This was first posted on LinkedIn on April 15, 2015.
In conversations with friends or family, I often bring up at some point that I am in graduate school part-time. Inevitably, the next question is where. Living in Chicago, people expect me to answer Northwestern or University of Chicago or one of the other great schools in the area. But every time, I take a deep breath and answer, “I’m actually in school at Berkeley” and wait for the puzzled look to appear on their face.
I am a student at Berkeley’s Master of Information and Data Science program (or MIDS, as we affectionately call it) offered by the School of Information. This program is offered completely online through a mix of asynchronous video and discussion with weekly live classes. A week long immersion on-campus once during the course of the program is also required. I am part of the intrepid group of students in the first-ever cohort that will now be walking in Berkeley’s commencement ceremonies in May (with our official completion of the degree in August).
I completed my undergraduate degree at Cornell, graduating from the College of Engineering where I had a wonderful experience. But when I go back to Cornell, I go to places: my freshman year dorm, the Cornell Plantations, the engineering quad. When I go to Berkeley, I go meet people: the lecturers I had for classes, the staff at the I-School, the students who live in the Bay area. Both schools come up in my Instagram feed, with many pictures of clock towers, cherry blossoms, and sunsets (but one with a lot more snow than the other). I am deeply connected to both universities, but in very different ways.
2U, the company that manages my degree program and others, recently released their Impact Report. This is not just a marketing play. In my experience, everything stated in this report is 100% accurate.
This is not to say everything has been perfect. As with any new degree, especially one offered in a new platform, there are bound to be kinks. But the dedication of the Berkeley staff and faculty to improve the lives of students who will only step foot on campus a handful of times is remarkable. The support from 2U to ensure a seamless experience and provide ongoing encouragement is outstanding. The engagement of my fellow students to give feedback and finding creative ways to be connected to each other despite being located around the country (and increasingly, the world) is incredible.
2U’s CEO and founder, Chip Paucek, was recently featured The Washington Business Journal commenting on how 2U’s mission to change online education and transform lives of its students by building quality online education programs. I truly believe they are well on their way to achieving their goals, and 2U’s programs will continue to open the opportunity of incredibly high quality education to many who would have not considered it before.
But to truly change the perception of online education in our society, the loudest voices need to be from students and graduates of these programs. (At this point, it would probably be worthwhile to say that my thoughts here were not solicited by Berkeley or 2U.) Our voices can be explicit (like mine here), but the implicit voice from our performance and contribution to our companies and communities will make the biggest impact. And trust me, our impact will be great.
When I tell people I go to Berkeley, people’s reactions should not be marred by skepticism. I don’t want to go into a long explanation of how my online experience is on par (or better) than an in-person education. I will not accept the degree that I have earned will come with an asterisk for “online”. My peers, my employers, and universities themselves, must not look down on my degree as second rate. I may not know the Berkeley fight song or navigate my way around campus, but I am, without any doubt in my mind, a (soon to be) Berkeley graduate.