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

10/8/13Follow @tanseyverse

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 … Next Page »

Bernadette Tansey is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, CA. Follow @tanseyverse

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