For the last two years, massive online open courses (MOOCs) have been quietly making headway as educational tools.  However, the joint announcement by Georgia Tech and Udacity stating they would offer a masters degree in computer science for only about $7000 changes everything.   Georgia Tech is not a chump school.  According to US News and World Report, it is ranked #5  in computer engineering and #10 in computer science.   A master’s degree from a top ten school for seven grand is, well, incredible and says a lot about where education is headed.

Until three weeks ago, the last time I had looked at MOOCs was after reading an article in the NY Times in March 2012 about Peter Norvig and a colleague at Stanford offering a course on artificial intelligence.   Back in the late 1990s, I used Norvig’s book, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach,while working on an artificial immune system project.   The book was a great resource, but I would have loved to have had some help in getting through the hard parts (there were a lot of them).   There were classes available on campus, but fitting my schedule to available classes was not an option. I considered signing up for Dr. Norvig’s class just for old times’ sake, but my days of researching artificial immune systems are past.  I think…

The NY Times article appeared nearly 15 months ago, and I paid little attention to the goings on in the world of MOOCs until the Georgia Tech/Udacity announcement.   Having looked at the array of courses available from top schools, all I can say is Wow!

The number of courses for available computer science, math, and software development is astounding.  Everything from full-blown academic offerings like Norvig’s at Stanford to great tutorials on development tools are available – many of them at no cost.     Anyone who has had to tough it out trying to learn a difficult topic on his/her own can appreciate the value of these resources.

While MOOCs are definitely newsworthy, other online resources for self-guided instruction are equally compelling.   For example, Code Academy is a great place to learn a programming language.

Here are a list of the main providers and their course offerings in software development, computer science and mathematics.

Coursera 80 courses in artificial intelligence, software engineering, security, computer science theory, mathematics, entrepreneurship
edX Full range of academic of topics offered
Udacity 20+ courses in software development, mathematics and computer science

Each of these providers has an excellent pedigree.  Udacity owes its existence to the overwhelmingly positive response to the AI course taught by Norvig and Thrun. Over 160,000 students (yes, 160k)  eventually enrolled in the course leading Thrun and others to launch Udacity.  Coursera has a similar genesis.  Andrew Ng, who is also a professor at Stanford, taught a machine learning class in the fall of 2011, which later gave rise to Coursera.   Since then, both entities have teamed with major universities to expand their offerings.

The latest and most intriguing entrant, edX, is the brainchild of MIT and Harvard.  More than just another course provider, edX also offers an open source platform for delivering MOOCs that can be downloaded from GitHub.  Since its launch, edX has attracted a range of universities to its platform.

The future of MOOCs seems bright.  For someone like me, they are just the thing I have been waiting for.  There is nothing like having world-class educational resources available on-demand (or at least close to it).   If other major universities follow Georgia Tech’s example, obtaining a great education will not only be easier, but also be significantly less expensive.   To borrow a phrase from Hardison, the hacker on my favorite show Leverage (R.I.P),  “It’s the age of the MOOC baby–age of the MOOC!”

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