It was only a matter of time: Udacity and Georgia Tech offer ‘massive online’ degree

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) just took another giant step: Udacity, the Georgia Institute of Technology and AT&T (s T) this week announced that they would join forces for a completely online computer science master’s degree that will cost students less than $7,000. But, big as the move is, it isn’t entirely surprising.

Earlier this year at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng and edX president Anant Agarwal were asked about the likelihood of full MOOC degrees. Ng gave a diplomatic reply, emphasizing that Coursera isn’t a university but a “humble hosting platform.” But, later, Agarwal told me that he fully expected pure MOOC degrees to emerge.

“Universities are already giving full degrees for online education, for distance online education, so what is different? Extension school programs and online programs are already giving full degrees. So why is this anything special?” he said at the time.

In a post on Udacity’s blog, founder Sebastian Thrun compared the announcement about the new online degree to the moment he proposed to his wife and other “moments in his life [he] will never forget.”

“Ever since Peter Norvig and I launched AI Class, I have been dreaming of putting an entire computer science degree online, and to make access to the material free of charge, so that everyone can become a proficient computer scientist,” he wrote. ”Education has become much more exclusive, and getting into a top-10 computer science department, like Georgia Tech’s, is still out of reach for all but a chosen few.”

Taught through Udacity’s platform, only students granted admission by Georgia Tech will receive credit and will pay based on individual courses or the entire degree program.  A pilot program is expected to begin in the next academic year with enrollment limited to a few hundred students, but they plan to expand over the next three years.

Given the need for more workers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, the companies decided to focus on computer science.  If the program goes well, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Udacity expand into other subjects with master’s programs. But Georgia Tech Provost Rafael Bras told Inside Higher Ed that the format may not be as suitable for other disciplines.

“We’ll wait and see,” he said. “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.”