MCIT Online: Expanding Access to Computer Science
By Amy Biemiller
Just a generation ago, those with advanced computing skills tended to be confined to IT and other siloed professions. But with the advancement of computing systems and their integration into seemingly unrelated areas, today nearly every career and job function requires an understanding of how to design, use or manage computerized, digital and automated systems.
While children are now learning the basics of coding and data synthesis in school, it’s a different story for midcareer professionals. When they realize that computational thinking and digital literacy are essential to their careers, but that they lack the foundation in those areas, the future can seem daunting and uncertain.
“Without a background in computer science or associated technologies, people can feel stuck in career limbo,” says Susan B. Davidson, Weiss Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science (CIS). “They will often find that they can’t jump into a traditional master’s degree program in computer science because those can require a technical undergraduate background. They also can’t stop working in order to go back to school full time to get that knowledge.”
Seventeen years ago, Penn Engineering addressed these issues and introduced the Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT) program, a master’s degree with no computer science prerequisites designed specifically for mid-career professionals with undergraduate degrees outside of computer science. But many people have been unable to take advantage of the on-campus degree program because of distance, cost or time constraints. To meet that need, Penn Engineering recently launched MCIT Online, which is set to matriculate its first cohort of students in January 2019
A GAME CHANGER
The new MCIT Online program is the first completely online master’s degree offered by the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and it is the only online Ivy League master’s degree in computer science designed for students without computer science backgrounds. “We’re excited for this program to allow people from around the world who have no computer science experience to rise up to a graduate knowledge level as quickly as possible, building on their experience, increased drive and maturity as adults,” says Davidson
It’s also a program designed to fill a knowledge gap across industries. “Technology and computing are pervasive in business, science and society,” says Chris Murphy, associate professor of practice in CIS and co-director of MCIT Online. “By offering the MCIT Online degree, we are helping people in fields such as education, healthcare, social work, government and urban development to increase their impact on solving many of the world’s major problems through computing.”
Like the campus-based program, MCIT Online is a game changer for students because it allows them to gradually adapt to the changing demands of their jobs and the job market. “Students can use the program to move into more interesting positions in their existing jobs, or make career moves that bring increased opportunities,” says Davidson.
PRACTICAL AND RIGOROUS
With all of the interest the program has generated since its launch, MCIT Online will likely matriculate a first cohort that will be larger than its on-campus counterpart. While the program will include elements of self-pacing, such as allowing students to access lectures at night or on mobile devices, the curriculum of six required courses and four electives is as challenging as the on-campus program.
The program’s courses will be taught by the same faculty members who teach in the on-campus degree. Students will work on assignments using a variety of programming languages (Python, C, SQL, Java), data analytics tools (Hadoop, TensorFlow) and computing environments (Linux, Amazon Cloud). Evaluations will test in-depth knowledge, and the same individual attention given to students on campus will be offered to online students via active discussion forums and video office hours with faculty and teaching assistants.
“This degree experience will be significantly more interactive than traditional distance learning,” explains Sampath Kannan, Henry Salvatori Professor in CIS and co-director of MCIT Online. “Courses will have the same depth and rigor as traditional on-campus courses, with a blend of both computer science theory and applied, project-based learning.”
Students can look forward to learning how to build high-quality software as part of a team and gaining a fundamental understanding about programming so they can pick up new languages and new technologies. “Programming and software engineering are just one part of computer science,” says Murphy. “We are focused on providing students with a strong foundation in all areas of computer science and not just a particular skill.”
The MCIT Online degree is offered in partnership with Coursera, the online education company that partners with 170 of the world’s top universities and industry leaders to offer courses, specializations and degrees. Penn has offered courses on Coursera for several years and also offers three online degree programs, including the Master of Health Care Innovation. By delivering the MCIT program electronically, the degree program is one-third of the cost of the on-campus degree, making this program much more accessible. “I’m excited at the prospect of reaching many, many more students and helping them discover the joy of computing,” says Davidson.
Outcomes from the program are yet to be realized, of course. But MCIT Online rests on the strong foundation of the on-campus program that has produced graduates who have gone on to highly coveted roles in software development, product management and data science at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. “Now, we’ll be able to see a broader impact on the world through computing because we can reach so many more talented people,” says Murphy.