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How a Master's Program From the '80s Quietly Keeps Up With Coding Bootcamps

By Sydney Johnson     Jan 19, 2018

For Ellen Spertus, teaching computer science has evolved greatly since she began working nearly 20 years ago as a professor at Mills College, a woman’s college in Oakland, Calif. Major tech booms have shaped the ebb and flow of students to the field, new coding languages have sprung up and free online resources have emerged to train workers in programming.

And in the last five years, there’s been another change added to the mix: an explosion in the U.S. of nearly 100 coding bootcamps, which purport to arm students with tech skills faster and cheaper than a traditional four- or two-year program. The pitch deck for these programs relies on shorter length and real-world training—plus individualized career coaching to place students into the workforce (in some cases, with a money-back guarantee).

But perhaps the ivory tower isn't as slow-moving as these upstart bootcamps say to students and investors. At Mills College, for instance, a two-year computer science master’s program aims to “serve a similar goal as [coding] bootcamps,” Spertus tells EdSurge.

The MA in Interdisciplinary Computer Science (ICS) program works to get students fluent in programming languages, introduce them to theory of algorithm and computation, and provide career networking opportunities to funnel them into the tech industry. And unlike many computer science master’s programs—and also some bootcamps—the program is geared towards students with little coding experience. The program does have some prerequisites, however, including at least a year of discrete mathematics.

“The primary reason people come to our graduate program is because it offers them a computer-science degree,” Spertus continues. “Ordinally they couldn't get one without earning a second bachelor's, which would take even longer.”

For those who graduate from the program, the odds of landing a job in the tech industry run similar to other bootcamp providers, which have been noted for touting high placement rates. According to Susan Wang, head of the ICS program at Mills, 86 percent of graduates from 2008 to 2017 went on to work in the tech industry.

Recent graduates “landed jobs at Mozilla, Stitch Fix and are getting jobs as software engineers,” she adds. “Not contract positions, they are getting full-time positions.”

With Silicon Valley in the Oakland-based college’s backyard, Spertus says companies regularly make visits to the program to meet with students. “This fall, Slack and Gap came, Facebook has had Mills students visit and I believe another visit is being planned,” Spertus says. In addition, the college organizes trips to events like the Lesbians Who Tech conference in San Francisco.

Of course, bootcamps still have the advantage of being shorter than a program like the ones offered Mills, which can make a big difference for adults trying to avoid carving out—and paying for—two years for a master’s degree. One way bootcamps do that is by trimming down lessons in computer theory, which some developers say is not always necessary.

“Theory is great, and you need an understand about the ‘why,’ but it can only take you so far and when you're trying to get a job,” says Meghan Duffy, program manager at Grace Hopper, a coding bootcamp for women out of Fullstack Academy.

Susan Buck, a computer science instructor at Wellesley College and Harvard Extension School, says which program is the best fit depends on the program—and what the students are aiming for. “But if your interest is to hit the ground running and work for a tech startup,” she adds, “there might be the temptation to skip that theory aspect.”

Spertus, who has also worked as a senior research scientist at Google, disagrees, saying “it’s a fallacy to think the theory you learn in CS programs is … useless. If you want to process a billion web pages then you need to understand the theory.”

Still, the professor acknowledges that not everyone can afford the time and money for full-time university education, and thinks “the more options there are, the better.”

Tuition and fees along for the ICS program are estimated at more than $64,000. Even with the option for federal financial aid—which coding bootcamps lack, because they are unaccredited—the ICS program could still be a prohibitively steep price in comparison to a $10,000 bootcamp.

Keeping up with curriculum

While teaching computer science has evolved druing Spertus’ tenure at Mills, so too has the learning material itself—and very quickly. Keeping up with the changing field is yet another way the program mimics coding bootcamp providers.

With so many online resources on how to code, students today can gain plenty of programming skills at little cost and without stepping foot inside a classroom. “That’s fantastic,” Spertus says. But with answers and how-to’s available online, it can be challenging for a professor to come up with assignments that use the internet and still demonstrate learning.

To get around that, and to keep up with the changing industry, the program “constantly changes the material in courses,” says Spertus. Officials at Grace Hopper say they also update their curriculum on a regular basis.

The ICS program at Mills has been around since the 1980’s, and evolving may be key to keeping the program afloat as alternative education providers come and go. Spertus says the bureaucracy of the university doesn’t prevent any instructor from changing their course material, allowing professors to update lessons based on what skills and computer languages are popular among employers. And new courses have also been added, too, such as on mobile application and, most recently, machine learning.

Today, “there are so many more ways people can learn about computer science: informal tutorials, online courses, bootcamps. Students don’t need to rely on professors or books,” says Spertus. But “if people say traditional universities are just ivory tower experience, that’s just not true.”

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