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Communications of the ACM


OMSCS: The Revolution Will Be Digitized

OMSCS initials and binary code, illustration

Credit: Medium

The Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS), a degree program at the College of Computing (CoC), Georgia Institute of Technology, grew out of a conversation I had with Sebastian Thrun (co-founder of online learning platform Udacity) in September 2012. We set as our goal to expand access to quality learning opportunities by using massive open online course (MOOC) technology to mitigate obstructions of time, space, and financial ability. This called for a fundamental, revolutionary shift from the prevailing paradigm of higher education, in which a brand is bolstered by exclusion and high tuition fees.

As a preliminary step, I, as dean of CoC, convened a faculty working group, chaired by Kishore Ramachandran, from the School of Computer Science. Its members were notably concerned with maintaining the quality of CoC's academic content, the logistics, and the student and faculty experience—a focus on quality that would become a key principle of the program. The document the group created became the operational manual for putting the program into practice. The working group, in turn, engaged with the faculty through a series of deliberations and town hall meetings, and in spring 2013 the faculty voted to move forward. The program then earned the support of Georgia Tech's President and Provost, who advocated for it with the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. While the faculty debated and planned, Thrun and I sought funding to cover the costs of preparing, organizing, and introducing the first courses. In January 2013, AT&T provided a $2 million gift, and added $2 million more a year later. AT&T's generous support signaled to Georgia Tech the potential of the program, and enabled OMSCS to have positive net income from the start. When, in May 2013, the Board of Regents approved the degree, we began preparing the first courses, using Udacity's platform and their course design and production experience. Each of the initial five courses cost approximately $300,000 to develop. In January 2014, OMSCS was launched with 380 students.


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