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Exploring CS Degree Options

Is the online route worth the trip?

BY RACHELLE CRUM

The traditional computer science undergrad or grad-school experience simply isn’t an option for students with little flexibility in their schedules or budgets. Instead, some turn to online universities or brick-and-mortar college Web courses to earn their degrees.

Education and Training

Working remotely in an online environment is nothing new for many in the technology field. “As the open source software movement has shown, individuals can collaborate and develop great software by working together as a team, but remotely over the Internet,” notes Adrian Ridner, co-founder of education research site Education-Portal.com and the holder of a master’s in computer science from Cal Poly.

“Computer science students can interact in the same way with highly knowledgeable professors and industry leaders online, and learn directly from sources that may be out of reach at traditional colleges,” he adds.

But is an online education as good as a traditional one? Are the job opportunities equally abundant post-graduation? And is there still a stigma attached to having an “online degree” listed on your resume?

Growing popularity

Let’s start with some figures. About 85 percent of brick-and-mortar colleges now offer online degree programs, according to GetEducated.com, a site that rates, ranks, and compares online schools and degrees along with tracking fake diploma mills. And then there are the online-only colleges, which make up nearly 20 percent of all degree-granting colleges, notes Vicky Phillips, the site’s founder and CEO.

According to the recent Alfred P. Sloan Foundation report, “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009,” one-quarter of the US higher education students now take at least one course online.

The report’s findings also note that more than 4.6 million students took at least one online course in the fall of 2008. This represents a 17-percent increase when compared with the previous year. That growth rate is much higher than the 1.2-percent growth of the overall higher education student population, the group notes.

Looking at computer science specifically, there are about 165 computer science master’s programs and up to 40 CS bachelor’s programs listed on GetEducated.com, Phillips points out.

A master’s in computer science is the third-most-popular master’s degree offered online; a master’s in software engineering is the most-searched-for degree on the site in general; and of the undergrad degrees searched, computer science and management of information services are the most popular on GetEducated, she adds.

Increased value

As online learning in general becomes more common in society, proof of its increased value – as a supplement or standalone – is surfacing, and organizations are sounding off.

The National Education Association’s stance on online learning is that it supports the use of it to enhance face-to-face instruction, although it remains skeptical of completely online programs, says Mark Smith, a senior policy analyst in NEA’s Higher Education office.

The US Department of Education released a report last summer that echoes this sentiment – and then some. In the report, “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” the department analyzed numerous research studies on various learning levels, including higher education. Here are a few of the conclusions:
• “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.”
• “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”
• “Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

There was one computer science-specific study evaluated in the DOE report – a PhD dissertation by E. R. Caldwell in 2006 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. However, the findings showed no significant performance differences on a multiple-choice test between undergrad CS majors in a blended course versus an online course.

How do employers see it?

All of these statistics aside, an employer’s perception of an online computer science degree compared with a traditional degree depends on various factors, including the college’s accreditation, brand recognition, and reputation, along with the graduate’s knowledge and skills.

The accreditation of the job candidate’s school is something to evaluate, comments John Murray, manager of employment and compensation services in the HR department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “I am concerned with a degree from an accredited university more so than whether or not it is an online degree versus traditional,” he says.

The school’s accreditation determines the standards it must follow. “If it is a regionally accredited university, then they have the same standards as any regionally accredited college,” Phillips points out. The same rings true for national or specialized accreditations.

The stigma associated with online learning is erased if a student earns a degree online from a school with a brick-and-mortar campus 300 miles from where they live and work, she asserts. “People have very regional loyalties.”

A stigma is still attached for online-only schools, Phillips believes. “This has to do with trust in general.” Nevertheless, Phillips advises to discuss the issue of online education only “if asked,” she notes in a Q&A on GetEducated.

“We say ‘if asked’ because GetEducated.com’s studies show that most employers are not overly concerned about how a degree was earned. They are however, very concerned about the overall school reputation and educational quality,” Phillips says in the Q&A.

The school’s reputation for having a top-notch online degree program also helps. Phillips points to the long legacy of Colorado State University’s Master of Computer Science online degree program as an example.

Putting education to work

Nevertheless, “some employers consider an online degree just as good as a traditional degree in the same field, and other employers have an entirely different view,” Ridner says.

Murray falls into the first category. “From my perspective, the IT field is driven more by experience and select skills than the formal education,” he says. “Hiring managers tend to focus on the application experience, the programming language, or the network environment first before looking at the education.”

Author and career counselor Robin Ryan agrees. "When it comes to computer science, employers don't care as much about the degree as what the person's programming, systems knowledge and skill level are.” CW (5 April, 2010)

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