UC Berkeley Pioneers an Online Master’s Degree in Data Science

Applications are streaming into UC Berkeley’s School of Information from hopeful students across the globe who are yearning to get that coveted letter telling them they got in—so now they can stay home.

Berkeley’s “I School” has created its second masters degree program, the Master of Information and Data Science. But unlike its older Master of Information Management and Systems program,this one will be conducted almost fully online. The curriculum was designed to train experts who can help mainstream organizations—like hospitals, retailers, and local governments—to use the vast seas of data available to them to improve their products or services.

The first students admitted to the new degree program will start attending classes in January through a web-based video platform that allows them to interact live with their professors and other students. AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information, says the program can accommodate people who are already employed in IT roles, and who may need to study part-time while they continue working.

“We believe there’s huge demand for the degree,” Saxenian says. Interested students are likely to include mid-career professionals outside the United States, she says. “Many may probably not be able to come to Berkeley.”

AnnaLee Saxenian, Dean of UC Berkeley's School of Information

AnnaLee Saxenian, Dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Information

The new online program is the latest evolutionary step for a school with a mission dating back almost a century—to make information accessible. The School of Information, created in 1994, grew out of UC Berkeley’s old school of library science, which originated in 1918.

“As a school of information, we wanted to be learning about online education,” Saxenian says.

The small graduate school of 150 students and 18 faculty members is tucked into Berkeley’s oldest building, South Hall, an ornate red brick pile completed in 1873. Its first master’s degree, the Master of Information Management and Systems program, was launched in 1997. The two-year, full-time program prepares future IT managers, designers of user interfaces, and other professionals.

While teaching those students how to organize information and help users retrieve it, Saxenian says, the school also started to offer a few classes on analyzing data—which is now the core subject of the specialized online degree. The universe of Big Data is getting bigger, as online transactions, mobile device activity, medical devices, GPS sensors, and increasingly Internet-connected consumer items produce a flood of aggregate information.  Organizations that understand all that data will gain a competitive edge, according to a 2011 report co-authored by McKinsey’s Business Technology Office. This  could create a  shortage of as many as 190,000 data scientists in the United States alone by 2018, the McKinsey report predicted.

“As data volumes proliferate, businesses of all sizes find it increasingly challenging to sift through to the relevant data, and then extract the insights required to make critical business decisions,” says Sanjeev Aggarwal, the founder of SMB Group, a technology research and consulting firm in Northborough, MA. “Currently there is huge shortage of experienced and trained professionals in the analytics and big data segment.”

Saxenian says graduates of Berkeley’s new data science program might end up working for crime-fighting agencies, big banks, or even non-profits—“almost any field you can name,” she says.

“Most have data they maybe haven’t analyzed as well as they might,” Saxenian says.

Coursework in the new 27-unit program will cover topics such as research design, applied statistics, the visual presentation of data, and machine learning—the creation of algorithms to detect patterns in big data sets. Classes will be taught by tenured faculty who have helped design the curriculum, Saxenian says. Students can complete the degree program in 12 to 21 months.

The School of Information created the program in a partnership with the online education company 2U Inc. of Landover, MD, which helped finance the initiative, and will split the tuition revenues with UC Berkeley. 2U provides an interactive online classroom for live sessions, student support, and other services. The company has similar partnerships with other graduate schools, including the University of Southern California School of Social Work and USC’s Rossier School of Education.

UC Berkeley has two other graduate degrees offered primarily online—the Master of Advanced Study in Integrated Circuits, and the Masters in Public Health. Saxenian says her school’s data science program is the first to collaborate with an outside education technology company. Accreditation for online degree programs, especially those designed in concert with outside companies, has been a contentious issue of late, but the new Berkeley degree MIDS has received interim approval from the accreditation body overseeing California schools—the Western Association of Schools and Colleges—and final approval is expected by the end of October, according to a 2U spokesperson.

The full program will cost about $60,000; students may be eligible for federal financial aid. Admission will be selective—a maximum of 30 students will be chosen for the inaugural class. The final application deadline is Nov. 14 for the session that begins Jan. 14.

Students will attend a one-week immersion course in South Hall on the Berkeley campus, which will include opportunities to visit companies in the Bay area. Once established, the program could possibly be scaled up, Saxenian says. But it’s too soon to say how many students it might one day accommodate.

“The first and foremost thing is insuring quality,” Saxenian says. “Then we’ll figure out how many students we can take.”  If the program grows, the school would work to keep the original faculty engaged by teaching some sections and helping new instructors, who might be professional practitioners in the data field, alumni of the program, or post-doctoral students working on their own research in data science.

An expansion might make it possible for the school to offer specialized degrees in data analysis for particular fields, such as health care, education, or data journalism, Saxenian says. A scale-up might also provide the means to create fellowships for students who want to work in the non-profit sector or other lower-paid professions, Saxenian says. But many students will be able to recoup their investment in the degree, she says.

“Mostly, data scientists are going to earn good money,”  Saxenian says.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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