Accepted into Georgia Tech OMSCS!

On 3/20/18, I was offered admission to the Georgia Tech online Master of Science in Computer Science program. I’ve accepted their offer and will begin the program in August of 2018. The following is a brief discussion of the program.

Georgia Tech Online Master of Science in Computer Science

The program is a fully online version of Georgia Tech’s highly-ranked Masters in Computer Science program. Sebastian Thrun, a co-founder of the innovative Udacity service I’ve been using, is an Adjunct Professor at both Stanford University and Georgia Tech. In order to create the OMSCS, he brought together the rigorous and esteemed Georgia Tech College of Computing and the revolutionary Udacity content delivery system. The result is a world-class masters degree in the fast-growing computer science field, for a total cost of less than $8000.

The online and on-campus coursework is identical. In fact, on-campus and online students are often in the same courses together. Reflecting this, there is no distinction on the diploma that is awarded: online students receive a diploma reading “Master of Science in Computer Science.” I have previewed some of the Georgia Tech coursework that is available via the Udacity website and I’m blown away by the production quality of the lectures. I can’t believe I’ve been admitted and given this opportunity.

Public Perception and Degree Dilution?

Since GA Tech began offering the degree, there has been (understandable) backlash from the on-campus computer science masters students, who pay tuition that approaches $50K for their degree. Georgia Tech has a top-ranked masters in computer science program (#8 in 2018 “Best Graduate Computer Science program,” and #9 in 2014). Given this high status, why “dilute the degree” with a sea of possibly unqualified applicants, many of which will study overseas?

In the words of the dean of the College of Computing:

“Since we announced this program, I have been asked, many times, why we are doing it. There are lots of reasons. But in the end, there are only two: because we can, and we should. Computer science has led the way in massive, online education, and, as all of you know, the world needs more trained computing professionals. A lot more.” - Zvi Galil, Dean of Georgia Tech College of Computing (source).

Accept, because we Can and Should
A screenshot from Zvi Galil’s presentation in Brisbane Australia.

I’m happy to be the beneficiary of such noble aims.

The President of the University, Bud Peterson, recently discussed similar points, at about 28:00 into this video. Presented with the question of degree dilution, he responded:

“If the rigor of the course material is sufficient, and people can achieve and be successful in gaining the information they need to understand that material, then they ought to be able to receive a degree.” - President Bud Peterson

A few other salient points and quotes from the president’s talk:

  • via OMSCS, GA Tech will provide 7-8% of the CS masters in the country.
  • Originally was planned to have a separate degree designation (“Online Masters”), but faculty requested it be removed because they felt the coursework was equivalent. It is the “same program, same rigor, same quality.”
  • “Universities should be defined by who they admit, not by who they exclude.” Provost of Arizona State, quoted by President Peterson.
  • OMSCS admits approximately 63% of applicants.

There is anecdotal evidence that the dropout rate for the program exceeds the graduation rate, which is both a testament to the program’s difficulty and a side-effect of giving lots of people a chance of earning the degree. Contrast this with universities that are ultra-selective during the admissions process, but whose programs are a cakewalk once you get in. In either situation, a filtering process takes place. After all, not everyone is cut out to study computer science at the graduate level. A key difference between the GA Tech OMSCS system and the approach of many private colleges is that the GA Tech philosophy is meritocratic in the areas that truly matter. Whether you earn the degree is more a function of your performance in the program, and less a function of the idiosyncrasies of an ultra-selective admissions process.

Briefly revisiting the degree dilution argument: since Georgia Tech began offering the degree, the Computer Science program’s national ranking has actually increased from #9 in the nation to #8. US News and World Report graduate school rankings are based on reputation as measured by various surveys. If industry and academia have decided GA Tech CS masters degrees are worth less due to the OMSCS “degree mill,” then I guess that effect hasn’t shown up in the surveys yet. Interestingly, since 2014 when the OMSCS degree started, the applications to the on-campus MS in CS program have risen significantly. This is likely a result of the news attention the OMSCS program has garnered the College of Computing.

It is still the early days of formal online education. Maybe there is something to the degree dilution argument. The number of MS in CS degrees Georgia Tech issues is definitely going to skyrocket in the coming years, as progressively larger OMSCS cohorts finish their coursework. Maybe we’ll see an impact on the the next set of college rankings in 2022. But, I’m not holding my breath… there’s lots of tech jobs out there, and in markets with an abundance of work and a shortage of labor, I expect competency (not exclusivity) will ultimately rule the day.

If Georgia Tech grads can do the job, maybe it doesn’t matter where they learned to do it.

Regardless of how this experiment works out, I’m happy to have a flexible, innovative medium by which to learn, a great university curating the teaching material, and a competitive and recognized degree to work toward.

These are exciting times, and I’m excited and humbled by the opportunity that’s been presented to me.

Find a well-written and incisive article on the OMSCS program, written by Harvard professors, here.