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Ivy League Degree for the Nontraditional Student

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Coursera is expanding its push into online degree partnerships with traditional universities, this time with the MOOC provider’s first Ivy League degree.

The new master’s degree in computer and information technology from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science will be the engineering school’s first fully online degree. The program is aimed at working adults who are unable or unwilling to enroll in Penn’s established, on-campus version of the master’s, and who want to work in software development or high-demand fields like bioinformatics, medicine, finance and telecommunications.

“This is a meaningful expansion of what we can do,” said Wendell Pritchett, the university’s provost. He said the new online degree is designed to appeal to nontraditional students “who are talented but can’t get to us on campus.”

The new master’s degree’s total tuition and fees will be $26,300, which is about one-third of the campus version’s price tag of roughly $75,000. Officials at Penn said the degree’s relative affordability is due to the online delivery method with Coursera.

The company got plenty of buzz after its founding six years ago. But the MOOC craze faded in subsequent years, as predictions about free online courses replacing degrees fizzled quickly while Coursera and Udacity scrambled to find business models that worked.

The two companies and edX, the nonprofit MOOC provider founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, experimented with their offerings, including more of a focus on corporate training.

A major development came in 2013, when Udacity teamed up with the Georgia Institute of Technology to create a fully online master’s degree in computer science. Thanks in part to a $2 million donation from AT&T, total tuition for the degree is roughly $7,000. The program is widely viewed as a success. It enrolled 6,365 students last spring, making the degree program the largest computer science master’s in the country and, likely, the world.

A next iteration for MOOC providers, largely led by edX, was the launch of bundled courses as short-term credentials that can lead to credits from university partners. The so-called MicroMasters from edX are expanding, while Udacity and Coursera created similar offerings — dubbed nanodegrees and specializations, respectively.

Coursera and edX also now offer degrees with their university partners, serving as a form of online program management (OPM) provider, albeit charging a smaller cut of tuition revenue than the 60 percent or more some OPMs take in. (Coursera has not provided revenue-share numbers.) The company's platform now features 10 master’s degrees and one bachelor’s from the University of Illinois, University of Michigan, Arizona State University and others. Georgia Tech and edX offer a master’s in analytics, with a dozen or so other degree programs from edX in the works — although not necessarily with Georgia Tech.

Penn was an early partner with and investor in Coursera. Its Wharton School of Business features several Coursera specialization course bundles. And while the university currently offers three online degrees, including a master’s in health-care innovation, Pritchett predicted that the new computer science degree will become Penn’s largest online program.

Some faculty members and others at the university were skeptical about online education during the early MOOC days, Pritchett acknowledged. But those doubts have faded. “There’s excitement about online education,” he said, calling the shift on campus a "sea change.”

On-Ramp for Nontraditional Students

Penn’s partnership with Coursera is an important part of how the university hopes to reach more working adults who can’t afford to come to Philadelphia to earn a master’s.

The new online degree, like its campus-based counterpart, includes no computer science prerequisites. That allows students from a broad range of academic backgrounds to pursue a career in technology. A spokesperson for Coursera said the master’s degree is “specifically designed for people who are making a career pivot.”

At the same time, Penn said the curriculum of six courses and four electives would be as rigorous as the campus-based version, and also feature highly selective admissions. After graduating, online students will be official Penn alums, with access to career services and networking opportunities.

While they’re enrolled, however, the university said online students will benefit from flexibility that is built into the Coursera platform.

The online degree will include elements of self-pacing, such as allowing students to access lectures at night or on mobile devices. The platform also allows professors to create programming assignments that combine automated and peer grading, as well as grading by on-campus teaching assistants and faculty members. But students will be able to participate in regular live video office hours with professors who teach on campus.

“This degree represents the democratization of computer science,” Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera’s CEO, said in a written statement. “It brings a world-class, Ivy League degree within reach of people of all backgrounds, from anywhere in the world.”

A big part of Coursera’s allure is the marketing boost the platform and its 34 million users can give to a degree program. The company’s MOOCs and specializations give potential students a low-stakes introduction to the type of course work they would need to pursue a degree. The university also can benefit from those first impressions.

"That allows them to get a sense of what we do, and us to get a better sense of their skills," said Pritchett.

Illinois offers three master’s degrees through the Coursera platform. Its master’s of computer science and business administration have the largest enrollments of any graduate program at the university.

Potential students can take two open online courses on Coursera as an introduction to the degree programs, said John C. Hart, a professor of computer science at Illinois and director of online and professional programs in computer science.

“They’re teaching the same material at the same level,” Hart said.

If the MOOC students successfully complete those courses and are admitted to the master’s program, they can resubmit material from the two courses while also taking a final to earn four credits toward the degree.

The total price of tuition and fees for the Illinois master’s of computer science is $21,000, less than half of what on-campus students pay at the university. Students have the flexibility to move through the degree program quickly or by taking one course per semester. And if they take a semester off, online students do not have to pay tuition or fees.

“Being a full-time student is a privilege,” said Hart. “Many of our students don’t have that privilege.”

More than half of potential students who apply to degree programs on Coursera first enroll in open MOOCs, the company said. That helps partner degree programs charge less, because they mine for students from the MOOCs, which can cut into expensive marketing and student acquisition costs.

Both Hart and Pritchett said their universities were committed to preserving rigor and selectivity while opening up access to more nontraditional students.

“People come to this degree for the Illinois brand,” Hart said. “We’re making sure this meets campus standards.”

Officials at Penn predicted that the online version of the computer information and technology master’s might attract a higher percentage of domestic students than the on-campus counterpart, in part because it will appeal to people with full-time jobs. Students will be eligible for institutional grant aid, according to the university.

And Pritchett said he was confident that the online degree will be valuable in the job market. For example, he said graduates should appeal to local employers in telecom and Penn’s own health system — one of the biggest employers in the region.

“I’m not sure there’s an area where these skills aren’t needed,” he said.

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