Will students fork over $60K for UC Berkeley’s new online master’s degree in data science?

online degree

Big data is becoming a big opportunity for higher education. As we’ve reported before, more universities are trying to meet industry’s growing appetite for data scientists with new master’s programs in the field.  But on Wednesday, the University of California at Berkeley will announce that it is launching a data science master’s degree that, for the time being at least, will only be online.

Powered by 2U, an education technology company that enables top universities to offer full-price, high-quality degrees virtually, the new degree targets working professionals with a comprehensive program taught by faculty at the university’s School of Information (or I School).

2U, which was founded by serial ed tech entrepreneur John Katzman and is backed by $90 million in venture funding, already partners with seven universities, including Georgetown, the University of North Carolina and American University, for graduate degrees. Its degrees span fields like business administration, nursing and law, and it also offers undergraduate ‘Semester Online’ programs with other schools. But with the data science degree, it’s pushing into new territory.

“This is the first time that we are working with a school in building out a degree that isn’t in an existing, well-known discipline,” said 2U CEO Chip Paucek, adding that this is also the first degree it’s powering that doesn’t have an on-campus complement.  Paucek said the company plans to continue creating online degrees in more contemporary, less established fields.

Given the demand for data scientists, it’s little wonder that Berkeley and 2U want to offer a new degree in the discipline. In the past few years, as data science has become the “sexiest” field of the century, other top universities, like Northwestern and New York University, have moved into this area.

A $60,000 online degree

But by offering an online degree, Berkeley can reach students all over the world and people who want more education without giving up their jobs. With 2U, it hopes to offer a virtual experience that can justify the same price tag as an on-campus degree.

“We wanted a partner that would be able to offer the level of rigor, selectivity, and quality of our existing campus based degrees,” said AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of UC Berkeley’s I School. Given space limitations on campus, an online degree also enabled the school to offer a new program without requiring additional space.

The degree, which 2U expects students will be able to complete in 12 to 20 months, will cost $60,000 a pop. When compared to the free and low-cost massive open online courses (MOOCs) — like the online computer science degree offered by Georgia Tech and Udacity — that get the lion’s share of attention in online education, that’s bound to raise eyebrows. But 2U offers an entirely different flavor of online learning.

In MOOCs, students have little (or no) real-time interaction with professors and peers and learn mostly on their own time, but 2U classes are all delivered in real-time, in an online environment that lets the professor and students see and interact with the entire class at once.  Professors can see if students are getting distracted and call on them or adapt a lesson if it seems like the class isn’t following along. And students can ask questions or interrupt the professor at anytime. Also, while MOOCs can include tens of thousands of students, 2U classes never exceed 20 students.

2U’s pitch is that online students become a part of the university community as much as any on-campus student and therefore its price is worth it. But students will still miss out on much of the casual, spontaneous interactions they’d get if they were in an offline environment.

Since launching in 2008, the company says 8,070 students have enrolled in its programs, and that it has a 90 percent job placement rate and an 84 percent retention rate. From its first four programs in 2013, 2U said it expects to generate $230 million in tuition fees (which is splits with the schools).

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