Interview: John Hart, Professor of Computer Science at University of Illinois

I recently caught up with John Hart, Professor of Computer Science at University of Illinois, to discuss his university’s new Master of Computer Science in Data Science (MCS-DS) degree program. The completely online degree allows students to learn about new statistical and computational tools that are transforming business and society from the Illinois faculty who are pioneering them. Students discover Data Science: the art of extracting new knowledge and finding meaningful information in a massive sea of data. With the program, offered in partnership with the School of Information Sciences and the Department of Statistics, students receive lectures through Coursera’s massive open online course (MOOC) platform, but are advised and assessed by Illinois faculty and teaching assistants on the more rigorous set of assignments, projects, and exams required for university degree credit.

Daniel D. Gutierrez – Managing Editor, insideBIGDATA

insideBIGDATA: Coursera pioneered the online education area for data science and machine learning with Andrew Ng’s venerable machine learning course and the data science specialization series through Johns Hopkins University (which I had the pleasure of beta testing). How did this first-mover advantage help in paving the way toward full degree programs like we’re seeing now?

John Hart: Coursera has been instrumental for connecting learners looking to start a career in the data sciences with our academic curriculum for learning data science. Our data science curriculum is a focused track through our Master of Computer Science degree program. We’ve had that degree program online since the 90’s, but it wasn’t until we partnered with Coursera to offer the data science track online through their platform that we saw the large numbers of learners we knew were out their but hadn’t yet reached. The Coursera platform allows a growing number of learners to audit (“sit-in”) on our courses through MOOCs to prove to themselves they can handle the material before committing the time and effort needed to earn a degree in data science. Coursera itself applies data science to its MOOC learning platform to identify good candidates to apply for our MCS in Data Science degree. This has opened up a new student base that has redefined the MCS degree from a follow-on to a computing bachelors into a tack-on degree, like an MBA or a law degree, that students add to a bachelors in other disciples such as the life sciences, humanities or the arts, to show their expertise in the disciplinary data sciences.

insideBIGDATA: How will your new degree programs help address the increasing demand for data scientists?

John Hart: Gartner and others have shown between 100K and 200K data science jobs go unfilled because of the shortage of skilled data scientists. The University of Illinois was established 150 years ago as a land-grant university charged by the Morrill Act to provide the nation with skilled labor, at the time in “Agriculture and Mechanic Arts,” but now it is quite clearly the skilled labor most in need is data science. The Coursera platform allows us to meet this charge at scale with a degree that’s both flexible and affordable. On the Coursera platform, the MCS can be completed in as little as one aggressive year, or leisurely in a little less than three years taking one course at a time, or comfortably over five years taking breaks between courses to attend to other obligations. Regardless of how long you need to complete the degree, the tuition remains an affordable $19,200 and is charged by the course, which is much less than our other degree options that charge by the semester, even semesters when classes aren’t taken.

insideBIGDATA: What are the goals for your new degree program: Master of Computer Science in Data Science (MCS-DS)?

John Hart: The goal of the MCS-DS program is to meet the intense educational demands that the new field of data science has created. By partnering with Coursera, the University of Illinois is able to offer the degree program to a broader cohort of graduate students than ever before. The Coursera online learning platform is asynchronous, so that even while our online courses are offered during a standard fifteen-week semester, the material is available on a flexible timeline to allow students with work or family obligations to be able to work ahead, and at any time of day or night, to better fit with their schedule. Lectures are available as short video segments that students can squeeze-in individually during their morning train commute or binge-watch over a weekend. I’ve been able to talk about the degree with students in Minneapolis, the Bay Area and Phoenix, and they’ve all shared their appreciation for the opportunity to get a computing degree from Illinois without needing to pause their career to spend a year or more in Champaign-Urbana.

insideBIGDATA: What do you anticipate the job prospects to be after students complete your degree program?

John Hart: We’ve implemented our data science degree as a focused track in our computer science degree. Glassdoor lists the average salary for a data scientist at $120K, but it also lists the average salary for a data analyst at $60K, and the difference is computer science. The MCS-DS program produces data scientists that understand machine learning, data mining, data visualization and cloud computing, not just how to use those applications, but the algorithmic and usability details of how those tools work. The primary instrument for a data scientist is the computer, and the MCS-DS program produce data scientists that can utilize the computer as an instrument, sometimes in unexpected ways, to make big data reveal its secrets.

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