Georgia Tech’s Online Masters of Computer Science Degree

Many of you know that I’m working on a Master’s Degree in Computer Science through Georgia Tech. I have to work to take care of my wife and 4 kids, so going back to school full time was out of the question. So I was truly grateful when I discovered that Georgia Institute of Technology has a wonderful online campus.

I intentionally called it an “online campus” rather than an “online degree” though I’m fine with you calling it either. But there is a bit of a difference. Georgia Tech’s Online Master’s degree is considered the same degree as their on campus version. So it’s literally more like an online campus rather than an “online degree.” The only difference, even in principle, between the degrees is that your transcript notes which classes had online delivery. Other than that, they are the same degree.

However, to be honest, that wasn’t my real reason for deciding to work on this degree. I have a Computer Science undergrad, but I also have an MBA. And my current job (though I hope to eventually change careers) is working as a Software Project Manager. I abandoned my programming roots soon after graduating and started pursuing a career in management. So this degree doesn’t exactly line up perfectly with my current career path, though I doubt having a Computer Science Master’s degree on my resume will in any way harm my resume.

The way I actually got started on this degree was because I read a book by physicist David Deutsch called “The Fabric of Reality.” I loved the book so much I started reading more books on related subjects. One of Deutsch’s “Four Strands” (for which this site is named) was Computational Theory. I had taken a computational theory class in my undergrad but I barely remembered it. It was that class that you were required to take that you had no idea how it related to programming nor how it would relate to any future job. You learned about arcane ‘computing machines’ that seemed irrelevant to modern computers. Everyone hated the class — frankly, even the instructor seemed bored — and then you managed to get through the class and move on to ‘real stuff.’

Reading Deutsch’s description of computational theory made me wished I had paid attention in class! This was one of the most fascinating subjects I’d ever come across. My professor must have worked very hard to make it seem so boring.

So to study the subject more I started reading up on it. I soon came across Norvig and Russell’s Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach and found Artificial Intelligence to be strongly related to computational theory and fascinating in its own right. Though Deutsch’s book had convinced me that AI had little connection to Artificial General Intelligence, I really wanted to dig deep into the subject.

So I started to take online classes in anything related to Artificial Intelligence. At some point, I noticed that several of my online classes on a site called Udacity were made in association with the Georgia Institute of Technology. Apparently, these classes were part of an online master’s program. I had looked around for an online master’s in computer science several times, but they were always ridiculously expensive and frankly looked incredibly boring and unrelated to my real interests. But out of curiosity, I clicked a link that took me to the home page for the Georgia Tech Online Master’s program. To my shock, this degree was nothing like others I’d looked at. For one thing, it was really cheap. A mere $7,000 to $8,000 for the entire degree. I kept thinking I was reading it wrong. Maybe they meant “per semester,” I thought. But nope, it was the cost for the whole degree. I worked it out in a spreadsheet a few times to be sure. So I could justify the cost of family money. And this was for a degree from a top 10 ranked university for Computer Science! So it was literally a better degree than the $30,000 monstrosities I’d previously seen.

Education as Hobby

But that wasn’t the thing that caught my eye the most. It was that they had tons of classes in the very subjects I was desiring to learn about anyhow. They had multiple courses in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. In fact, it would be possible for me to complete the necessary 10 courses for the degree taking pretty much only classes that I planned to take online anyhow. So I decided that I was going to spend the next few years making this degree my hobby. And at the end, I’d end up with a Master’s in Computer Science with a specialization in Machine Learning.

I’d always wished I’d pursued something like that as a career instead of Project Management. Maybe it would even be possible for me, once I had the degree. Who knows. But my main motivation was just the pure joy of wanting to learn interesting subjects.

I’m now near the end of my program. I’m soon finishing up my 8th class — a class in Deep Learning that finishes off my requirements for my Machine Learning specialization. I have two more courses to go. I’m thinking about finishing up the program next semester by taking two classes at once. I’m debating between Video Game Design, Game AI, Educational Technology (which is really about how to do research), Bayesian Statistics (know thy enemy!), and Computer Vision. All subjects that I’m interested in. There are literally more classes that I wanted to take than I needed to graduate. I’m considering taking a few of them after graduation. (Alumni are allowed to take courses after graduation.)

I plan to do posts reviewing each of the classes I took and give tips for future students.

Was It Worth It?

Many of you might be wondering if it was really worth it or not to work on a degree — especially one that I may not end up using if I can’t make a career switch work. I also know any of you have perhaps well-deserved criticisms of academia in general. But, for me, this was an amazing experience that I don’t regret.

I do believe that something like this comes down to one’s personal interests. I certainly didn’t need a second master’s degree. And I’d not have done this but for interest in the subject. But I personally love the ‘curated’ aspect of the traditional educational system. They take me through subjects I’d probably have never thought to study on my own. Sometimes that’s a miss and sometimes that’s a hit. A good example of this is Reinforcement Learning. I don’t think I’d have thought to study this topic on my own. But once I learned it in my Machine Learning for Trading class I wanted to learn more and took the Reinforcement Learning class offered.

Things I’d Improve

If I had one complaint about ‘traditional education’ it’s that I feel like they sometimes make the learning process painful based on a belief that that will lead to better learning. Perhaps this is true for younger on-campus students, I don’t know. But it isn’t true for an ‘educational hobbyist’ like me. It seemed like somewhere right around the 60-70% mark my stress grew so strong that I began to wonder if I was still enjoying the subject. Then right at that point — “coincidentally” right after the final withdrawal date — the class would suddenly ease up. By the time I finished the class I’d be excited again for the next class. But as an educational hobbyist, if I had my way, I’d remove the mentality that leads to making classes stressful for its own sake. Or at least I would for online degrees. I’ll give specific examples of what I mean here in the upcoming course reviews.

I also disliked some of the silly arbitrary rules that sometimes exist in academia. There are usually understandable reasons for these (like wanting to help cut down on plagiarism) but, again, if you’re an educational hobbyist like me, you really hate anything that distracts from the joy of learning. I’ll talk about some of these in more detail in my reviews of the courses.

Another common complaint about traditional education is that it’s ‘too theoretical.’ This is certainly true. But for me, that was a positive! I was far more interested in learning about the theory than merely the practice. Honestly, a degree like this isn’t for you unless you really do have some interest in the theory.

But even with these negatives, I just don’t regret my decision to work on this degree. I feel so lucky that I found such a program and had a chance to be part of it and I am hopeful it will change my resume enough that I might find my way to a career change in the future that lines up with my interests better.

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