In an era when many colleges and universities struggle to meet their enrollment targets, a few institutions have leapfrogged over that calculus by adding large online programs that quickly enroll hundreds—or sometimes thousands—of new students. That kind of success warrants a closer look.


Toggle a few variables on a website at the Georgia Institute of Technology and you can produce a chart that shows enrollment growth in Georgia Tech’s online master’s program in computer science. Just a glance at the acute angle that the data create would likely make many enrollment managers more than a little envious. Picture a line that shoots dramatically upward from 1,255 enrollees in 2014-15 to 3,952 in 2016-17 and then to 7,674 in 2018-19. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, total enrollment in the program was up a little over 31 percent—and that was the lowest annual percent growth the program has experienced since 2014-15.

In an era when enrollment managers—and their supervisors—can be thrilled to reap single-digit improvements, Georgia Tech’s success in launching an at-scale online program has made higher education sit up and take notice. Georgia Tech now has the largest master’s degree program in computer science in the United States—and perhaps the largest anywhere. Sure, it’s just one example, but their experience shows that yes, it is possible to create and scale academic programs relatively quickly. And having now launched new at-scale online master’s programs in analytics and cybersecurity, Georgia Tech is in the process of replicating its initial success with its computer science master’s.

That kind of success has people asking a fundamental question: How, exactly, do you do that?

Do MOOCs count?

Back in July 2012, Georgia Tech started offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) through the online learning provider Coursera. Nelson Baker, Georgia Tech’s dean of professional education, remembers that one question that quickly arose was whether MOOCs could count toward degree programs. “The answer, of course, just like everybody, was ‘no’,” Baker says. At that time, higher education was predisposed not to allow MOOC courses to count toward degrees.

That fall, though, Georgia Tech received grant support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further develop online courses, especially for learners who hadn’t yet started a degree. While developing those courses, the same question came up: could they count toward a degree? This time, Baker recalls, “We started to scratch our head a little bit, and said ‘Well, gee—same faculty, same course, same outcomes. Why not?’” A group of faculty began to explore what it would take to be able to offer the same college credit for the new courses as Georgia Tech did for its traditional courses. Diving more deeply into this emerging world, faculty also began to discuss how they could better serve needs for education in high-demand fields where employers were having trouble finding enough skilled labor to fill existing jobs.

Adding yet another dimension, the conversation expanded to also consider how Georgia Tech could make education “more accessible, more affordable, but with even higher quality,” Baker says. “We call that the Iron Triangle—it’s quality, cost, and accessibility. We began our conversation, as ludicrous as it sounds, in the computer science program, asking whether we could do a full master’s degree for $1,000.”

Ludicrous, perhaps, but that kind of thinking sparked the degree of innovation that eventually led Georgia Tech to create its at-scale online master’s program in computer science.

“It allowed us to step back and challenge every assumption that a university has about its tuition structure,” Baker says. Looking at the costs of courses that used only virtual assets versus physical assets, for example, Georgia Tech saw how the cost of enrollment could diminish greatly, particularly in courses offered at scale. “Adding the next person isn’t using any more resources than what you may have in the cloud anyway,” Baker says, “particularly if you have ways to scale support and grading and some of those more human-challenged activities.” While acknowledging the costs associated with necessary human engagement in online courses, Baker says that creative thinking about traditional ways of doing things “allowed us to break the model” and see that if online courses reached certain enrollment levels, Georgia Tech could offer those courses at dramatically lower tuition.

Building off those core findings, a pair of teams focused respectively on pedagogy and business considerations began to design a new business model, with radically new cost structures based on new thinking about enrollment projections and program costs overall. That work led Georgia Tech to create an online master’s program in computer science, launched in the spring of 2014 in partnership with MOOC provider Udacity. The program costs learners $6,600 if they complete their degree within five semesters, versus the roughly $42,000 that learners pay for virtually the same program on campus. To break even, the program had to enroll at least 2,500 students. Enrollment today is pushing 8,000 students. Two $1 million gifts from AT&T provided the cash flow needed to launch and then scale the program.

Flurry of New Master’s Programs

The last 12 months have seen a flurry of new online, relatively inexpensive master’s programs that have the potential to scale very quickly.

Coursera Partnerships. In March 2018 Coursera announced partnerships to create the following master’s degrees:

  • Computer Science, Arizona State University. Tuition: $15,000
  • Public Health, Imperial College London. Tuition: £19,440 for students outside the UK
  • Computer Science, University of Illinois. Tuition: $22,000
  • Applied Data Science, University of Michigan. Tuition: $31,688-$42,262
  • Public Health, University of Michigan. Tuition: TBD June 2019

In July 2018, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science announced another Coursera partnership, a Master of Computer and Information Technology, Penn’s first completely online master’s degree. Tuition was pegged at $26,300, roughly a third of the cost of the equivalent on-campus degree.

In August, Coursera announced a Global MBA program at Australia’s Macquarie Graduate School of Management. That program will cost students AUD$33,000 (about $24,000 in U.S. dollars).

edX Partnerships. In October 2018, edX announced the launch of new master’s programs that it said were “designed for learners who want to make a pivotal career move.” The list below shows the range of their partnerships:

  • Analytics, Georgia Institute of Technology. Tuition: under $10,000
  • Cybersecurity, Georgia Institute of Technology. Tuition: under $10,000
  • Marketing, Curtin University, Australia. Tuition: USD $22,000
  • Leadership: Service Innovation, University of Queensland, Australia. Tuition: USD $18,156
  • Computer Science, University of Texas. Tuition: $10,000
  • Accounting, Indiana University. Tuition: $21,000
  • IT Management, Indiana University. Tuition: $21,000
  • Data Science, University of California, San Diego. Tuition: $15,000

Pioneers at Illinois

To date, only a few other schools have adopted models resembling Georgia Tech’s. One somewhat similar example is the online MBA, the “iMBA,” that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) started in 2016 in partnership with Coursera.

Adam Fein, vice president for digital strategy and innovation at the University of North Texas, was on staff at Illinois when the iMBA was started. Fein says Illinois’s history as a pioneer in online education created an environment that was open to further innovation. In 1960, Illinois had an Intranet where students could access course material. That led to development of PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), the first system for computer-assisted instruction. In 1996, Illinois launched an online master’s program in library and information science. When he started at Illinois in 2001, Fein helped oversee Illinois’ second online master’s, in human resource development, then the first of its kind in that discipline.

In 2001, Fein says, campus discussions about online education focused on whether there were enough potential students who believed they could get a quality education online. “We got that question a lot: Is it the same degree? Is it going to look different on my resume?” Fein recalls. “The question then was whether we could recruit enough students who were willing to take a leap with us at that time.” Another potential stumbling block was purely practical: In the age of dial-up connections, could students get the bandwidth they needed to take an online course?

MOOCs prompted the next wave of innovations at Illinois. “The idea that Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller and others had 150,000 to 200,000 people interested in their course was kind of appealing,” Fein says. Illinois became the first land-grant university to partner with Coursera in the second wave of MOOC partnerships that the company announced. Among other lessons, experience with MOOCs helped Illinois see the value of stacking credentials and giving students options to customize their education and consume education in small bites that meet a learner’s immediate needs.

That kind of thinking was reflected in the design of the iMBA, another partnership with Coursera, which launched in January 2016. The iMBA curriculum is arranged in modules, called “specializations,” on leadership, strategy, economics, accounting, and finance. To earn their MBA degree, students complete six specializations and three capstone projects, and participate in weekly live global classrooms. Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business at Illinois, told the business school website Poets & Quants that the iMBA was designed as the “reimagining of the online MBA,” with the intent that the program would “deliver quality affordable education at scale.” Starting the program was supported under a $150 million naming gift to the school from Chicago businessman Larry Gies and his wife Beth.

Students in the iMBA program, who learn from the same instructors who teach in the MBA program on campus, pay less than $22,000—versus the more than $100,000 that students in the Illinois residential two-year MBA program pay. According to published reports, more than 1,100 students have signed up for the iMBA, which graduated its first cohort in May 2018.

Lacked the vision

Writing recently in Inside Higher Education, Ray Schroeder, professor emeritus and associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, noted that skeptics have been quick to write at-scale courses off. But those critics, he argued, “were too impatient, misunderstood the nature of MOOCs and lacked the vision of those at Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois, Arizona State University, Coursera, edX and scores of other institutions that have persevered in building upon MOOCs’ premises to develop high-quality, affordable courses, certificates and now, degrees at scale.”

Schroeder, the founding director of UPCEA’s National Council for Online Education, further argued that while at-scale degrees do not fill the elusive promise of free higher education, “they are less than half the cost of on-campus versions.” And while they do not enroll the hundreds of thousands of students that some say will be one ultimate test of online learning’s efficiency, he wrote, they nonetheless count their learners in the thousands—no small feat in an era when much smaller enrollments are the norm.

Who are those learners? In the case of Georgia Tech’s computer science master’s, Baker says “about one in four of our applicants already have a master’s degree and one in 25 have a doctorate degree.” Broadly speaking, he says, students are returning for more education because they are finding that the formal schooling they have under their belts no longer suffices for the work they are being asked to do, and they need additional training. Baker says that is indicative of how fast many jobs, particularly those in STEM-related fields, are changing. “People need to retool themselves to stay employed or to get ahead,” he says.

“The average individual who goes through [Georgia Tech’s at-scale master’s] programs is between 31 and 32 years of age,” Baker says. “They have about a decade’s worth of work experience. They can’t get to any physical campus because of work life and family balance, so this is an avenue for them to have a flexible offering of high quality but at a price point that they can afford to get the additional education that they want.”

Engaging faculty

Apart from their impact on institutions and on students, Fein suggests that at-scale programs like the iMBA are also pioneering ways to scale faculty expertise. He sees large-scale programs as creating a way for the evolution of a “master-teacher model,” in which a tenure-track faculty member designs the course and “makes a guest appearance, if you will, throughout the offering,” but with the ongoing support of clinical teaching faculty, TAs, and others who support the master teacher and conduct much of the ongoing teaching day-to-day.

That’s not exactly the model at Georgia Tech, but faculty in the online master’s programs there are evolving into a different role. “Our original idea was that faculty who created this, after three, four years, would probably not be [engaged day-to-day] and we’d have adjuncts or post-docs teaching,” Baker says. “Our current model has teaching assistants and graders working with faculty. Our tenure track faculty are still in charge of the course and are the instructors of record,” Baker says. But because much course content that might have once been delivered via lecture is now available to students outside the course per se—much of it built into 10-minute segments of learning activities such as videos or simulations—faculty no longer need to lecture.  Now, Baker says, “the faculty experience is more one of coaching and mentoring, guiding, and answering questions.”

Faculty engagement has also evolved in other ways. Prior to 2014, Baker and colleagues faced something of an uphill climb in getting faculty support for the online computer science master’s degree. When the program was first put to a vote by the faculty senate, it was not unanimously approved. Since then, though, many of the faculty members who did not originally support the program have come around. In fact, Baker says, many faculty have become deeply engaged in their work in the online master’s program. He says that participating in the new modality has energized many faculty members and sparked new ideas about teaching, mentoring, and new research opportunities. One further benefit, he says, is that faculty are applying lessons learned from teaching online to their pedagogy in the physical context. “They’re actually changing the pedagogical structure of what happens residentially,” Baker says. “Everybody benefits.”

Baker says all three of its at-scale master’s programs parallel residential programs at Georgia Tech. “The curricula are the same. The learning and degree outcomes are all the same. The admission requirements are all the same. The faculty teaching it are all the same.” What’s different, Baker says, is “the access method.” Executing that access method and building at-scale online programs takes a contingent of experts beyond faculty members, including TAs, instructional designers, videographers, copy editors, and the people who manage the technological infrastructure needed to deliver online learning.

The courses include frequent assessments. Some are auto- or peer-graded. “The ones that truly count for grades” are graded by human beings, Baker says. “That’s where the coterie of graders and TAs comes in.” TAs also help faculty members manage online discussion forums and troubleshoot various student problems.

Schroeder believes that TAs are key for addressing what he calls one of the biggest challenges in offering at-scale degrees: interacting and engaging with individual students. “How do you individualize, how do you personalize, how do you respond to students when you have so many?” he asked in an interview. “That’s something that traditional universities do in classes of 30 or 50 students.” When you multiply the total student population in a program by a factor of five or ten, he says, maintaining the kind of individual level of engagement with a student that is possible in a small course becomes very difficult. TAs are one answer to that dilemma, Schroeder says. Another potential solution, he says, may be the broader use of virtual TAs made possible through artificial intelligence. At Georgia Tech, for example, interactive computing professor Ashok Goel has pioneered use of a virtual teaching assistant in an online course about AI. By answering routine student questions, Schroeder says the virtual TA can free faculty time for higher-order discussion.

There are good reasons why hundreds of universities have not followed Georgia Tech’s lead in building at-scale online programs. Many schools simply don’t have the requisite technological infrastructure and support. Then there’s also the issue of funding the courses, including resourcing them with the expertise they require beyond that of the faculty member. When Georgia Tech first started down this road, Baker says, it cost close to $300,000 to create a semester-based course. He says they have since halved that number. Corporate grant support provided the cash flow that Georgia Tech needed to start all three of its at-scale programs.

Baker recognizes that not all universities will have access to the same resources his school has, but he says institutions that aspire to build similar programs may have more resources than they think. In terms of bench strength to help faculty bring an at-scale online program to fruition, Baker says “almost everybody has some center for teaching and learning.” He notes, too, that many institutions might also have course-building expertise in their continuing education units that can be leveraged across the whole of the university. Moreover, he says, institutions can start slowly and build their capacity. While “you do need to make some upfront investments,” he notes, “you don’t need to build out the size of staffing that you will need five years from now from the beginning.” Third-party partners can, of course, also bring relevant expertise to the table.

Going forward

Going forward, it seems likely that we will see more at-scale online degree programs. In 2018, for example, Coursera announced partnerships in eight new online degree programs at six universities. Last year, too, edX announced the launch of nine affordable large-scale online master’s programs at seven prominent universities. One of those programs, the new master’s of science in analytics at Georgia Tech, will cost students $9,900 versus as much as $49,000 if they matriculated in the on-campus version of the course as an out-of-state student. Both Coursera and edX have now created pathways through which students can stack credentials they earn online and apply them toward master’s programs. To that end, for example, Georgia Tech and edX are piloting a “MicroMasters” program that includes three foundation courses from the university’s new full-fledged at-scale analytics master’s program; students can earn a standalone certificate for taking those courses, and credits earned can apply toward a master’s degree if the student elects to pursue that credential. In addition to more activity at the graduate level, the newly announced programs include new online undergraduate degrees at the University of London and the University of Pennsylvania.

Suppositions that online learning is somehow inferior to classroom learning are fast dissipating. A recent report by the Arizona State University Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group, for example, made the case that digital learning can improve student outcomes. The report also said that online learning is more affordable and more accessible than person-to-person education and that it can reduce operating expenses for universities. Advocates of online learning also tout its overall flexibility, of course, especially for adult students.

Online credentials are also gaining credibility in the workplace: A recent study from Northeastern University found that “online credentials are now mainstream, with a solid majority (61 percent) of HR leaders believing that credentials earned online are of generally equal quality to those completed in-person.” That’s up from lower percentages in previous years, the report said. Further evidence that online education is becoming mainstream is reflected in edX and Coursera’s moves to fill the huge market for continuing education in medicine and healthcare with online courses. In part to help boost flagging enrollments in law schools, the American Bar Association recently said that students could earn up to a third of credit hours required for the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree through online study.

Some experts have started to wonder whether the market for online programs will quickly reach a saturation point. Baker says no. “In the high demand fields that we’ve chosen, I don’t think they’re even close to being saturated,” he says. “If you look at Department of Labor statistics and talk to employers, the technology’s changing so fast” that a more relevant concern than market saturation is whether universities can keep up with students’ needs for new skills. Baker suggests that trend will only continue. “With new knowledge coming along, what follows?” he asks. “We need to be thinking about lifetime pathways for education because nothing is constant for a career that’s likely going to last 60 years.”

Another relevant question is whether such programs cannibalize students who might otherwise pay higher rates to attend residential programs. A recent study of the Georgia Tech online master’s in computer science led by a professor of public policy at Harvard University found “no overlap” between types of students who apply for in-person and online versions of that program. Writing in EducationNext, the researchers said, for example, that “unlike the in-person master’s, the online program attracts older employed students.” While the study did not compare quality in the online course to that in an equivalent in-person version, the authors did measure whether online students finished their courses with as much knowledge as in-person students; they found that online students slightly outperformed the in-person students. “The Georgia Tech program confirms that, when done well, online coursework can substantially increase overall educational attainment and expand access to students who would not otherwise enroll,” the researchers concluded.

Schools can develop at-scale online programs without online program managers, but OPMs like Coursera, edX and Udacity can bring a lot to the table in such partnerships. For example, OPMs can provide operational and technological expertise as well as support staff that can augment human resources that a university might be able to deploy. In addition, OPMs often have deeper expertise in marketing than universities do, particularly in reaching adult students. Similarly, they may have a more robust capacity to conduct relevant market research.

What will the future bring?

Saying he expects to see further expansion of at-scale online degree programs, and citing trends like micro-certifications, competency-based education, and increased need for workers to retool their skills via life-long learning, Schroeder says, “I think there is a new era in higher education.”

Baker, too, is optimistic about the future of at-scale degree programs. “I think we’ll see more of these, not less,” he says. “There are now nearly two dozen such programs at probably some 15 or so universities.” He says those initiatives are learning from one another about how to avoid the pitfalls of at-scale programs and, more importantly, to “make better programs.” Not all of higher education will go the way of at-scale programs, Baker believes, but he says such programs will continue to serve a need that students have for gaining the kind of expertise that at-scale programs deliver, at attractive price points. In that latter regard, Baker further predicts that we’ll continue to see “more separation of the tuition structure based upon the cost of degrees and what goes into them.”

The growing need for life-long learning and career-related skills development has been an essential driver in the growth of at-scale online programs. Acknowledging this factor, Baker says that while higher education of course must continue to play a pivotal role in providing foundational education, he also believes that colleges and universities must do more to “partner with people throughout their careers” and that “that needs to be done in a bigger manner.”

Most people think of higher education as an industry that hasn’t changed in centuries, Baker says. But today, he says “it’s changing very rapidly, because we’re listening and we’re trying to provide learning activities for what people need and want.”

“I’m thrilled to see higher education trying to meet the needs of more learners,” Baker says. “It’s exciting that we’re all learning.”


Stephen G. Pelletier ([email protected]) is an independent writer and editor who writes frequently about higher education. Prior to starting his full-time freelance practice in 2006, he served for many years as vice president for communications at the Council of Independent Colleges, directed the publications program at NASFA: Association of International Educators, and edited the magazine at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.