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A Changing Learning Experience In Computer Science Programs

This is a guest post by Olivia Leonardi.

Computer science is one of the fastest growing professional fields, with demand for talent increasing every year. One of the best ways for tech-savvy young people to jump aboard this wave is through higher education. However, college and university training is often expensive, which can make earning even a basic degree seem like a daunting task. Educators are taking note of this, however, and are offering a continually increasing number of courses, many times free of charge.

Online learning makes sense, especially in computer programming, a field of study where many of the tools and skills needed are already housed online. As the need for computer technology experts continues to rise, more and more Internet-based learning options emerge.

New Tools to Fix an Aging Deficit

The most traditional online courses closely mimic those that would be taught in a classroom. Students log in via Internet portals to access course material, view lectures, and submit assignments. Many of the practical exercises — coding, program samples, and script writing, to name just a few—are done online anyway. This makes studying remotely no different from working in a dorm room or campus computer lab. Most students in these sorts of programs enjoy a great deal of flexibility with regard to their schedules, and can finish a year of school in less debt than if they were to enroll in an traditional program.

Tech Savvy and Financially Conscious Education

Not every student needs a full degree program, however. People who are already working in the IT field may simply want to formalize their knowledge. Similarly, those who are interested in learning what computer science is and how to program may wish to explore more basic courses without having to commit to an entire degree program. Individual online courses and certificate programs can provide these types of students with appropriate and applicable education and skills.

The Kahn Academy, which began as a series of instructional YouTube videos posted by an MIT graduate, is one of the biggest providers of free computer science education on the web. The Kahn Academy provides a series of webinars for all levels, from children through to experts.

I really think programming can and should be a universal skill, just like writing and math,” John Resig, one of the developers behind the Khan Academy’s computer science platform, told Forbes magazine in August 2012. The Kahn Academy pairs lectures with actual interaction with the experts who provide content, which may lead to a sort of virtual mentorship model somewhere down the road.

As education and open-source platforms merge, a number of universities are beginning to provide free access to computer programming information. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare program was one of the first to stream engineering and computer science lectures online, and many of the classes available today come replete with notes, study guides, and recommendations for further information. In some selected courses, students can even participate as if they were actually present, interacting with students and lecturers through chat boards and submitting electronically-graded assignments. No formal grades are given for this work, and credits cannot be earned. Still, the education has value — and best of all, it comes at no cost aside from time.

Stanford University may soon take opencourseware a step further. A proposal is in the works for a pay-for-play online computer science and engineering program that would allow Internet-based students to log in from anywhere, complete the coursework, and earn a diploma — all for about $100.

A Virtual Reality Check

Of course, there are certain drawbacks to online-only programs. There is less opportunity for face-to-face human interaction. Students also may risk becoming so focused on niches in computer science that they miss out on other aspects of a rounded education—humanities, life sciences, and languages—that typically make up a more standard college experience. As the need for computer science expertise continues to rise there is a lot to be said for the ease with which knowledge and training can be found online. It is very likely that over the course of the next few years, type of education will continue to expand and improve.

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