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Online computer science program now more online than ever

Oregon State Ecampus program shines in a changed world

Ben Brewster smiles from a video stream on the photographer's laptop

Ben Brewster is teaching and directing the online degree program in computer science from his home office in Corvallis. Photo by Johanna Carson via Zoom.

By Rachel Robertson

As the coronavirus pandemic disrupted spring term courses across Oregon State University, the online computer science program hummed along as usual. Mostly.

When businesses began shutting down and people were losing jobs, Ben Brewster, online program director for computer science, checked with students to see how they had been impacted.

“Even though the online classes are all running like normal, all of these individual families are still touched in the same ways that yours and mine are,” Brewster said. “So, they’re stuck at home, they’re having to homeschool, their jobs are stressful.”

Most instructors in the online postbaccalaureate program in computer science work remotely, so they were familiar with communicating by Zoom and Slack. Brewster had already been working from home one day a week before Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s March 23 executive order to stay at home went into effect, so he didn’t need to adapt much. The only difference was that his five children were also home, wanting help with schoolwork.

“Work is more disjointed,” he said.

When most of Oregon State’s extracurricular activities were canceled, the OSU Hackathon Club hosted its online hackathon as usual. But the global health emergency still influenced the event.

“We had a lot of submissions that somehow tied to the pandemic,” said Jordan Bartos, postbaccalaureate student in computer science and president of the club. The winning project was a Reading Room app to help foster a sense of community when social distancing has become the new norm.

Big and getting bigger

With over 2,000 students enrolled, the online computer science program is by far the university’s largest degree program, according to the fall 2019 enrollment summary of the Office of Institutional Research.

Delivered by Oregon State Ecampus, the program has seen steady growth since its inception in 2012. The current health crisis has not slowed that growth. In fact, there were more students admitted to the program for this summer than any previous summer.

“We are in a constant state of growth. Training, onboarding, and hiring are daily duties,” Brewster said. “I’d be shocked if we didn’t have at least another 10% increase next term.”

This fall, Ecampus and the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science will launch another computer science program online that is likely to attract students facing a world changed by social distancing and remote education.

The new program is for first-time bachelor’s students, which is different from the postbaccalaureate program that requires students to already have a degree in another field. Students in the new bachelor’s program will build their own custom curriculum and have the option to add a certificate in cybersecurity.

Brewster says the popularity of the program could be in part because computer science is a topic that lends itself well to distance learning, since code-sharing and online collaborations are an essential part of programming. He also recognizes the growth is also largely due to the support from Ecampus.

Leading online education

Oregon State Ecampus is a leader in online teaching and learning innovation. In January, Oregon State’s online bachelor’s programs were ranked No. 5 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, making it Ecampus’ sixth straight year in the Top 10. Ecampus delivers over 70 degrees and programs, including two engineering master’s degree programs — for engineering management and radiation health physics.

Over the years, with the help of Ecampus, the online computer science classes have changed dramatically from remote delivery of classroom lectures to a more active type of instruction. Although there are still lectures, they are considerably shorter.

“A long video is around seven minutes now, whereas in the past, a long video would have been 70 minutes,” Brewster said.

He describes the active learning as a two-pronged approach that starts with a recorded presentation requiring students to take an action, such as run a compiler or answer a question. Then they go to a discussion forum to communicate and collaborate with other students about what they learned.

“It’s a very different way of thinking about education,” he said.

Supporting life transformations

The postbaccalaureate program was created with the idea of meeting the needs of Pacific Northwest tech companies that could not find enough computer science graduates to fill job openings. But it also turned out to be a way for individuals to change their lives.

Each of the nearly 2,000 Ecampus computer science graduates has a unique story to tell about how their life was impacted. Justin Ihara, who struggled to find a job with a degree in mathematics, has worked the past seven years as a software engineer after receiving his postbaccalaureate degree in computer science.

At a time when unemployment is skyrocketing, the increased number of admitted students to Oregon State’s program is a promising sign that people are looking for a way to improve their opportunities.

“I really believe in the transformational education motto of the College of Engineering, and the postbac students are a great example of this,” Brewster said. “They are all reinventing themselves for one reason or another.”

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This story was originally published by the OSU College of Engineering’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science on June 3, 2020.

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