Online Master Of Computer Science Degrees From Coursera
Written by Sue Gee   
Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Both the University of Illinois and Arizona State University are now offering Master's degrees in Computer Science in partnership with Coursera. Is gaining an online masters a worthwhile undertaking?

Disclosure: When you make a purchase having followed a link to Coursera from this article, we may earn an affiliate commission.


Coursera and the University of Illinois already offer an entirely online Master of Computer Science in Data Science (MSC-DS), see Coursera Offers MOOC-Based Master's in Data Science and now there's a more general Master of Computer Science (MCS) along the same lines.

The Illinois MCS is a non-thesis degree for computing professionals that requires 32 credit hours of graduate coursework. Students can complete the eight courses required for the Online MCS at their own pace, within a five-year window.

Lectures are delivered through the Coursera platform, but students are advised and assessed by Illinois faculty and teaching assistants on a rigorous set of assignments, projects, and exams required for university degree credit. The cost of tuition is $600 per credit hour for eight 4-credit hour courses, and is billed as each course is taken.

Students can complete the degree in as little as one year taking three or four courses per term, while others will finish in two to three years by taking one course per term. Students needing to skip a term due to work, family, or other life interruptions do not pay tuition for that semester. Coursera fees of $79 per course and exams fees are charged separately.

The Master's degree aims to build their expertise in four core areas chosen from the following:

  • Architecture, Compilers and Parallel Computing
    Learn parallel programming to achieve peak performance from multi-core CPU and many-core GPU computer architectures, as well as the languages, compilers and libraries best suited for different parallel applications and platforms.
  • Artificial Intelligence
    Build your knowledge of the statistical models and numerical optimizations of machine learning with application in computer vision, natural language processing and intelligent user interaction.

  • Database and Information Systems
    Learn the basics of database systems and different data mining methods for extracting knowledge and insight both from structured datasets (e.g. for a sales recommendation system) as well as unstructured data (e.g. from natural language text).

  • Formal Methods, Programming Languages and Software Engineering
    Discover the fundamentals of software engineering, including both function-based and object-oriented methods for analysis and design. Learn how to see a large software project from its original specification through its implementation, testing and maintenance. Additionally, you will learn how to manage large enterprise-level codebases.

  • Graphics and Human-Computer Interaction
    Learn the fundamentals of interactive computing to promote an effective synergy between the computer and its human user. The Data Visualization course, for example, shows how to present and manipulate data to communicate understanding and insight to the public.

  • Systems and Networking
    Learn how to network computers into distributed systems and ultimately build a cloud computing platform. Master ways to create applications that utilize cloud resources effectively.

  • Scientific Computing
    Discover the fundamentals of numerical analysis and how it applies to accurate solutions to the large linear systems used for everything from simulation in scientific applications to optimization in machine learning to the physics of your favorite video game.

Applicants should possess a bachelor's degree is computing or if some other discipline sufficient background in object-oriented computer programming, data structures and algorithms. The next cohort starts on August 16, 2018 and the final deadline for applications is May 30, 2018

The early deadline for the Master of Computer Science from Arizona State University has already passed but the final deadline in July 20. There is an application fee of $70 for domestic (i.e. US-based) applicants and $90 for international ones. Tuition costs $15,000 - not including the costs of the Coursera courses - and there are options for financial support.


The areas of focus for this MCS, which requires students to choose 10 courses from 20 options are  AI, Software Engineering, Cloud Computing, Big Data, and Cybersecurity. You’ll also create a project portfolio of 4 projects that you’ll use to showcase your experience to prospective employers. Projects include:

  • Design a Visual Analytics System
    Explore and reason with data in this project by designing and building a visual analytics system for analyzing visitor data to a fictional theme park.
  • Build a Deep Learning Architecture
    Design and build a deep neural network of many layers in this project, creating a network that can learn to recognize image categories from a given dataset.

  • Build a Movie Database

    Demonstrate your ability to design and build a seven-table movie database from scratch in this project; you'll also create applications to work on top of the database.

  • Implement a K-Means Algorithm and Its Variants

    Create and build a clustering algorithm that can group the input collection of documents into a desired number of clusters in this project. 

While gathering the details of these two master's degrees I wondered about the next application deadline for the Online CS Masters first offered by Georgia Tech in Spring 2014 in partnership with Udacity and AT&T. Having discovered that the Fall 2018 deadline passed on April 1st with the current deadline being September 1st for Spring 2019 there is some recent news about its impact. In terms of numbers, Georgia Tech hasn't achieved its ambitious target of enrolling 10,000 students within three years, enrollment expanded from 380 students in spring 2014 to 6,365 in spring 2018, making it the largest master's degree program in computer science in the U.S., and likely the world. 

The analysis reveals that demand for the online program is large: it attracts over 3,400 applicants annually, about twice as many as its in-person equivalent. Some 61 percent of applicants are admitted, almost five times the 13 percent admission rate for the in-person program, and 80 percent of those admitted enroll. The typical applicant to the online program was a 34-year-old midcareer American, while the typical applicant to the in-person degree was a 24-year-old recent graduate from India.

Students admitted to the online program typically had slightly lower academic credentials than those admitted to the in-person program, but they performed slightly better in their identical and blind-marked final assessments, a finding the study hailed as:

“the first rigorous evidence that we know of showing that an online degree program can increase educational attainment.”

The cost of gaining an online Masters in Computer Science from Georgia Tech is substantially lower than either of the Coursera offerings and you can take the same courses it offers on Udacity for free.

This leads us to the question of whether a Master's degree is ever likely to pay back its cost - both financial and in terms of time. In Is Your Degree Worth Its Cost?, which reported on Stack Overflow findings, there was no discernible advantage in having a Master's Degree over a Bachelor's and that having a university degree led to a salary increase of only £3K per annum. The main case for doing a Master's degree seems to be for personal interest and it may be that, unless you want an academic career where the prestige bestowed by a degree from the University of Illinois has cachet, completing the courses on the Cousera or Udacity platforms can fill that need. 





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