The Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a $7,000 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors.
Georgia Tech will work with AT&T and Udacity, the 15-month-old Silicon Valley-based company, to offer a new online master’s degree in computer science  to students across the world at a sixth of the price of its current degree. The deal, announced Tuesday, is portrayed as a revolutionary attempt by a respected university, an education technology startup and a major corporate employer to drive down costs and expand higher education capacity.
Georgia Tech expects to hire only eight or so new instructors even as it takes its master's program from 300 students to as many as 10,000 within three years, said Zvi Galil, the dean of computing at Georgia Tech.
The university will rely instead on Udacity staffers, known as “mentors,” to field most questions from students who enroll in the new program. But company and university officials said the new degrees would be entirely comparable to the existing master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech, which costs about $40,000 a year for non-Georgia residents.
“You know there is a revolution going on, right?” Galil said in a telephone interview. “And we have been a part of this revolution, but I thought we could be leaders in this revolution by taking it to the next level, by doing the revolutionary step.” That step, he said, is using technology to radically increase the scale of a for-credit offering while sharply reducing the price.
Galil said three-fourths of his 80 or so faculty members signed off on the arrangement in a series of March votes. Benjamin Flowers, who chairs the graduate curriculum committee at Georgia Tech, told the Associated Press that despite Faculty Senate concerns, it had left the decision about what to do up to the computer science program.
Udacity, which made a name for itself offering free not-for-credit massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is now planting a flag at Georgia Tech with a business model that may revolve around what its chief executive officer calls “MOOC 2.0.”
Udacity will receive 40 percent of the revenue from the new degree program, according to Georgia Tech, which will receive the rest. AT&T is subsidizing the effort financially to ensure that it will break even in its first year and is lending its name to the project, which the company said it hopes will educate more students for science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs.
While established higher education institutions have offered online degree programs for a while, they have traditionally charged the same prices for online courses and programs as they do for their on-campus equivalents. Udacity is now working to dramatically lower the prices, something it has already done with several courses at San Jose State University, a public university in California.
The Georgia Tech program will have four enrollment tracks for students. Enrollment starts in January, though the first year will feature a small test run of several hundred paying students drawn mostly from the military and the corporate world, particularly AT&T.
The first of the four tracks will include traditional degree-seeking students who will be able to complete the 12-course master’s degree in roughly three years. Georgia Tech said it does not plan to lower admission standards to find 6,000 or so students for this track -- a number than is 20 times larger than its current computer science master’s degree program. Instead, Georgia Tech hopes to attract more qualified applicants from across the world, including inside the military and at companies – places that harbor nontraditional students who could not previously come to a traditional campus or find the money for a full degree, on campus or online.
The second type of student will be “prospective degree-seeking” students who will be admitted to the program tentatively because they will not have to take the GRE as other applicants do. If they do well in two core classes, Georgia Tech will put them on the degree track. The university expects to enroll 2,000 such students in the next three years.
A third type of paying student will be students who can drop in to take several courses for a certificate short of a full master's degree. Georgia Tech expects 2,000 such students.
The final type of students will resemble the students in a traditional MOOC and will be able to take the courses but will pay nothing or perhaps a small fee for a certificate of completion for a course. Tens of thousands of students would presumably sign up for these types of courses, an enrollment figure similar to existing MOOCs.
The deal started to come together eight months ago in a meeting between Galil and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun.
“Sebastian suggested to do a master’s degree for $1,000 and I immediately told him it’s not possible,” Galil said.
Eventually, the program came together for about $6,600 per degree. In a blog post , Thrun compared the day of the announcement to the day he proposed to his wife.
“I think it’s important for higher education to open access to people who can’t get access,” he said in a telephone interview.
Thrun said there will be a “crisp, clear” line between the responsibilities of his staff and George Tech professors and instructors. He said Udacity was nothing more than a “megaphone” for Georgia Tech, which he said would be making all the academic decisions.
It's unclear how many staffers Udacity will need to hire to handle the number of students expected to enroll at Georgia Tech. Thrun said the staff-to-student ratio was something the company was still working through, though it is learning from San Jose State the number of hours of mentoring students need per course.
“We’ve put into our calculations the equivalent of about three to five hours of individual time,” Thrun said.
Galil and Thrun both said that Udacity-paid staffers could answer most of the questions students in the courses come up with.
"In many cases, the questions are simple. In many cases these questions can be found in FAQs, even though students don’t find them in FAQs,” Galil said.
Thrun said there’s no reason to make a professor answer the same question 200 times for 200 students. He said his staff will free up Georgia Tech instructors to do more difficult work.
Galil said faculty who work to develop the courses will do so in addition to their current course load but will receive additional compensation.
Georgia Tech’s provost said he thought the model could be inappropriate for other subjects, however.
“At the moment, we’re just doing this in computer science,” said Provost Rafael Bras. “We’ll wait and see. I believe this is quite appropriate for professional master’s degrees but I also believe it is less appropriate for non-master’s degrees and certainly for other fields.”
Galil and Bras both said they did not think the Udacity partnership would cannibalize Georgia Tech's existing master’s degree program. They said the residential college experience would still appeal to students who are on a Ph.D. track, who want a full range of career services and who want visas to live in the United States while they study.