Anyone who cares about America's shortage of computer-science experts should cheer the recent news out of Georgia Tech. The Atlanta university is making major waves in business and higher education with its May 14 announcement that the college will offer the first online master's degree in computer science—and that the degree can be had for a quarter of the cost of a typical on-campus degree. Many other universities are experimenting with open online courses, or MOOCs, but Georgia Tech's move raises the bar significantly by offering full credit in a graduate program.
It comes just in time. A shortfall of computer-science graduates is a constant refrain in Silicon Valley, and by 2020 some one million high-tech job openings will remain unfilled, according to the Commerce Department.
That's why Georgia Tech's online degree, powered by Udacity, is such a game-changer. For the same $7,000 a year that New York City spends per student on school buses, you can now get a master's from one of the most well-respected programs in the country. Moore's Law says these fees should drop to $1,000 by 2020—a boon for students and for the economy.
Sadly, MOOCs are not without controversy. Consider what happened at San Jose State after the university last fall ran a test course in electrical engineering paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Students who worked with online content passed at a higher rate than classroom-only students, 91% to 60%. The course was so successful that the school's president decided to expand online courses, including humanities, which will also be rolled out to other California State universities.
You'd think professors would welcome these positive changes for students. Some teachers across the country are, however cautiously, embracing the MOOC model. But plenty of professors smell a threat to their livelihood. In an April 29 open letter to the university, San Jose State philosophy professors wrote: "Let's not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education."
In April, an Amherst faculty committee decided against online courses, since they apparently run afoul of the school's mission of "learning through close colloquy." As it happens, Amherst professors rank seventh in salary of top liberal arts colleges, pulling in $137,700.
I have nothing against teachers—or even high salaries, if the teachers are worth it. But half of recent college graduates don't have jobs or don't use their degree in the jobs they find. Since 1990, the cost of college has increased at four times the rate of inflation. Student loans are clocking in at $1 trillion.
Something's got to give. Education is going to change, the question is how and when. Think about it: Today's job market—whether you're designing new drugs, fracking for oil, writing mobile apps or marketing Pop Chips—requires graduates who can think strategically in real time, have strong cognitive skills, see patterns, work in groups and know their way around highly visual virtual environments. This is the same generation that grew up playing online games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, but who are almost never asked to use their online skills in any classroom.
MOOCs will inevitably come to K-12 education too. Everyone knows great public school teachers. But we also all know the tenured type who has been mailing it in for years. Parents spend sleepless nights trying to rearrange schedules to get out of Mr. Bleh's fourth-period math class. Online education is about taking the "best in class" teachers and scaling them to thousands or millions of students rather than 25-30 at a time.
The union-dominated teaching corps can be expected to be just as hostile as college professors to moving K-12 to MOOCs. But a certain financial incentive will exist nonetheless. I noted this in a talk recently at an education conference where the audience was filled with people who create education software and services.
I began by pointing out that in 2011 only 7.9% of 11th graders in Chicago public schools tested "college ready." That's failure, and it's worse when you realize how much money is wasted on these abysmal results. Chicago's 23,290 teachers—who make an average salary of $74,839, triple U.S. per capita income and 50% more than median U.S. household income—cost Chicago taxpayers $1.75 billion out of the city's $5.11 billion budget.
Why not forget the teachers and issue all 404,151 students an iPad or Android tablet? At a cost of $161 million, that's less than 10% of the expense of paying teachers' salaries. Add online software, tutors and a $2,000 graduation bonus, and you still don't come close to the cost of teachers. You can't possibly do worse than a 7.9% college readiness level.
When I made this proposal, only slightly facetiously, in a roomful of self-described education entrepreneurs, it was if I'd said that Dewey had plagiarized his decimal system. I was upbraided for not understanding the plight of teachers. The plight of students, as is too often the case in discussions of education, didn't seem to rate the same concern.
It's still early. We need experiments. Much as early movies were made with cameras in front of Broadway shows, current MOOCs are mainly professors droning into a camera. There will always be a place for real, live teachers in classrooms, perhaps more as tutors than lecturers. But online education is going to happen—and it has the potential to be the next great export market. The smart teachers, the good ones, would be well-advised to embrace the change.