Next Story

Written By

More from Learning Innovation