The secret of getting ahead is getting started

MOOCs vs Traditional University Post-Graduate Study: What’s my return on investment?


The landscape for formal education has changed

In the early years of my education, around the time dinosaurs were roaming the campus and Modula-2 was at the leading edge of programming languages, I had a fantastic experience learning through a structured degree program delivered onsite by my local university of technology. I’m still good mates with other students in the same degree program, and I was fortunate enough to get a good start to my working career even though Australia was undergoing the recession we had to have. A traditionally delivered university degree built those strong relationships to my peers, helped me gain a paid internship at IBM, and gave me an excellent grounding in the knowledge and skills that employers at that time needed.

Triceratops with Steven Spielberg - from Jurassic Park set

Myself (right) and a fellow student showing off our Triceratops toppling skills

Of course, nowadays there are so many more high-quality pathways to gaining new skills that it can be hard to choose.

For example, here in Melbourne, I’ve been considering the options available to me for post-graduate study in data analytics. I’ve been weighing up what content is offered, how it’s delivered and what it costs. Once the field has been narrowed down, I have a few key options:

  • Masters of Information Systems at the prestigious University of Melbourne will cost around AUD$51,000
  • Masters of Computer Science at the venerable RMIT will cost around AUD$46,000
  • Data Science Specialization at John Hopkins through Coursera will cost around AUD$600

Show me the money

Coming from a purely economic perspective, further study will need to provide a return on the investment. If I invest $50k and two years of part-time study (guesstimating 1000 hours ) into a masters degree, then it will need to return that amount in additional income over the remainder of my working life. The MOOC (massively open online course) offered by John Hopkins won’t provide the same value for the much, much smaller cost of $600 and time (guesstimating 400 hours), however, the returned additional income from this investment would obviously need to be quite a small increase.

As a conservative investor, I can’t be certain of the financial return on the investment in a masters degree. As a mid-career student I’m looking for a higher return per-year than someone else just starting out on their working life, and this brings a greater risk that it won’t be achieved. On a purely financial basis, the MOOC is the obvious choice.

But then, there’s more than financial considerations in choosing my next step to gain the skills to support a career change.

Why choose traditional university post-graduate study?

My experience with commencing post-graduate study in my home-town was overwhelmingly positive. I absolutely loved it, but unfortunately, moving to Melbourne has meant I couldn’t finish my studies. Having experienced the considerable advantages of traditionally delivered post-graduate coursework, the pros are:

  • Meeting face-to-face with lecturers provides a connection that motivates and rewards study and academic achievement
  • Guest speakers shared their valuable local expertise around Australian laws (for example) and brought with them their professional connections to the corporations who may be a future employer
  • Pre-qualified students who’ve met the entry criteria ensures that the student cohort are all committed, capable and able to operate at an appropriate academic standard
  • Australian universities are recognised institutions with a level of prestige and name recognition by locally based employers and potential clients
  • Structured course content ensures graduates are grounded in the subjects needed, and these needs are determined in consultation with key employers

Ultimately, traditional universities help build relationships with fellow professionals, with employers and with the faculty. The structured course content provides an assured depth of coverage of a knowledge area, while helping provide the motivation to complete the required study work. The biggest drawback is the large money and time investment needed to complete a course.

Why choose a MOOC?

Having now started on my data specialisation course through Coursera, I’ve become a fierce advocate for online study through a MOOC. The advantages are:

  • High quality of teaching material, John Hopkins has an admirable reputation in the field of biostatistics
  • Build your own adventure approach means it’s possible to select additional courses to supplement any gaps in capability (eg. my woeful statistical knowledge), or to continue study in areas of interest
  • Considerable flexibility to study from home, or on the road, whereever it best suits
  • Flexibility in the schedule with each 4 week subject restarting every month making it feasible to plan around life events (holidays, illness, etc)
  • Low cost removes a barrier to committing to study, in fact, it’s free if certifications aren’t a consideration

The overwhelming advantages of online study through a MOOC, are the low cost and the flexibility. As long as a student has the drive and motivation to complete the course work, there’s excellent content that’s well structured and paced. The biggest drawback is the very limited opportunity to build those relationships that are so important in getting a job and securing an income.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started

Where I’ve landed on these choices

The benefit that tips the scales for my individual circumstances, has been the smaller scope (and lesser cost). Studying the data science specialisation on offer through Coursera, means I can test whether I can sustain the interest and, more importantly, whether I can build the capability to work in the field of data analytics.

In fact I hope that the traditional and MOOC options aren’t mutually exclusive. Once I’ve dipped my toe into studying data analytics, I hope to be ready to dive into deeper study and further specialisation. Right now, I’m just getting started.

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