3 Questions About UT Austin’s New $10,000 Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence (MSAI).

I am absolutely thrilled with the newly announced Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence (MSAI) from UT Austin. Why? I’ll give you 10,000 reasons. It costs students $10,000 to graduate!

Let me say this slowly. A $10,000 master’s degree from a world-leading university. Entirely online. Perfect for working adults. And that in the hottest field.

When I heard about the MSAI degree offered in partnership with edX (a 2U company), I knew I had to learn more. Luckily, 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 for academic affairs, kindly agreed to an interview.

Q1: The launch of this program is timely as conversations about the opportunities – and potential threats – of generative AI dominate every industry. When did discussions about the development of this course begin?

[Answered by Adam]

Plans for the UT Master of Artificial Intelligence (MSAI) program began during the launch and early days of the 2019 online Master of Computer Science (MSCS) program developed in partnership with edX. I was (and still am) the first Faculty Director of the MSCS program. As a researcher in artificial intelligence and machine learning, I wanted to ensure that the new MSCS program had a strong framework of courses in machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, and other core AI topics, as well as course offerings in application and theory. I am satisfied with how the curriculum has developed.

Even then, we knew that AI as a discipline had matured enough to merit an online master’s degree of its own at UT. AI will impact nearly every industry imaginable, and the demand for skilled AI professionals across all sectors of the economy will continue to grow. We recognize that the need for this type of education is far greater than traditional engineering graduate programs could handle. Creating a large-scale Masters in AI seemed like the logical next step for our programs.

We also knew that our approach to MSAI, while still technical in nature, would be different than what we took for MSCS and would draw on knowledge, data and applications from a broader range of disciplines. For example, we knew that we needed a strong basic course on “ethics in AI”. 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 believe our program sets a new standard for the advancement of AI education.

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Only in the last year or so have the results of years of generative AI research started to become “real” in ways that humans can intuitively understand. Image generators and chatbots have generated a lot of public interest, investment, and introspection about the potential impact of these technologies. There is also an increasing adoption of AI technologies in less publicly visible sectors such as analytics, manufacturing and security. In general, there is a growing need for qualified workers to support the further introduction of AI technologies.

Against this background, I think the announcement of a large-scale AI program is remarkable. These technologies have many potential applications, but only if there are enough trained professionals to do the work. MSAI was founded to address this challenge by lowering financial and geographic barriers to advanced AI education.

Q2: Part of what makes this degree so exciting is its affordable price – $10,000 in tuition. Was that always the plan?

[Answered by Adam]

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 the barriers to entry for historically underserved populations. These goals add to another positive outcome that we hope will empower more students to make positive social impact through responsible AI innovation.

We do this through an “at-scale” program architecture, which simply means that our programs are built from the ground up to train thousands of students at once. By leveraging online learning platforms like edX and a distance learning-focused lesson design, programs like MSAI are able to achieve efficiencies that allow us to offer a master’s degree at a fraction of the cost of a traditional graduate program.

For students, this model of graduate education offers several major benefits. First, of course, is the price. An MSAI degree from UT Austin costs around $10,000 for the full degree. It is a 30-hour program that comes out to only $1000 per course. The diploma is identical to our face-to-face master’s courses.

Second is flexibility. Unlike traditional master’s programs, which typically require full-time enrollment, the MSAI program is flexible and adaptable to a student’s life and circumstances. Students can enroll in one to five courses per semester and graduate in one to six years. So if you are in a hurry, there is no faster way to study Artificial Intelligence. But if you want to balance school with your career and other responsibilities, there’s no better way to fit a master’s degree into a busy lifestyle.

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Third – and this is really the core of the value of programs at scale – is that they can offer affordability and flexibility without sacrificing quality and rigour. Like our existing online master’s programs in CS and DS, MSAI courses are taught by some of the strongest teaching and research faculties at UT. Until now, completing a creditable, degree-bearing course with a leading AI expert has been a comparatively exclusive experience. You had to be able to devote a few years of your life to pursuing a degree and maybe moving to another city. A program like MSAI extends that opportunity to a much larger population of bright and capable students, including people working full-time, raising families, or living in areas where comparable educational opportunities may not be available.

I think you need a few ingredients to create a program like MSAI. For example, it helps to have a strong and dedicated teaching and research faculty, a robust IT infrastructure to support thousands of learners, and the resources and determination to get them off the ground. We received valuable help from edX in course delivery and scaling. However, we believe that this model of education will be more widespread in the future, as programs like MSAI show that you can effectively educate many people, at a very advanced level, in a flexible modality, and at a far cheaper price than we are used to in the see graduate education.

Q3: Do the university-supported large-scale programs such as MSAI, MSCS, and MSCS (along with future efforts toward badges, certificates, and other educational offerings) reflect a change in the approach to higher education at UT Austin?

[Answered by Art]

I could argue with characterizing these programs as a “change of approach.” UT Austin continues to be a great research university, and its deep commitment to world-class higher education on campus is complemented by the addition of large-scale online programs like MSAI.

Nonetheless, I believe that online education at scale represents a significant milestone and game changer for UT, as it opens the university’s virtual doors to a population of students it previously could not have served, in a way that both credible as well as rigorous. Despite their comparatively larger enrollment and lower cost, Computer and Data Science Online (CDSO) online programs meet the same rigorous academic standards as the most selective and prestigious graduate programs on UT’s campus. Their courses are designed and taught by permanent faculty and are modeled on the university campus curriculum. Your students create and maintain innovative virtual spaces for collaboration, networking, and socializing. I view programs like MSAI as an important new avenue in pursuit of UT Austin’s broader educational and social mission. UT has undergone a significant strategic planning exercise over the past two years, and the growth and development of programs like this aligns closely with our mission to create opportunities for upward mobility at a price befitting the role of a public university.

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In America, the notion that colleges and universities should find ways to educate students off campus dates back at least to the Chautauqua movement of the 1880s. Since then, it has endured a series of failed experiments and false starts. But recently, universities like Arizona State and Georgia Tech, both of which have intentionally jumped into the online space, have found ways to make the model work. And now, nearly five years after UT Austin’s entry into comprehensive online graduate education, both the university and our students seem to have really figured out how to push the boundaries of the classroom.

The success of our online students and programs also impacts UT’s other graduate and professional programs. UT has developed micro-ID, digital ID, and stackable certificate programs that enable people to pursue short courses, longer engagements, or degree programs based on their needs. We want to encourage people to return to school throughout their lives to further develop specific knowledge and skills required for specific jobs and, more importantly, the critical thinking skills required for leadership in the community modern working environment are of central importance.

In 1963, the President of the University of California, Clark Kerr, observed that large universities do many things at the same time and that sometimes these things come into tension. In the past, online full-scale programs like MSAI may have been viewed as a departure from the university’s “core” educational mission. But we are now seeing strong, real-world evidence that well-designed and supported large-scale programs can fit comfortably alongside the university’s traditional research and education functions and can truly expand our capacity to upskill and reskill knowledge workers for the professions of the future. Our strategic planning mission is to make UT the most influential public university in the world. Serving thousands of students from around the world, it is hard to imagine a better illustration of this faith in action than CDSO’s programs.