UI turns to Internet to help meet demand for master's degree

UI turns to Internet to help meet demand for master's degree

URBANA — More than 4,000 students applied for 200 undergraduate spots this year in computer science, among the most competitive departments at the University of Illinois.

Demand is similar at the graduate level, with data science one of the hottest and highest-paid professions of the millennium.

To help meet demand — and generate revenue — the UI is offering a new online professional master's degree in data science, built on "MOOCs" (massive open online courses), in partnership with the Silicon Valley company Coursera.

Similar to the "iMBA" online program announced last year by the College of Business, it will allow students to take initial courses as MOOCs, for free, to "test the waters," said computer science Professor John Hart, who designed the new program. They can take one course, or several for a Coursera certificate, or apply to the full master's degree program.

With a tuition rate just under $20,000, the full-degree program costs thousands less per year than traditional master's degrees, on-campus or online, Hart said.

Coursera announced the new program Wednesday morning, and students had already downloaded the applications by that afternoon. Applications are due by June 15, and the first group of 150 students will begin classes next August.

The UI hopes to attract a new demographic of potential data scientists who aren't able to take a traditional educational path, officials said. Students can complete the program in as little as one year, or up to five years to accommodate family obligations or other needs.

"There's tremendous demand for this," Hart said Wednesday. "Our classrooms are packed. We turn away many good students, and we don't have the capability to accept all of them."

The Coursera model, using MOOCs, seems to be the best way to offer education to the widest audience "at a much lower price point," he said.

Last year, the UI became the first Coursera partner to use the MOOC platform to offer a full online degree, the iMBA, for $20,000 — a fraction of the cost of the traditional on-campus MBA program.

The new online computer science degree consists of eight courses, each lasting a full semester, Hart said. Each course includes two MOOCs as the lecture portion, with a separate "high engagement" portion where students interact with professors and teaching assistants who assess their work and make sure it's appropriate for UI credit, he said.

Students can simply sign up for the MOOCs through Coursera for free, similar to auditing an on-campus class, but they won't receive credit. Or they can pay for a course certificate or "specialization," completing video quizzes and peer-reviewed online assignments. Or, if admitted, they can complete the full curriculum.

"So you can start out with those certificate sequences, and it allows you to test the waters and see if you can handle this without actually being admitted as a student for the degree program," he said.

The new master's degree is built on two certificate programs already offered by the UI through Coursera, on data mining and cloud computing, Hart said. The full degree program includes additional courses on data visualization, machine learning, statistics and information science, in collaboration with the Department of Statistics and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

The UI's existing online master's program in computer science charges $1,084 per credit hour for a 32-credit hour sequence, or almost $35,000.

Tuition for the traditional on-campus master's degree is $17,628 a year for Illinois residents — $31,626 for students from out-of-state — and most students take one-and-a-half or two years to complete it, Hart said. That doesn't count fees, housing costs or other expenses, which would push the bill above $40,000 a year.

Hart said some data science degrees offered by the UI's peers can run as high as $75,000.

The UI had one of the first computer science programs in the country, and has offered a master's degree since the 1970s. The university essentially "invented online education" with the development of the PLATO program back in the 1960s, he said, and it's had online degree programs since the 1990s.

"We look to online education to fulfill our educational mission. We're a land-grant university," Hart said.

Coursera President Daphne Koller said in a release: "In a world where taking time off of work for a master's degree is increasingly difficult, this degree offers people a unique opportunity to choose exactly how much learning they need at different stages in their careers."

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Sid Saltfork wrote on March 31, 2016 at 5:03 pm

University of Phoenix?  Trump University?  No, this is a "public" university.  One that can be trusted.