Five Years a Cyber Pioneer
Published January 28, 2019 | By Laura Diamond
It all started with a radical idea: Use technology to make a top American university graduate degree more accessible to more people, and make it more affordable.
The idea became a reality five years ago with Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program. It was the first degree of its kind to operate entirely on the massive online, or MOOC, platform for course delivery.
The program started with 380 students and today numbers about 8,600 — representing all 50 states and nearly 120 different countries.
Success inspired Tech to launch two additional degrees. The OMS Analytics degree began in Fall 2017 with 250 students; this semester’s enrollment is 1,500. The OMS Cybersecurity degree launched in January with about 250 students.
These programs are a testament to the importance of partnerships. OMSCS is offered in collaboration with Udacity and AT&T. OMS Analytics is supported by AT&T and Accenture and produced for online delivery by Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) via edX. And the new OMS Cybersecurity is supported by Accenture and also delivered in collaboration with edX.
“OMSCS has been successful beyond our imagination,” says Zvi Galil, dean and John P. Imlay Jr. Chair in the College of Computing. “Our success really has rested on the faculty, who overwhelmingly approved OMSCS and then enthusiastically executed the program.”
“This was all uncharted territory,” he adds. “But Georgia Tech has achieved accessibility through affordability and technology.”
Though new for Georgia Tech, it was built on a strong foundation. The Institute began offering distance learning more than 40 years ago and issued its first distance program degree in 1987.
Traditional on-campus programs can’t grow much bigger. The need for additional faculty and classroom space makes it nearly impossible to enroll thousands of new students in a physical setting. Those limitations don’t exist online.
The OMS format also acknowledges that many people can’t just pick up and move for graduate school. It recognizes that many adult learners are also caregivers and full-time employees.
Meet the Montgomerys
The Montgomerys and their three children.
Take Malikah and Victor Montgomery. They both work and are raising three children, ages 2 to 12. Although they live in Atlanta, they needed the flexibility to study anywhere. Now, they are on track to graduate in December, with prestigious and affordable degrees.
Most OMSCS students will pay less than $7,000 for their graduate degree, compared to more than $40,000 for a traditional on-campus program.
“It has been great for encouragement and accountability to have a partner in the journey,” Malikah Montgomery says. “There have been difficult times when we both had to work on assignments and take care of the kids. We would take turns with the youngest strapped to us in a baby carrier while studying.”
New Markets, New Students
Students like the Montgomerys are why OMSCS is expected to raise the number of computer science master’s degrees by about 7 percent each year, according to a Harvard University study.
Researchers from Harvard and Georgia Tech found that many OMSCS students were not applying to other traditional computing programs. If not for Georgia Tech’s online program, they would not have enrolled in any program at all. In that way, the program is helping address the nearly 500,000 unfilled computer science jobs in the country.
“Georgia Tech has shown it’s possible to offer elite graduate education online and that doing so opens up entirely new markets of previously underserved students,” Galil says.
Just as important, Georgia Tech is showing others how to do it. Since the launch of OMSCS, more than 20 similar programs have started across the country.
In October GTPE hosted its third Affordable Degrees-at-Scale Symposium. The gathering offers an inside look into how OMS programs work, and attendees leave with a better understanding of how their own institutions can offer similar degrees.
“The students are the most important part of what make OMSCS go,” said Charles Isbell Jr., an instructor in the program and executive associate dean for the College of Computing. “It’s their willingness to participate and support this program, not just as students but as part of the larger community.”
Students hold meet-ups in cities around the country and help each other with assignments. They volunteer as teaching assistants. They maintain active networks on Facebook and LinkedIn and have formed more than 70 Google+ groups.
‘A Whole New Life’
Samatha Campo at Commencement
Before OMSCS, Samantha Campo was an elementary school teacher. She took a year of fundamental computer science courses through a distance program before applying to Georgia Tech.
“With such a non-traditional background, I did not have the qualifications to apply to an on-campus program,” she says. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude that Georgia Tech decided to take a chance on me.”
She graduated last May with a 4.0 GPA. During the program, Campo completed two internships, both of which resulted from referrals from fellow students. She is now working for the machine learning research group at Oracle Labs in Burlington, Massachusetts.
“I will never forget the opportunity,” she said. “I have a whole new life, and none of it would have been possible without OMSCS.”
Henry Shi, co-founder of SnapTravel and an OMSCS alumnus.
Henry Shi also graduated from OMSCS last May. The flexibility of the program allowed him to co-launch a startup while earning a graduate degree.
“Everyone with the program was so passionate about what they were teaching and the mission of making public education affordable,” Shi said.
He and his company created the SnapTravel Fellowship Awards: one to recognize students exhibiting entrepreneurial spirit and a second to benefit students who are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The first winners were announced in July.
“OMSCS is a mission I wanted to get behind,” Shi said. “This is an easy way to get started.”
Shaping the Future
In some ways, even after five years, Georgia Tech is just getting started.
Students’ experiences with the OMS programs are influencing how Georgia Tech is shaping the future. While students enjoy the flexibility of studying online, they also crave contact with one another and with the Institute. They attend alumni and networking events across the country. They form meet-ups and study groups with those who live nearby. Some come to Georgia Tech for Commencement; often it is their first and only time on campus.
This desire for an in-person connection is a recurring theme in Tech’s “Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education” report. Using 2040 as a vantage point, it envisions an educational experience that can be personalized as professional interests and needs shift during a person’s lifetime, and imagines the changing products and services that future students will need.
Among the recommendations is the creation of “atriums,” physical spaces where anyone can connect with Georgia Tech and one another. Atriums could be located anywhere from corporate offices to shopping malls and give learners access to one another and other members of the Georgia Tech community.
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