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CHAMPAIGN — A third online-only master's program, this one from the top-ranked accounting department, will soon be available at the University of Illinois.

Offered in partnership with the online learning platform Coursera, the program is geared toward professionals who want to beef up their accounting credentials, refresh their skills or change careers.

The UI is the first top five accounting program to offer a master of science in accounting completely online, dubbed the "iMSA."

The UI helped pioneer this model with the Silicon Valley-based Coursera last year with an "iMBA," an online master's degree in business administration for $20,000, a fraction of the cost of the on-campus MBA program. It currently has 500 students from around the globe.

And the highly rated Department of Computer Science launched a fully online master's degree in data science last fall, with 125 students worldwide.

Supporters say the innovative model, with its lower cost and online reach, will expand access to premier programs and bring talented professionals into the field.

Tuition for the iMSA will cost $27,200, or $850 per credit hour, pending approval by the UI Board of Trustees. That compares to $39,750, plus $4,500 in fees, for the on-campus master's accounting program. There are five core courses and three electives, which can be completed in four to eight semesters.

The courses will be taught by some of the best accountancy faculty in the world, said College of Business Dean Jeffrey Brown. The UI's accounting program is consistently ranked in the top three nationwide.

The first class for the iMSA will start in August, and applications will open in April. The hope is to enroll 50 degree students next fall, plus 15 nondegree students, and another 100 next spring, said Martin Maurer, director of operations for the new program.

The program will train students in the accounting fundamentals of financial reporting, audit and taxation, but also in data analytics and visualization as well as communication skills. Accounting firms are dealing with increasing amounts of data, Maurer said.

"It's important for students to not only understand and analyze the data but to be able to convey the meaning of that data to somebody who does not have an accounting background. They need to be able to talk to a CEO and shareholders and explain what all this means," he said.

Accounting is one of the fastest-growing professions, with demand for people who can adapt to technology and expected changes in tax laws under the new presidential administration, Maurer said.

Like the other two online master's programs, the iMSA is "stackable," allowing students to try out the curriculum through free "MOOCs" — massive open online courses — on Coursera. Learners can then decide whether to take a few courses for credit to earn a certificate, or go on to apply to the full master's program. If admitted, the progress they have made in open courses can be applied toward the degree.

It's a new model for earning credentials, said Nikhil Sinha, chief business officer at Coursera.

The iMSA "will put an accounting career from an elite academic program within the reach of anyone, anywhere," he said in a release. "For people who are deciding whether accounting is right for them, the iMSA allows an unprecedented ability to explore this field while learning from the best faculty in the industry."

The flexible format allows students to balance their acacemic life with other obligations, officials said.

Students can take the open enrollment courses on their own schedule, with on-demand videos, reading material, quizzes and forums where learners around the globe can interact with each other.

The for-credit component includes live global sessions with professors, fellow students and practitioners from top accounting firms, as well as hands-on applications and team projects. Faculty will also have office hours, and students will have access to guest lectures and a speaker series.

Students will work on real-world accounting problems and be involved in give-and-take discussions with faculty, not just take notes or watch video lectures, according to accounting Professor Gary Hecht.

The online master's program in data science is now accepting applications for a summer term and hopes to enroll another 125 to 150 students, said director John Hart, professor of computer science.

"My phone's been ringing off the hook with students calling with questions," he said.

The program requires eight classes, which can be taken over one to three years. Tuition is $19,200 regardless of the time frame, he said.

It's designed specifically for students who want to become data scientists, who can earn twice as much as a data analyst, he said. Students don't need to have a computer science degree to enroll but must have taken some coursework, including in data structures, he said.

"The interesting thing is that these online degrees tend to attract more domestic students than our on-campus degrees," Hart said. He's also seeing more students who hold bachelor's degrees in other fields.

"Students are using it like you would use an MBA, or a law degree," he said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).