I’m totally psyched about the newly announced master of science in artificial intelligence (MSAI) degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Why? I’ll give you 10,000 reasons: the degree will cost students $10,000!
Let me say that slowly. A $10K master’s degree from a top global university. Totally online. Perfect for working adults. And in the hottest field.
When I heard about the MSAI degree, offered in partnership with edX (a 2U company), I knew I needed to learn more. Fortunately, two of the people behind this degree were willing to answer my questions. UT Austin’s Adam Klivans, professor of computer science, and Art Markman, vice provost of academic affairs, graciously agreed to chat.
Q: The launch of this program comes at just the right time, when conversations about the opportunities—and potential perils—of generative AI are dominating every industry. When did conversations about developing this course begin?
Klivans: Plans for UT master’s of artificial intelligence (MSAI) program started during the launch and early days of the online master’s of computer science (MSCS) program in 2019, which was developed in partnership with edX. I was (and still am) the first faculty director of the MSCS program. As a researcher in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning, I wanted to make sure the new MSCS degree program had a strong framework of courses in machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing and other core AI topics, along with course offerings in application and theory. I’m happy with how the curriculum turned out.
Even then, we knew that AI had matured enough as a discipline to merit its own online master’s degree program at UT. AI is going to impact nearly every industry you can think of, and the demand for skilled AI professionals in all economic sectors will continue to increase. We recognized that the need for this kind of training was far greater than traditionally sized technical graduate programs could handle. Creating an at-scale master’s degree program in AI seemed like the logical next step for our programs.
We also knew that while still technical in nature, our approach to MSAI would look different than the one we took for MSCS and would draw on knowledge, data, and applications from a broader range of disciplines. For example, we knew we needed a strong Ethics in AI foundational course. MSAI will have one. We knew that some MSAI courses would focus on healthcare or clinical research, where AI/ML approaches will be transformative. We think our program sets a new standard for advanced education in AI moving forward.
In just the past year or so, the results of years of generative AI research started becoming “real” in ways people can intuitively understand. Image generators and chatbots have driven a lot of public interest, investment, and introspection about the potential impacts of these technologies. There’s also an increasing prevalence of AI technologies in less publicly-visible sectors like analytics, manufacturing, and security. Across the board, the need for a skilled workforce to support the continued adoption of AI technologies is only growing.
Given that context, I think that the announcement of an at-scale program in AI is noteworthy. These technologies have many potential applications, but only if there are enough trained professionals to do the work. MSAI was created to help meet that challenge by lowering financial and geographic barriers to advanced AI education.
Q: Part of what makes this degree offering so exciting is its affordable price tag—$10,000 in tuition. Was that always the plan?
Klivans: Yes. Like its sibling programs in computer science and data science, MSAI is priced specifically to create new opportunities for as many qualified students as possible, and to lower barriers to entry for historically underserved populations. Those objectives complement what we hope will be another positive outcome: empowering more students to create positive social impact through responsible AI innovation.
We do this through “at-scale” program architecture, which simply means that our programs are built from the ground up to educate thousands of students at a time. Using online learning platforms like edX and distance-ed focused instructional design, programs like MSAI can achieve efficiencies that allow us to offer a master’s degree for a fraction of the cost of a traditional graduate program.
For students, there are several major advantages to this model of graduate education. First, obviously, is price. An MSAI degree at UT Austin costs around $10,000 for the full degree. It’s a 30-hour program, so that comes out to just $1,000 per course. The diploma is identical to our in-person master’s programs.
Second is flexibility. Unlike traditional master’s degree programs which typically require full-time enrollment, the MSAI program will be flexible and customizable to a student’s life and circumstances. Students can enroll in anywhere between one and five courses per semester and finish their degrees in anywhere between one and six years. So if you’re in a hurry, there’s no faster path to a degree in artificial intelligence. But if you’re balancing school with your career and other responsibilities, there’s no better way to fit a master’s degree into a busy lifestyle.
Third—and this is really at the heart of the value of at-scale programs—is that they can deliver affordability and flexibility without sacrificing quality and rigor. Like our existing online master’s programs in CS and DS, MSAI courses are taught by some of the strongest teaching and research faculty at UT. Until now, taking a for-credit, degree-bearing course from a leading expert in AI was a comparatively exclusive experience. You had to be able to devote a couple years of your life to the pursuit of a degree, and maybe to move to a different city. A program like MSAI extends that opportunity to a much larger population of smart and capable students, including folks who are working full time, raising families, or who live in areas where comparable educational options may not be available.
I think you need a few ingredients to create a program like MSAI. It helps, for instance, to have a strong and engaged teaching and research faculty, robust IT infrastructure to support thousands of learners, and the resources and determination to get it off the ground. We got valuable help from edX with course delivery and scaling. We think, however, that this model of education will become more common in the future as programs like MSAI demonstrate that you can effectively educate lots of people at a very advanced level, in a flexible modality, and at a far more approachable price point than we’re used to seeing in graduate education.
Q: Do university-supported at-scale programs like MSAI, MSCS and MSCS (along with future efforts regarding badging, certificates and other educational offerings) reflect a change in approach to higher education at UT Austin?
Markman: I might quibble slightly with characterizing these programs as a “change in approach.” UT Austin is and will remain a great research university, and its deep commitment to world-class on-campus graduate education is complemented by the addition of at-scale online programs like MSAI.
That said, I do believe at-scale online education represents a significant milestone and turning point for UT, because it opens the university’s virtual doors to a population of students it could not previously have served, in a way that is both credible and rigorous. Despite their comparatively larger enrollment size and lower cost, the online programs of computer and data science online (CDSO) meet the same strict academic standards as UT’s most selective and prestigious on-campus graduate programs. Their courses are designed and taught by tenured faculty, and modeled on the University’s on-campus curricula. Their students create and sustain innovative virtual spaces for collaboration, networking and socializing. I view programs like MSAI as an important new avenue in the pursuit of UT Austin’s broader educational and social mission. UT has gone through a significant strategic planning exercise over the past two years, and growth and development of programs like this fits squarely within our mission of creating opportunities for upward mobility at a price point that fits the role of a public university.
In America, the notion that colleges and universities ought to find ways to teach students beyond the campus goes at least as far back as the Chautauqua movement of the 1880s. It’s endured a number of failed experiments and false starts since then. But recently, universities like Arizona State and Georgia Tech, both of which have moved into the online space with purpose, have found ways to make the model work. And now, nearly five years into UT Austin’s entry into at-scale online graduate education, it seems that both the university and our students have really figured out how to expand the borders of the classroom.
The success of our online students and programs has implications for the rest of UT’s continuing and professional programs as well. UT developed programs for microcredentials, digital badging and stackable certificates that enable people to take short courses, longer engagements, or degree programs depending on their needs. We want to engage people throughout their lives to return to school to get training in particular knowledge and skills needed for specific jobs, and more importantly in the critical thinking skills that are central to leadership in the modern work environment.
In 1963, University of California president Clark Kerr observed that large universities do many things at once, and that sometimes those things are in tension. In the past, at-scale online programs like MSAI might have been viewed as a departure from the “core” educational mission of the university. But we’re now seeing strong, real-world evidence that well-designed and supported at-scale programs can fit comfortably alongside the university’s traditional research and educational functions, and really expand our capacity to upskill and reskill knowledge workers for the jobs of the future. Our strategic planning mission is to make UT the highest impact public university in the world. Serving thousands of students from across the globe, it’s hard to imagine a better illustration of that creed in action than the programs of CDSO.