Weigh an Online Computer Science Program in 2018

For some students, a graduate degree in computer science simply makes sense.

John Ziegler already has a master’s in systems engineering. But the 27-year-old needed a stronger background in software, he says, especially when it comes to theory. So the New York resident enrolled in the master’s in computer science online degree program at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.

“I really like my job; I really didn’t want to have to leave work and enroll in something full time,” says Ziegler, who expects to graduate in 2019. “At the same time, I didn’t really want to do something part time locally.”

For Ziegler, online education at USC was an opportunity to forge connections with Silicon Valley tech companies, complete programming projects remotely and watch live or recorded class lectures. He also takes proctored exams at a local testing site.

[Learn what to ask about flexibility in online degree programs.]

Many computer science graduate students choose to further their education online, often for the flexibility of working while advancing professionally. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for computer and information research scientists is expected to grow 19 percent between 2016 and 2026.

“In general, I think we see that individuals looking to pursue a master’s in computer science are typically more tech savvy; they’re much more computer literate than maybe the general population. So I think they find a bit of ease with the online format,” says Patrick McSweeney, assistant teaching professor at Syracuse University.

McSweeney says students in the Syracuse online computer science program primarily include those who studied this field as undergraduates and are looking to move into advanced roles, along with those with backgrounds in other disciplines related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Mike Hancock, who graduated this past May from the online computer science master’s program at North Carolina State University, says his classmates included individuals in different states and outside the country. “Some people hadn’t worked before; a lot of the people that I’ve interacted with have worked. It was pretty diverse.”

Despite their distance from campus, experts say online degree students in these programs are generally required to complete proctored exams – either remotely, using webcams to prevent cheating, or at a testing facility near their homes. Project-based assessments that focus on real-world scenarios, which students complete independently or in groups, are also common, experts say.

[Explore ways online students may take exams.]

“Students in most online programs can expect a heavy amount of computer-based projects, where they’ll connect directly to servers or do all the coding online and then submit it as assignments,” says Binh Tran, associate dean for master’s student services at Viterbi.

The online format also enables computer science graduate students to hold conversations in the online classroom, or learning management system, using discussion boards and other virtual communication tools, experts and students say.

In the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign online capstone course, students virtually discuss published research in the field and then record video responses to one another, culminating in a larger capstone project, says John C. Hart, a computer science professor at the school.

At Illinois, some online students – like those on campus – participate in research with faculty outside the classroom, Hart says, interacting virtually through email, phone and videoconferencing. Whether these opportunities are available to online students varies by institution.

Some online computer science graduate programs likewise provide opportunities for students to interact face to face on campus. At Syracuse, online students must visit campus in New York one time over the course of the program, says McSweeney – though that’s not the case in every online program.


“We had some of the Ph.D. candidates come through and introduce what kinds of research is going on at SU,” says McSweeney. He says there was also a workshop on big data along with a presentation on cybersecurity.

When it comes to course structure, some online computer science degree programs, including the online master’s at USC, may have real-time online class sessions, where students attend via webcam at a specific time on a certain day and participate in discussions. Those lectures are also recorded for later reference, Tran says.

Aside from the virtual format, Ziegler, the USC student, says the curriculum is overall the same as it is for on-ground students.

“You have the exact same due dates; you have the exact same testing times,” says Ziegler. “You basically just follow along just like you were going to be in a lecture on campus. The only real difference is that you’re watching them on a computer.”