Education

Aspiring data scientists jump into UC Berkeley’s new online master’s program

In a few hours, the University of California, Berkeley, will set off on its latest experiment in online education: a new master’s degree in information and data science.

Today 27 students begin their first classes in the multi-course data science program, AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the university’s School of Information, said in an interview with VentureBeat.

The students will study statistics, data storage, and machine learning before moving onto more advanced subjects, including the ethics of working with data. Students are required to go through an immersion program on the Berkeley campus for four or five days, and after that, they will go through the coursework exclusively on the internet.

But Berkeley is intentionally combining the subjects to form a package that could be more effective at preparing students for data science jobs than piecemeal free courses available online.

“A lot of these MOOCs [massively open online courses] that are out there, only a small percentage of people finish,” Saxenian said. “I think a lot of that is because its pretty isolating the minute you have trouble. You don’t have a place to turn. It’s easy to give up.”

In Berkeley’s new program, classmates can be able to get help from one another, Saxenian said.

The program is a big step forward at Berkeley’s School of Information, known informally as the I School. Asked about online programs previously available at the I School, Saxenian only cited just a single undergraduate survey course — an introduction to information. And individual Berkeley professors have provided courses on the popular MOOC site edX, through the university’s BerkeleyX program.

Meanwhile MIT is also getting more involved with edX, having announced last week its first online professional course in partnership with that MOOC site, entitled Tackling the Challenges of Big Data.

But Berkeley’s new initiative is a completely new premium master’s program in the hot data science area, available only online. The program includes 27 units, and each one costs $2,222.22. Students can plow through the program in a year if they take three courses per semester; otherwise, with a lighter load, they could finish it in 20 months.

The program stands out by taking cues from groups that Berkeley does not ordinarily compete with.

Each student will receive credits on the Amazon Web Services public cloud, so they won’t have to rely on the university’s own data center infrastructure in order to store and analyze data for class, Saxenian said. Startup accelerators like Techstars have done that for participants; at universities, the practice is not quite as common.

And because more of the students’ involvement will be online and quantifiable — like the time they spend watching videos for class — Berkeley will be able to perceive trends or anomalies in the way students engage with the course content. From there, the university could change content or the website providing the courses in order to increase participation.

“There’s a ton of data that you can use — all the clicks, the clickstreams from everything — so there is research going on on campus already on some of the MOOCs that we offer, and we are absolutely sort of positioned to look at the data from our online degree,” Saxenian said.

Coursera already analyzes the performance of the messaging in emails it sends to users. Now the concept looks poised to get adoption from a major university.

Berkeley isn’t setting off on this project by itself. It has teamed up with 2U, a company that has brought courses online for the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, the Washington University in St. Louis law school, and other schools.

And as my colleague Christina Farr reported, 2U and Berkeley will split the revenue from the course.

Altogether the program amounts to an audacious project on the university’s part. Measurable success could cause Berkeley to adopt the model for more of its courses, and perhaps more universities and colleges could be inspired to offer more degrees online.

“It’s very exciting to be pioneering a new type of education,” Saxenian said.

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