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University of Pennsylvania to offer fully-online master’s program in computer science

Penn is launching its first fully-online degree program in computer science on the online learning platform Coursera. "The future of degrees, especially master's degrees where people are working, is going to be online," said one expect. "

University of Pennsylvania Campus, Philadelphia, PA, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.
University of Pennsylvania Campus, Philadelphia, PA, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science will offer its master of computer and information technology  (MCIT) program online, making it the university's first entirely online degree. It is slated to start in January.

This master's program admits students with no computer science background, and the online version will cost around one-third of its on-campus counterpart. The standard program typically accepts about 80 new students each year, but the online effort will allow Penn to accept several hundred more from around the world, said Boon Thau Loo, associate dean at Penn Engineering, who oversees the school's master's programs.

Loo said the ability to graduate in two years with a master's degree in computer science without any background in the subject makes MCIT one of Penn Engineering's most popular programs. "It has a very transformational impact on the lives of its students," allowing them to go on to computer science jobs at places such as Google and, Loo said. "We're looking to potentially tap into mid-career professionals who have been working for a while and are looking at this as a way to upscale or are looking for a career change."

Not only will MCIT be Penn's first fully online degree, it will also be the first Ivy League degree launched on its online partner, Coursera, said the site's CEO, Jeff Maggioncalda. He said this step will help to reduce the "perception that online degrees are from lower-ranked or for-profit universities."

"The future of degrees, especially master's degrees where people are working, is going to be online," Maggioncalda said. "When people are working, quitting your job to get a master's degree is very costly and can be very disruptive to your family."

Graduate and professional studies programs now make up the majority of online learning, said Howard Lurie, principal analyst for online and continuing education at Eduventures, a higher education research and advisory service in Boston.

He said Eduventures' research shows around a third of graduate studies are now "wholly or partially online."

"The idea of online courses and online learning is no longer niche," Lurie said. "It used to be an outlier for most schools, and now it's pretty common."

What isn't common, Lurie said, is offering online programs at a lower price than on-campus ones. Most schools price online courses at or just below the cost of on-campus learning to avoid lowering on-campus enrollment for the same programs, Eduventures' research shows.

Between tuition, additional fees, and room and board, the Penn on-campus MCIT program can cost between $70,000 and $80,000. The online version, however, is roughly one-third that price at $26,300.

Lowering the cost too much would make students question the value of an online degree, Lurie said.​

Coursera, based in California, is providing the technology necessary to offer the classes digitally. Penn's faculty members will be able to focus on developing and teaching the course.

Penn was one of Coursera 's first partners after its founding in 2012, previously offering individualized courses for no credit on the platform. Maggioncalda said the platform now has 34 million registered learners, with 80 percent from countries outside the United States.

The largest degree program that Coursera offers is a master of business administration at the University of Illinois, which has over 1,000 students online. Maggioncalda said the retention rate for that program has been "over 90 percent, which is higher than many on-campus programs."

Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering, said he expects the online version of MCIT to open the program up to new graduate student demographics and attract up to 500 students without detracting from its current pool of on-campus students. He said it was "important that we make it available to the broadest range of learners. Education is getting more expensive, and we want to drive it in the opposite direction."

Kumar said this MCIT program will be almost exactly the same as the on-campus version, with faculty members who currently teach the courses on campus also doing so online. Certain Coursera features — such as a team that helps faculty members make the transition to online teaching and analytics that tell professors how much time students are spending on certain sections of a recorded lecture — will help get the program off the ground.

Students will be able to work through the courses at a rate of their own choosing. But there will be a limit to how fast the first group can move since not all of the courses will be immediately offered in January.

Despite the lack of face-to-face interactions between students and professors, Kumar said, faculty members will strive to give the "same, individual online attention to each student in the class" as they give to on-campus students. As someone who has taught online classes before, he said the technology available sometimes makes it possible to "respond to individuals and their needs in a way that is not possible in a face-to-face setting."

"I've learned personally that one thing about the online world, it's easier to hide in an actual classroom than it is to hide in an online world," he said.