What’s behind the success of post-grad computer science programs?

Online learning is not a new idea. It has its roots in distance learning. Postal services supported learning and communication platforms as early as the late 19th century. Today everything is digital, with real-time teacher-student interaction available in your own time.

The ongoing pandemic caused people to reconsider their career prospects. As a result, many people chose to expand or refresh their education. In response, colleges improved existing online learning options and introduced new programs.

“It was a risky venture”

Atlanta-based Georgia Tech says it was the first accredited university to offer an online Master of Science in Computer Science, or OMSCS for short. The degree is available in a massive online format. Georgia Tech partnered with Udacity and AT&T to launch its OMSCS program in 2014.

12,016 students have enrolled in the program for the 2022 spring semester. 837 people graduated for the fall semester 2021. Almost 6,500 students have graduated so far.

David Joyner, Ph.D., is Executive Director for Online Education and OMSCS at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing. Joyner pointed out four key factors that contributed to the success of the OMSCS program.

“In hindsight, the success of OMSCS seems like a foregone conclusion, but at the time it was a risky proposition,” Joyner said. “The low tuition may have undermined enrollment in our on-campus program, and the high acceptance rate may affect the perceived quality of the degree.”

But the opposite happened. In less than a decade, the reputation and visibility of the OMSCS program has resulted in more applications to the on-campus program. Joyner believes the “incredible quality” of online students has enhanced the college’s reputation.

Joyner recognized the willingness of the program’s founders and visionaries – along with Georgia Tech’s administrative leaders – to move forward despite the risks of starting something new.

In addition, “Faculty welcomed the idea of ​​building the online program and ensuring it met the standards that we expect on campus,” Joyner said. “The courses are taught by the same professors who personally teach and conduct the research that then becomes the material for their courses, and that gives the program an authenticity that makes its magic.”

After more than 2,000 students enrolled in the program, Joyner and his colleagues found they could not support the program’s growth with teaching assistants on campus alone.

“But online students have flocked to support the program,” Joyner said.

The program now employs over 400 teaching assistants, almost half of whom are alumni. Many are now professionals working in this field. As a result, their professional experiences, perspectives and first-hand insights enhance the courses they support, Joyner said.

Finally, Joyner said, technology has “recently reached a point where rich, authentic, active learning experiences and dynamic social learning communities can be created with relative ease and scaled around the world.”

Job shortage arouses students’ interest

Georgia Tech claims to be the first. But today, dozens of colleges offer postgraduate computer science programs online only. These include the University of Texas at Austin, which introduced its Master of Computer Science Online (MCSO) degree in 2019.

Eric Busch, Ph.D., is the director of online programs in computer science and data science at UT Austin. He said the tech job market is a factor why such a master’s in computer science is worthwhile for many students.

“Regardless of the impact of the pandemic, we believe MCSO’s early success is rooted in the stark disparities in the education and job markets in computer science fields – which the program aims to address in part,” Busch said.

The gap between the number of computer science graduates and the number of open computing jobs is well documented. This shortage is creating massive unmet demand for skilled CS workers in a variety of fields and job roles.

— Eric Busch of UT Austin

The Society for Human Resource Management predicts that employers will struggle to find and retain IT staff in 2022. About three months into the year, SHRM’s prediction seems to be coming true.

“The gap between the number of computer science graduates and the number of open computing jobs is well documented,” Busch continued. “This shortage is creating massive unmet demand for skilled CS workers in a variety of fields and job roles. Although technology companies have raised salaries to compensate, the supply of skilled labor in these fields remains relatively inelastic.”

Busch said inelasticity is rooted in educational shortages. Even large on-campus computer science programs like that of UT Austin can only accept a limited number of in-person students each year.

“Campus capacity remains limited in terms of financial support capacity and physical space,” Busch said.

For the Spring 2022 semester, UT Austin had 860 students enrolled in the MCSO program. UT Austin faculty teach the courses, which contain lessons designed for online learning.

“Programs like MCSO represent an important intervention in this scarcity dynamic,” Busch continued. “Since our asynchronous online curriculum format can handle a significantly higher number of students, we can admit all qualified applicants with a master’s degree.”

Content changes are part of the program’s success

We’ve been working without an online program manager or MOOC partner for the last two years and I think we were better off with it as it allows us to tailor every element of the program to our own needs.

– David Joyner of Georgia Tech

According to Joyner, the shifts in academic content also contribute to the success of the OMSCS program.

When the program began, OMSCS partnered with a massive open online course provider that produced and hosted the school’s course content.

“Now we handle production ourselves and host content on our own platforms,” ​​said Joyner. “We’ve been working without an online program manager or MOOC partner for the last two years and I think we’re better off with that as we can tailor each element of the program to our own needs.”

“Our early classes were relatively lecture-heavy, and while they used many active learning strategies, the emphasis was on the recorded video content,” Joyner said. But now, he said, online MS in computer science courses are instead built around six areas of focus:

  • Courses with minimal lecture content based on open, student-driven projects
  • Laboratory-based challenges and simulation-based assessment
  • Synchronous workshops with lecturers and teaching assistants
  • Seminars focused on student presentations or shared reading interests
  • Courses based on partnerships with real-world nonprofits or healthcare professionals
  • Independent student research in partnership with faculty

What are the prospects beyond this year?

In the application cycles since the pandemic began, applications for Georgia Tech’s OMSCS have increased by 14%.

Joyner suspects that the increase in applicants for this online postgraduate program in computer science is only temporary. He believes that at a time when “there is so much uncertainty about personal finance, the global economy and public health,” students are drawn to affordable online education.

Joyner also highlighted a notable demographic shift at Georgia Tech. The average age of incoming OMSCS students has dropped from 37 to 30 years.

This likely indicates that “we are attracting more early-career students and fewer mid-career professionals who have waited more than 15 years for an opportunity to study computer science in a more formal program.”

Textual reading "The median age of Georgia Tech's incoming OMSCS students dropped from 37 to 30. Why?  People don't wait that long to study computer science in a formal program."

Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

“Nevertheless,” he continued, “we were wrong before: we thought we had stabilized in the first three years of the program, only to see explosive growth thereafter.”

Busch of UT Austin also has positive prospects for postgraduate computer science education.

“We anticipate a continued increase in enrollment in both the MCSO program and online graduate education in general,” he said. “The MCSO continues to add new courses and expects to be among the leaders in online computer science education based on its use of tenured faculty to teach online courses and its focus on rigor and building a student community.”

This article was reviewed by Monali Mirel Chuatico

Monali Mirel Chuatico, a woman with long dark hair, smiles in a headshot.

2019, Monali Mirel Chuatico graduated with her Bachelors in Computer Science, which gave her the foundation she needed to excel in roles such as data engineer, frontend developer, UX designer and computer science teacher.

Monali is currently a data engineer at Mission Lane. Called as Data Analytics Captain at a non-profit organization COOP careerMonali helps new graduates and young professionals overcome underemployment by teaching them data analysis tools and mentoring them in their professional development journey.

Monali is passionate about implementing creative solutions, building communities, advocating mental health, empowering women and educating youth. Monali’s goal is to gain more experience in her field, expand her skills, and do meaningful work that makes a positive impact on the world.

Monali Mirel Chuatico is a paid member of the freelance assessment network Red Ventures Education.

Last checked on March 21, 2022.

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