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The Rise of MOOC-based Master’s Degrees at Elite Universities

Our successful forays into online learning have encouraged us to take the natural next step, which is to offer a fully-online degree program.

Boon Thau Loo, Associate Dean, UPenn Engineering

People pursue master’s degrees for the same reasons they always have: to advance academically and intellectually, to qualify for a new career, or to reach the next pay grade in their current job. That said, the ways in which students can complete a graduate-level program have changed, and traditional on-campus degrees are no longer the only option.

Five years ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology, known as Georgia Tech, experimented with a new form of online education. The school began to offer its master of science in computer science through a massive open online course (MOOC) provider. These providers, like Coursera, Udacity, and edX, offer a platform for online courses and programs to be scaled across thousands of students around the world.

Georgia Tech predicted that it would be less expensive for students and still profitable for the school—and the school was right. The program costs $7,000, which is a fraction of its on-campus tuition. While Georgia Tech was the first school to offer an entirely MOOC-based master’s degree, other prestigious universities have since followed suit and given rise to a range of offerings.

A Brief History of MOOCs

In 2008, two professors at the University of Manitoba led a course called “Connectivism and Connectivity Knowledge,” which they delivered on-campus and online for viewers around the world to experience. Professors Stephen Downes and George Siemens had a total of 25 students attend the course on campus and another 2,300 from across the globe participated online. They were the first to call this educational innovation a massive open online course—or MOOC for short.

It did not take long for other universities to catch on. By May 2012, professors from Stanford University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had developed competing online platforms that each offered MOOCs free of charge. Sites like Udacity, Coursera, and edX were born along with the mission to make quality education available to all—regardless of economic borders.

While their intent was pure, these platforms failed to reach low-income prospects with limited access to education. Instead, college students and working professionals came to these MOOC providers to hone their business skills or get an introductory lesson that would help them choose a career path.

When the major MOOC platforms began to realize these free online courses were not a sustainable business model, they clamored to change direction. At Udacity, that meant shifting focus to grow their university partnerships. In 2014, the company partnered with Georgia Tech to develop the first MOOC-based master’s degree program. The program launched with support from an AT&T corporate sponsorship, which helped keep tuition costs low and interest high.

According to Georgia Tech, the online master of science in computer science (OMS CS) has received over 25,000 applications and enrolled more than 10,000 students in the past five years. These students all work towards the same degree as the school’s on-campus students, making the program widely accessible to new groups of people.

To the surprise of some, they did not cannibalize their own revenue. An analysis of the OMS CS program was published in Education Next. The report found only a 0.2 percent overlap between the students who applied to the on-campus program and those that applied to the MOOC-based degree.

In fact, the typical applicant to the online program between spring 2014 and fall 2016 was a 34-year-old American in the middle of their career. Meanwhile, the in-person degree applicant was most commonly described as a 24-year-old graduate from India. The analysis goes to show that this new model of higher education is serving a completely different type of student, which, as it turns out, is good for business.

Online Degrees at Prestigious Schools

Boon Thau Loo

Today, there are many online master’s programs available on MOOC platforms, and some of the best universities in the country have programs on Coursera, Udacity, and edX. For example, the University of Pennsylvania offers a wealth of engineering courses and programs on Coursera.

“Penn Engineering has a rich history in offering online courses,” says Boon Thau Loo, the associate dean at Penn Engineering.

The University of Pennsylvania offers the world’s only online Ivy League master’s program in computer science on Coursera. Before that, the school launched a robotics specialization on Coursera and a robotics MicroMasters on edX, both offered by Penn Engineering’s world-renowned GRASP robotics laboratory. The school also developed software development specialization on edX taught by three computer science faculty. Loo says that the courses have attracted hundreds of thousands of learners.

“Our successful forays into online learning have encouraged us to take the natural next step, which is to offer a fully-online degree program,” he says.

UPenn launched its master of computer and information technology (MCIT) on Coursera in July 2018. Penn Engineering selected Coursera based on the previous successful collaborations with the MOOC platform. Stanford University (the platform’s founders are former Stanford professors), the University of Michigan, and UPenn were some of the first schools to offer courses on the platform. As of June 2018, Coursera had more than 33 million registered users, and by August 2019, the platform offered more than 3,600 courses.

While the MOOC-based master’s degree programs have proven useful for the universities and the MOOC platforms, their benefits may not appeal to all types of students. When deciding between a traditional, on-campus program and this new form of distance learning, MOOC-based degrees present several advantages and disadvantages. For the student seeking flexibility in their academic career, these are important considerations.

The Advantages of MOOC-based Degrees

Less Expensive

The Udacity-hosted Georgia Tech master’s program is one-sixth the cost of the on-campus degree. The school was able to keep tuition so low because Georgia Tech and Udacity received a $2 million corporate investment from AT&T. Most MOOC-based degrees, however, do not have the backing of corporate sponsorship, but they remain the more economical choice. UPenn’s MCIT program on Coursera costs $26,300, which is roughly one-third of the on-campus program.

Relaxed Application Process

“Online technology is one of our means towards scaling some of our popular courses, where the primary limiting factor is a lack of large lecture rooms to accommodate hundreds of learners,” Loo explains.

Universities can only accept a certain number of applicants each year due to a lack of physical space. MOOC-based degrees remove that barrier. They were designed to accommodate a large audience. For this reason, students can benefit from a more relaxed application process and universities can focus their selection process more on the quality of the student rather than the number of students. However, the programs are still highly selective and each university admits students based on their own metrics.

For example, the University of Colorado, Boulder has implemented a new approach: performance-based admissions. Instead of submitting exam scores, transcripts and recommendations, prospective students must complete a set of MOOCs in the program. Once applicants finish the required coursework with at least a B average, they are then accepted into the full degree program.

Stackable Courses

MOOC-based degrees are comprised of individual courses, which stack together to create one full degree. For instance, the online master of business administration (iMBA) program from the University of Illinois is organized into modules called specializations on Coursera. There are six specializations in total, which are completed sequentially. As students complete a specialization, they earn the credentials for that particular area of expertise. In the event a student does not complete the full degree, they can still benefit from these specializations on their resume.

Preview Courses and Auditing

Auditing a class means to take a class without the benefit of a grade or credit toward a degree. This is a common practice in traditional, on-campus learning. However, MOOC platforms have also adopted free audits as a way to open their virtual doors to more people. With regard to online degrees, this option allows prospective students the ability to sample the content before making a full commitment. Along the same lines, Penn recommends that students who are unsure about applying to the full program take the online course in computational thinking for problem-solving on Coursera. If they complete the program successfully, they will be well-prepared for the MCIT program. Students who complete the predictor course are encouraged to mention that they did so in their application.

More Flexibility

All forms of online education offer flexibility. That said, earning an online degree directly from a university still has its drawbacks. Typically, courses follow the same schedule as the on-campus program and require students to take a minimum number of credit hours each semester.

MOOC-based degrees, on the other hand, do not necessarily impose a heavy course load. Students take as many—or as few—courses as they can handle at any given time. Also, MOOC-based degrees typically offer asynchronous coursework, meaning that students can access lectures and assignments on their own schedule. This provides a more conducive learning environment for professionals, international students, and other time-constrained individuals. For example, Penn’s MCIT program includes ten courses but can be completed in as little as 20 months or as many as 40.

The Disadvantages of MOOC-based Degrees


MOOC-based degrees are still a relatively new form of online education. Being that they are still in their infancy, there is a limited selection of degrees. Computer science, accounting, and business administration are among the most common offerings. While these may be strong professional fields, they are far from diverse.

To help broaden its customer reach, edX has announced it will soon add a number of new master’s degree programs to its platform, including nutrition sciences, psychology, and project management. Until more MOOC platforms expand their selection of elite online degrees, this will be a missed opportunity.


Before MOOCs, the credibility of a degree was based solely on the rank of the institution from which it was earned. Thereby, a Harvard business degree would hold more employable weight than an equivalent degree from a local state college. Employers could quickly identify this on a resume. MOOC-based degrees, however, are not as recognizable.

In a 2017 study by QS Intelligence Unit, recruiters were asked if they were familiar with MOOCs. Of the 4,654 respondents, 71 percent were not. Unfortunately, this lack of awareness affects the credibility of MOOC-based degrees.

On the bright side, the study showed that not all industries are ignorant of MOOCs. Employers in consulting, technology, and industry were most familiar with MOOCs. Plus, Coursera and edX are both focused on growing their business platforms. EdX for Business already has 200 corporate customers using their MOOCs to develop talent within their organization. This type of customer reach could increase awareness of MOOC-based degrees among the country’s top employers.

The Future of MOOC-based Master’s Degrees

The fast growth of MOOC-based degrees is proof that there is potential in a non-traditional format. Georgia Tech’s Office of the Provost says “most analysts agree that transactional pricing (tuition per credit-hour) is not a sustainable model.” Instead, they foresee value-based revenue generation becoming the focus “because it allows the Institute to reach new markets not currently served by higher education.”

As for the MOOC providers, they are continuing to evolve with consumer demand. EdX CEO Anant Agarwal told Harvard Magazine, “EdX remains committed to developing a sustainable business model, making sure that we are able to reimagine education both in quality and scale for everybody, but it is going to take time.” EdX hasn’t wasted much time. They’ve recently introduced their MicroMasters® programs, which allow students to take courses that lead to a certificate. That certificate then applies toward a university’s on-campus degree, thereby accelerating the student’s total coursework.

Innovations like the MicroMasters® further solidify the fact that there is sufficient interest in MOOC-based degrees for graduate students. What may be a sticking point, however, is their credibility in the workforce. Joshua Goodman, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, told Inside Higher Ed, “[He] would like to explore how the labor market values the online degree versus the in-person degree, and whether students who studied online experienced career advancement as a result of their qualification.”

To Goodman’s point, the future of MOOC-based master’s degrees partly depends on how the market receives them. If employers regard these online programs as equal to traditional teachings—regardless of how much they cost or how flexible they are—MOOCs will continue to change the landscape and potentially make higher education more accessible to all.

Laura Childs

Laura Childs is a versatile writer and media specialist living in London. She's a California native and has written about arts, culture, and tech in San Francisco. A self-proclaimed data nerd, she loves telling people's stories supported by research. When not writing, Laura teaches and practices yoga. You can find more of her work and get in touch at