Opening Doors and Changing Lives: Five Years of Penn Engineering Online Master’s Degrees

The technological landscape is changing at a rapid pace, faster than ever before, leaving almost no career path untouched. In addition, professionals looking to augment their skills due to these changes, or even make the switch to a new career entirely, can encounter barriers to advancement if they do not have a degree or foundational background in computer science.

Enter Penn Engineering Online.

In 2019, Penn Engineering Online diversified the online education space by expanding access to the School’s already wildly successful Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT) degree. With the launch of the online MCIT program, the only online Ivy League master’s degree in computer science designed for students without a computer science background, Penn Engineering Online has expanded access to an Ivy League education to a new cohort of students and broadened the School’s global reach.

For Melissa Amaya, a single mother who graduated from MCIT in 2022, the experience was nothing short of life changing. “The MCIT program provided the foundational knowledge I sought,” she says. “I am more confident not only in my current abilities but in my ability to learn whatever is needed on the job. Additionally, name recognition is real. I’m fairly certain that having this program on my resume helped me land my most recent role at a tech startup.”

“I developed the skills I needed to make a successful career transition,” adds Katie Pizziketti, also a graduate of MCIT. “I now work for Vanguard as a software engineer. I graduated in August 2021 and started my job that same month. Because of this opportunity, I was able to buy my first house. I feel completely transformed, and it’s because I made a commitment to go back to school, and I stuck with it.”

Expanding Access

Penn Engineering Online rolled out its first course offering, Computational Thinking, in 2018. What followed was explosive growth in the form of additional courses, certificate programs, lifelong learning initiatives and full-fledged master’s degrees, including MCIT and a master’s in Data Science. What makes Penn Engineering Online distinct from its peers is that throughout its expansion, all programs were developed around a core mission of increasing accessibility to Penn Engineering’s exceptional faculty and educational opportunities.

“One of the most unique things about our program is our focus on access,” says Rebecca Hayward, Executive Director of Penn Engineering Online. “We wanted to ensure that students who could never leave their jobs, who could never leave where they live, had an opportunity to interact with our world-renowned professors and get the education they deserve.”

To support its mission, Penn Engineering Online has grown to 30 staff members and 47 course offerings. The program’s dedication to expanded access shows in the increase in MCIT’s enrollment, which went from an initial cohort of just over 200 in 2019 to over  1,900 students in 2024. After its first five years, Penn Engineering Online now offers two complete master’s degrees and three graduate certificates.

Additionally, 48 faculty across three of Penn Engineering’s academic departments now teach the program’s course offerings, which are offered in a flexible format that allows students to study at their own pace. Through a combination of video lectures, live office hours and robust communication tools, students can learn anywhere, anytime, no matter what time zone they live in.

“The on-campus MCIT degree already had a proven track record for its rigor and for placing students at top companies,” says Zachary Ives, Adani President’s Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer and Information Science (CIS). “Prior to expanding MCIT into the online space, we were limited to the number of students we could admit due to physical constraints. Likewise, applicants may not have been able to enroll in the on-campus program due to circumstances that prevented them from relocating or pausing employment. With the expansion of MCIT, we no longer miss out on these exceptionally qualified applicants.”

After operating for several years, Penn Engineering Online was able to increase resources for both current and future students, a way of further expanding access. In 2021, online students became eligible to apply for the Dean’s Master’s Scholarship. A few months later, the Executives in Residence (EIR) program and an expanded version of SPARC (Side Projects for Advancement, Refinement and Collaboration) were made available.

Thanks to its flexibility and unique offerings, Penn Engineering Online now brings together students from a diverse set of professions, including accountants, physicians, philosophers and artists, enriching the experience for everyone. Those students can then bring computer science back to their worlds, expanding the reach of Penn Engineering in a way that was not possible previously.

No Sacrifices

The program’s graduate degrees, graduate certificates and lifelong learning opportunities are developed and taught by members of Penn Engineering’s world-class faculty. Careful consideration is given to quality, ensuring that the outcomes from learning online are equal to the on-campus classes, setting Penn Engineering Online apart from other online degree programs. Susan Davidson, Weiss Professor in CIS, adapted her in-person classes for online students without any sacrifices in excellence.

“The content that I teach in my on-campus database class is exactly the same as what I teach in my online course,” says Davidson. “I do not water it down, and I know that’s true for the other courses in our curriculum.”

“The key accomplishment is that Penn Engineering has created online degree programs with the same rigor, depth and breadth as their on-campus counterparts,” adds Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Our online students learn from the same faculty and are in a cohort of the same caliber as our on-campus program, and when they complete their studies, they hold a diploma that is identical to their fellow on-campus graduates.”

In the digital world however, fighting for students’ attention is hard. Acknowledging and addressing that is yet another way that Penn Engineering Online distinguishes itself from other online degree programs.

“Our in-person courses were not designed for an online audience,” says Thomas Farmer, Director of MCIT and Senior Lecturer in CIS and in Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE). “In designing online counterparts, we had to think about how students were accessing the information. They might be on their phone during their daily commute or on the computer during lunch breaks or late at night. That meant we had to break up an 80-minute lecture into short, five-minute videos. That shift required the faculty to focus on the essence of what they were teaching, which actually made the courses better. They turned out to be jam-packed with information, but also attention-grabbing and interesting.”

In addition to program faculty responding to the unique needs of teaching online, the technology infrastructure for the faculty, TAs, and students was also paramount in the evolution of Penn Engineering Online. “We needed to put many systems in place to ensure success and excellence for thousands of students,” says Ira Winston, Director of Special Projects for Penn Engineering. “I’m proud to have been part of standing up this program so that students have access to leading-edge technology in their courses, receive immediate support when issues arise, and have a clear understanding of where to go should they have questions.”

Staying up to date with industry demands, Penn Engineering Online opened its second master’s program, the Master of Science in Engineering in Data Science in 2022. Designed for Penn Engineering graduates with experience in data science, this degree provides targeted courses across artificial intelligence, big data systems and natural language processing. The program also pulls in faculty from both Penn Engineering and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM), reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of data science.

“Fluency with data analysis methods has become important for every scientist, researcher, engineer or policymaker, and this is reflected in the surging interest in data science training,” says James Gee, Director of the Data Science master’s program and Professor in both Radiology in PSOM and in CIS. “By building on the achievements of the on-campus master’s program and leveraging the strengths of Penn Engineering Online, this program widens Penn’s leadership role in training data scientists of the future. Our graduates are perfectly positioned to effect immediate and broad impact in their fields.”

Industry Ties

Companies tend to focus on universities that they know will provide top talent, and Penn Engineering Online leverages Penn’s longstanding relationships with industry leaders like Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft to create pathways for success for their graduates.

Students can take advantage of employer information sessions where they learn about organizations and explore opportunities, and can attend a Virtual Career Fair held each fall featuring group and one-on-one meetings with potential employers.

The program also features comprehensive, individual career development support in the form of monthly sessions focusing on refining professional goals, practicing interviewing skills, honing resumes and more. Discussions can also include job search and negotiation strategies, networking skills, professional communications and building a strong personal brand.

“Employers recruit at Penn because they know our graduates have the skills they’re looking for,” says Hayward. “MCIT graduates are employed around the world as software engineers, data scientists, product managers and more. They belong to a powerful worldwide network of professionals who all share a connection to Penn.”

Penn Engineering Online road trip San Francisco 2023
Attendees at a Penn Engineering Online event held in San Francisco, CA, in 2023.

Connected Community

While most Penn Engineering Online students are based outside of Philadelphia, on-campus events and commencement ceremonies facilitate a deep connection to Penn. “There are a lot of opportunities to engage with the community,” says Samantha Sye, a 2023 MCIT alumna. “For example, there’s a vibrant community on Slack, and MOSA, the student organization, brings people together for events and activities.”

This tight-knit campus community feeling travels with program faculty as they attend events held in different cities around the globe. “I have been able to meet Penn Engineering Online students at events hosted across the U.S. and around the world,” says Boon Thau Loo, RCA Professor in CIS and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at Penn Engineering. “This program is helping students from many different backgrounds and regions to gain access to this kind of degree and have a sense of belonging in Penn Engineering’s global community.”

Students with diverse academic backgrounds from over 40 different countries are currently enrolled in MCIT, and the program boasts over 950 alumni, who are encouraged to stay plugged in to their community of peers even after they graduate. Through rigorous coursework, mentoring opportunities and networking events, graduates find tremendous success integrating computer science into their careers.

“After graduation, I have successfully transitioned into product management roles,” says Betty Zhou, who graduated in 2021. “The MCIT program has played a very important role in my career transition by enhancing two main areas, my coding proficiency and expertise in algorithms and data science.”

“Don’t worry if you don’t have experience in computer science,” continues Sye. “That’s precisely why this program exists. The MCIT Online community is one of the most supportive and comprehensive academic communities that I’ve ever been part of.”

Looking Ahead

Notably, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn Engineering Online was vital to the pivot to online instruction for all of Penn Engineering. As staff and faculty reflect on the program and its accomplishments, they also consider how Penn Engineering Online continues to augment on-campus resources and teaching and look ahead to the role the program will play in the School and beyond.

“It is gratifying that faculty from across the School are coming to us regularly and asking to develop courses,” says Loo. “They are increasingly using online content to augment their on-campus lectures, and multiple faculty members, including myself, have noted that their online teaching experiences have enhanced their on-campus teaching skills.”

Penn Engineering Online is also working to implement an increasing number of lifelong learning opportunities for Penn Engineering alumni. Graduates can now take the program’s open courses on Coursera free of charge and access standalone, for-credit courses that can be applied toward a degree or certificate program.

Penn Engineering Online’s leadership team envisions the program’s future as one of accessible, at-scale education that uses technological advancements and inclusive practices. This revolution will remove traditional boundaries and empower individuals from various backgrounds to pursue their academic aspirations, providing unparalleled opportunities for learners globally. It is a heady task, but one they are prepared to take on.

“We have a lot to celebrate. We’ve done a lot in five years,” says Davidson. “In the next five years, I expect we will continue to push the boundaries of online learning, develop new courses and continue to expand our reach across the globe to create a larger community of Penn Engineering Online lifelong learners.”

To learn more about the programs and opportunities offered through Penn Engineering Online, visit the program’s website.

Contributing writer: Olivia McMahon