What Motivates Enrollees in a Low-cost Online MSCS Program?

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Brief Abstract

In this Discovery Session, we will present and discuss what we have found motivates students to enroll in an affordable online Master of Science in Computer Science program.

Additional Authors

David Joyner is the Associate Director for Student Experience in Georgia Tech's College of Computing, overseeing the administration of the college's online Master of Science in Computer Science program as well as its new online undergraduate offerings. He has developed and teaches CS6460: Educational Technology, CS6750: Human-Computer Interaction, and CS1301: Introduction to Computing, all online.

Extended Abstract

As of Fall 2019, Georgia Tech's online MSCS program enrolls 9,000 active students and has 2,000 alumni. These numbers make it the largest program of its kind in the world, and it has reached tat level in only five years. On the one hand, these numbers have been reached by the program's ability to handle these numbers; but this is only half the equation. The other half is the question: why are these students enrolling in the first place? What motivates them to enroll, and how do those motivations dictate how the program should be designed?

To examine this, we conducted a pair of studies. In the first, we asked students a simple free-response question: why are you in the program? Based on the ~1500 responses to this question, we devised a coding scheme for summarizing their motivations. We found that by far the most-reported motivation (51% of students) was the simple acquisition of the type of knowledge the program disseminated; these students expressed a specific desire to learn the concepts of graduate-level CS, including machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data science. Other motivations included career advancement (29%), personal enjoyment (19%), degree attainment (19%), and career transition (18%). Moreover, we found many students expressing motivations that did not directly motivate their attendance, but rather allowed or reassured them that their attendance was feasible and rewarding; for example, these students cited the program's flexibility (15%), prestige (11%), and low cost (8%).

In our second study, we used these questions to inform the design of a closed-response questionnaire, offering up 16 possible motivations in a non-exclusive multiple-choice question. The results were largely the same, but showed interesting differences: all motivations were reported more frequently, and opportunity factors like low cost and flexibility jumped significantly relative to other motivations. The desire to attain a higher salary, similarly, jumped (from 1% in the first study to 37% in the second).

Perhaps most notably, we observed notable differences based on student age and gender. In the first study, we found that younger students were more likely to cite knowledge acquisiton and flexibility, while older students were more likely to cite personal enjoyment. We would have anticipated younger students, less likely to be beholden to families, might prioritize flexibility less, but instead we found the opposite; perhaps driven by the burden of student loans, they prioritized the ability to work while enrolling even more highly. On the second survey, we found also that older students are more likely to appreciate the social community and faculty of the online program.

Regarding gender, in the first study, women were more likely to value flexibility and career transition while men were more likely to value the institute's prestige. The former trend may be due to women's increased trepidation over losing professional progress in their careers to pursue an additional degree, given the lesser leeway given to working women to lose momentum in their career trajectory; or, the emphasis on career transition may reflect women reentering the workforce and wanting to enter in a promising field. These gaps actually grew in the second study, with twice as many women selecting flexibility and career transition as a motivation than in the previous survey. On this second survey, there were other gender differences as well: men were more likely to report personal enjoyment and salary incease as reasons for enrolling than women.

In this Discovery Session, we present these and other findings, and discuss analogous experiences at attendees' universities.