Why One Data Science Student Chose MOOCs Over a Top University Program

By opting for an informal education, David Venturi saved tens of thousands of dollars

16 September 2016

David Venturi had enrolled in a top computer science program to pursue a second bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto—which would have cost him about US $30,000 to complete. A few months before the program started, a friend he was visiting told him about free MOOCs (massive open online courses). Venturi took a few MOOCs over the summer, and then dropped out of the university program after just two weeks to get what he says is an even better education online.

Since dropping out of the university last September, he has been sharing his enthusiasm for MOOCs via social media and on his blog and personal website. Followers have contacted him to say he has inspired them, and to seek guidance on how to pursue their own educational goals. His experience was included in the book Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential by Barbara Oakley.

In this interview with The Institute, Venturi explains his journey, how he developed his MOOC curriculum, and who could benefit from following in his footsteps.

When you decided to drop out of the computer science program, how did you know you would be getting an equivalent education through MOOCs?

If I picked the right courses, I truly believed I would be getting a better, more flexible education. Courses from world-class schools, like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, were available online. Also, a lot of the courses I was interested in were designed by Amazon, Facebook, and Google to teach the skills they look for when hiring.

I also knew online courses that focus on learning by doing fit my learning style better than the traditional 60-minute lecture. The ability to pause videos, search the Internet, and digest information at my own pace meant I could learn more effectively. I wasn’t looking for an “equivalent” education necessarily. I wanted something different.

How did you go about selecting your courses and essentially developing your own curriculum?

I knew I wanted a solid computer science foundation regardless of the specialization I chose. Picking Harvard CS50: Introduction to Computer Science was a no-brainer for me. I selected Udacity’s Intro to Programming Nanodegree because it introduced students to careers within programming—which would help me decide on a specialization. And MIT’s Mathematics for Computer Science would build awareness of the type of math involved in computing.

Once I got the basics down, I looked at top data science master’s programs and selected similar courses that matched their curriculums. Udacity’s Data Analyst Nanodegree, Machine Learning Engineer Nanodegree, and Full Stack Web Developer Nanodegree covered much of what I would have learned in university programs. I also add courses along the way as I see fit.

Were you concerned how employers might view an education based on MOOCs versus classes taken from a top university?

A little bit, but not enough to make me stay in the program. I knew I would probably hurt my chances with a few employers because the credentials from MOOCs are so new. But I also knew of employers that were taking them seriously, including the top tech companies that designed those courses.

I haven’t yet completed my curriculum or started my job search. I’m curious to find out how employers view my credentials.

You wrote in a blog post that going back to school for US $30,000 would have been irresponsible. Can you say more about how saving money factored into your decision?

The main course provider I’m using is Udacity, which offers “nanodegrees.” These degrees end up costing just under $100 and include 5 to 10 courses, professional coaching, and project reviews. I’m forecasting I’ll spend a total of $1,000 over 12 months, which is my entire education.

The data science program as a second bachelor’s degree would have cost me close to $30,000 in total over two and a half years. That’s tens of thousands of dollars saved, not including getting into the workplace faster and other expenses, like textbooks. Going back to traditional school felt irresponsible given my situation.

Do you think what you’ve accomplished through MOOCs is specific to data science, or might it be possible for those pursuing other disciplines? Are there fields that might be better left to traditional schools?

Creating a comprehensive program is definitely not specific to data science, but it’s also probably not a possibility for every discipline. For example, it would take a spectacular series of online courses to train to be an orthopedic surgeon. Anything that is fundamentally based on interacting with people or learning a physical skill, like acting, teaching, nursing, or a trade, is probably best left to traditional schools. The long lectures within those disciplines could be transformed into a MOOC-type format, though, to complement the curriculum.

With MOOCs, there’s a nice synergy with any programming-related job, since you’re both learning and working on a computer. Laurie Pickard’s “No-Pay MBA” suggests MOOCs could work for business. Anything that has long lectures with lots of students would do well with MOOCs.

Overall, MOOCs are for everybody—if you’re looking to upgrade your skills, if you’re in school and want to get a head start on next year’s material, if you’d like to learn just because or, most importantly, if you can’t afford or don’t have access to education.

What words of wisdom do you have for those who might be toying with the idea of returning to school to pursue a master’s degree or doctorate? Would you suggest they start with MOOCs first?

Don’t rule them out just because they’re unproven. Take online education seriously, especially if you’re going for programming-related courses. Demand for programmers is so high, and the quality of free educational resources is astounding and still improving. If you’re good, you’ll find a job.

What other benefits do MOOCs offer besides saving the student money?

You can fast-track your studies. There are no strict timelines every student must follow and no four-month summer breaks. You also have more choices. You can handpick your courses from a large selection of topics and providers. There are no mandatory courses for subjects you’ve already learned or don’t require, and no forced extra electives. Both of these cost time and money. And, finally, freedom. You can learn where and when you want to. You can make your own schedule and choose your study spots. All you need is a laptop and headphones.

Would you consider MOOCs over a university program? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

This article is part of our September 2016 special issue on The State of Engineering Education.

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