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Evolving the Online Degree

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After my online bachelor’s degree with the Open University, I joined Georgia Tech’s online master’s in computer science (OMSCS). When I started my studies, the online degree offering was fairly limited and almost always expensive. But things have changed.

In what Dhawal Shah, Class Central’s founder, calls the Second Wave of MOOC Hype, these past few years have seen the rise of MOOC-based online degrees — more flexible, more affordable, more accessible than previous online degrees.

A few months ago, Coursera announced its first Ivy League MOOC-based degree. And a few weeks ago, edX announced seven new MOOC-based degrees, including a master’s degree in computer science from UT Austin, whose residential program is among the best in the US.

And with each announcement, the competition in the online degree market intensifies, compelling universities and course providers to find new ways to make their online degrees attractive to students.

In this article, I explore some of the characteristics that could sway me toward one online degree over another. Some of these characteristics are already part of certain online degrees, while others are uncharted territory.

Same degree and transcript as on campus

In my experience, the stigma against online degrees is alive and well: many employers continue to conflate online for-credit education with diploma mills.

In time, employers will learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. But meanwhile, students suffer from this lack of discernment. So, in my view, all academic documents that an employer may require during recruitment, including degree and transcript, should omit mentioning the degree’s mode of delivery.

I’m not saying students should hide this information from potential employers. I just think they should have the opportunity of communicating it in their own words — for instance, during an interview — instead of being preemptively screened merely due to the presence of an “online” mention on their academic documents.

Student card and campus access

Beyond economies of scale, if online degrees are affordable, it’s because they don’t require to make room on campus for online students. So most universities have adopted an all-or-nothing approach, where only residential students have access to campus facilities.

I think a tiered approach would be preferable, allowing online students to access some on-campus facilities, by paying an ad-hoc fee if necessary. This is the approach Georgia Tech has adopted. For instance, OMSCS students can:

  • Get a student card on campus, or have it shipped to them.
  • Access the on-campus library and job fairs, with their student card.
  • Use the on-campus sport facilities and attend games, by paying a sports fee.

Allowing residential and online students to mingle both in academic and social contexts promotes unity and encourages collaboration between groups.

Strict quality control and systematic proctored exams

Online degrees are under a lot of scrutiny; their thoroughness is questioned at every turn. Aspects that may be common on campus will be pointed at in an online setting as symptomatic of a lack of rigor. For instance, some OMSCS instructors don’t interact much with students, preferring to let TAs deal with most student questions. This also happens on campus, but online, people are more quick to decry it.

So quality control is crucial. One way to ensure an online degree matches the rigor of its on-campus counterpart is to run some courses in parallel online and on campus — same schedule, same assignments, same exams — and compare student performance. This is precisely what Georgia Tech has been doing, and they’ve found on-campus and online performance to be comparable, testifying to the quality of Georgia Tech’s online degree.

Finally, given the prevalence of online cheating, I think all for-credit courses should involve proctored exams.

Easy to get in — Hard to get out

In brick universities, low acceptance rates are celebrated as evidence of the quality of a program. But it’s a poor metric by which to measure online programs, since these scale well and can, therefore, accept many more qualified applicants.

Likewise, online completion rates are a poor proxy for quality, since online students typically juggle studies, full-time job, and a busy family life, while on-campus students can usually focus on their degree.

I’d argue that online, these metrics should be flipped on their head: a top online degree should be both inclusive and unapologetically demanding. Entry requirements should be designed to give every qualified applicant a chance. But graduation requirements should be designed to only let students that rise to the challenge complete their degree.

Under $10K

Whether top master’s degrees cost $5K, $10K or $20K shouldn’t matter much (as long as they’re significantly cheaper than their on-campus counterparts), since it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the lifetime earnings these degrees should lead to.

However, there is a psychological barrier at $10K that seems to make degrees below that cost especially attractive. So I’d try to keep it under $10K. But if a higher price could translate into a significantly better student experience, I’d prioritize quality over affordability.

At the undergraduate level, affordability matters more, because applicants are less likely to have prior degrees, and therefore, more likely to have limited income.

Strong community support

A great strength of the OMSCS is its vast community of learners and its well-established presence on social platforms. This community wasn’t the product of a design; it was initiated by the first cohort of OMSCS students and has been growing organically ever since.

And it has grown so much that Georgia Tech started using it for educational and administrative purposes. For instance, most OMSCS courses now have a Slack workspace, and it’s not rare to see instructors answer questions on the OMSCS subreddit.

So my suggestion is to embrace these tools. Don’t shoehorn them into the design, but leverage their individual strengths: Slack for courses, LinkedIn for career support, etc.

Many courses, many specializations, regular updates

Another strength of the OMSCS is its course catalog: the program offers 4 specializations, 30 courses, and 10 more courses are being developed. This gives students a wide breadth of subjects from which to pick to tailor their degree to their needs and interests. So degree programs that only offer one path to graduation pale in comparison.

But just as important as creating new courses is updating existing ones in light of quality audits and developments in the course field. Even though updating online courses can be expensive, an online program should never lag behind its on-campus counterpart.

Blur the boundary between campus and online

Allow on-campus students to take courses online. Allow online students to transfer to campus, if they can prove themselves as qualified as applicants typically accepted on campus, for example, by acing challenging online courses.

Transfers are already possible in OMSCS, but requests are treated on a case-by-case basis. I’d suggest systematizing this process, formalizing it — defining specific requirements that, when met by an online student, would guarantee his admission to the residential program.

This would put on-campus and online programs on a more equal footing, demonstrating that the faith edX and Georgia Tech place in their degree programs transcends mode of delivery.

More importantly, it would bolster mobility, allowing students to seize opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach. For example, on-campus students could temporarily transfer online to pursue an out-of-state internship. And online students could transfer to campus to finish their degree in Atlanta, and upon graduation, gain access to the American job market.

Leverage crowdsourcing but not disingenuously

Peer feedback can be a great learning tool, but only when used in moderation. Online students are acutely aware that peer feedback is also a convenient way to provide personalized feedback at scale without having to hire more TAs.

In my view, feedback is too important to be left in the hands of students. And trying to incentivize quality peer feedback by making it count toward a course grade only goes so far.

I believe peer feedback should only be used to supplement TA feedback, not replace it. And when a course grade comprises a participation component, students should have other ways to gain full participation marks besides peer feedback.

This isn’t to say there aren’t meaningful ways of leveraging the scale of an online program to benefit students. One of the best approaches I’ve seen is exemplary assignments: after an assignment is marked, instructors select the best copies and, with the student’s permission, share them with the rest of the class — so all students get to learn from these.

Recruit TAs worldwide, not just in the US

To be eligible to TA an OMSCS course, you must have aced the course before, and you must be a US citizen or permanent resident. The first requirement makes sense, but the second is too restrictive, considering many OMSCS students may never set foot in the US.

Unfortunately, this restriction is the product of federal and state regulations, and therefore, likely impossible to circumvent by public universities such as Georgia Tech. But things may be different in private institutions, at least, when it comes to online degrees.

I think this is worth looking into, because the possibility of becoming a TA can make an online degree much more appealing, since it allows students to gain experience, build ties with faculty, and potentially, open the door to research opportunities.

And for universities, being able to recruit TAs worldwide would significantly increase their applicant pool, allowing to hire better TAs, which would translate into improved students support, a more compelling learning experience, and increased student satisfaction.