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Deep Dive: Are Online Courses Really Cheaper Than A Computer Science Degree?

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University of Zimbabwe, UZ, education, school

This is a Guest Post and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts and opinions of Techzim. We have a strong filtering process of what makes it to our blog and are confident that you’ll enjoy the article below.

So, Universities have opened at this point I can bet you people are celebrating the fact they can start living the life they saw in movies (should I tell them the truth?). However, others are probably sitting in the side-lines scoffing at the poor students making a terrible decision in their eyes. Why waste time doing boring lectures when you can just as easily do the same thing online for basically free? I can already imagine the smugness in their voices as they think out loud to themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy school as much as the next guy. But something always felt like it didn’t add up
with that smugness. Can you really do as many courses as an average computer science undergrad for practically free in the space of a couple of weeks? Are there even Computer Science courses on these platforms or is all Android and web development stuff? Can Redbull really keep you awake all
night? I had to find an answer. And yes, I did read the debate that went on a while back, but it seemed way too subjective for my liking.

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To begin with, I think it would be cool to show all the kids (and adults too) all the things that you have to learn to be a Computer Science Undergrad. Skim past this if you already have a good idea of what Computer Science is, and you don’t think our main job is installing WhatsApp.

Year 1 first semester

This is where you get the introductory courses on computer science. This includes topics like programming in a popular language like Python or C++. Also there’s Fundamental Maths were topics propositional logic and discrete mathematics. Then everyone’s favourite (not): Calculus and Linear Algebra. Also depending on the university there’s probability theory or principles of electro-magnetism. It’s the least enjoyable for more practical students. And if you’re aspiring to make a game or be the next Mark Zuckerburg, you’re going to be wondering why you even have to do most of this stuff. Academia, my good friend, academia.

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Year 1 second semester

Involves digging deeper into stuff and finally being taught things that are useful to companies. Sort of. This is typically where algorithms and data structures get touched upon to make your naïve code a whole lot better. Logic and circuit design to understand digital electronics principles. With more advanced mathematical topics to make sure that you’ll be more confused even smarter.

Bonus Modules: Introduction to communication, research and entrepreneurial skills. That way even if you quit school super early, at least it won’t be a complete waste of time and you can start your own Facebook. And not sit at home playing games and watching Korean movies. Please don’t quit school just to do that.

Year 2

… Is typically when classes try to equip you for the workforce. The focus shifts from very theoretical, to a bit more balanced diet of theoretical and practical concepts. At least if you quit at this stage, you’ll actually be able to get employment that doesn’t involve fetching other people coffee or manning a shop. (Instead, you’ll have sleepless nights trying to debug code for some crazy deadline) I’m sure a lot of places switch up which courses come when. Since it varies wildly from place to place I guess I’ll have to speak for the entire year as a whole.

  • This is where you finally get to learn how to do networking: where you talk a lot about cables and bandwidth and topologies. Plus a TON of sub-netting exercises and commands to setup some nodes. You also get to learn about relational databases and how to make databases that actually make sense. And not like those horrible DBs where you have to stack a bunch of spaghetti SQL joins and filters in a crazy chain. You also get to dip your toes into
    cool things like micro-controllers and IOT.
  • Also, you get to learn AI! Actually, it’s just machine learning. Scratch that, let’s just call it introduction to machine learning algorithms. There’s also my favourite subjects: software engineering and Object-oriented programming. Which I might add is crucial for any person who’s looking forward to being a software developer).
  • Of course, it isn’t all practical: There’s plenty of Algorithm knowledge to be learned in Operating Systems concepts and Discrete Mathematics. Plus there’s also theoretic deep dives into how computers really work: Programming Languages and Computer Architecture come to mind.

Oh I had almost forgotten about the Bonus Modules: More communication skills, Business Management skills and last but not least, a Major project

Whew, that’s a lot of computer science and we’re just talking about the first 2 years.

Year 3

…is more of an earning year than a learning one. As long as you were *actually* paying attention in class and know all these things. And if you also have a dope major project to get you into a nice place (whispers: obviously this is Zimbabwe so there are a few more variables that have nothing to do with school so I’m leaving them out). If you don’t though, you might find yourself working for basically free whilst simultaneously trying to drown yourself in coffee. Cool thing is, a lot of schools do the work in finding you a place to go work. That’s definitely something most MOOCs don’t offer.

Well, enough about attachment, cause let’s face it is has nothing to do with our price comparison (much) so onto Year 4…

Nothing for Year 4! I can already see someone fuming. But this was supposed to be an ultimate guide! Yeah, but I wasn’t feeling up to the task of going through a whole lot of schools, cross comparing and analysing their courses and weighing out the pros and cons of inclusion. Plus I’m out of coffee. So all I’ll say about this one is that it really depends with the university you’ll be going to. But I will try to satisfy your curiosity. It’s going to be a lot of advanced versions of previous topics in Year 1 and 2 with a few introductory Master’s topics. Add a dissertation to that and the need to make sure that degree class is the hallowed 2.1 or 1st Class so you can show off to everyone how smart you are before you eventually put it in a shelve and start selling clothes or something at a shop. Or playing video games whilst watching a bunch of Korean Dramas.

The comparison begins

Now that we’ve gotten the University content out of the way, we can finally start asking the real questions. For one: how much does a university tuition in Zimbabwe cost? Well for starters the price ranges around $600 +- 50 so to keep it easy let’s just keep it at $600 per semester. That’s about $4.8k for the entire 4 years. It’s a quite reasonable price, in my opinion, considering other universities outside the country can much more expensive. As for whether the quality of education is the same with the one’s outside…that’s another topic for another day.

Now for the important question: how much is the equivalent courses from the MOOCs? and is it cheaper to DIY than to take the traditional college method? To answer that question I went on one of the cheap and popular options in the MOOC space to find out. That course provider was Udemy.

Now, Udemy is quite popular in Zimbabwe when it comes to online courses. I mean, there’s even promotional content on it on this site. Of course, I would have loved to include other players in the field to make this more objective but hey, I did say that I ran out of coffee some time ago. To make this an apples to apples comparison I took a look at modules offered at university. Then checked the syllabus outline per course and tried to find the equivalent Udemy courses to that syllabus. That’s why a few modules such as discrete mathematics have 2 or 3 courses on Udemy to make sure that the syllabus equivalence is still maintained. Also, Bonus modules were of course included in this comparison since they are part of the degree programme and are compulsory anyways.

To save space University Modules are here and the Udemy equivalents are here.

Interesting note: the course counts were almost identical at 41 each (excluding projects). Which is surprising since I only did the count when I was writing down the analysis part. So course wise you’re going to be able to split it up the same if you wanted to follow the standard used by universities to teach their content. Onto the interesting bit: the Udemy equivalent costs almost 10% as much as a full degree programme when it’s during a flash sale. (Which is extremely common by the way) or 90% as much using the full prices (which has hardly ever happened). Basically, you’re looking to save about 10% – 50% if you were using Udemy to learn all the course content which isn’t so bad. Plus, the content is at your own pace and the quality may or may not be as good or superior to what the typical Zim CS undergrad learns. For example, I know AI isn’t really offered in depth here (although I didn’t try these courses out to find out).

Before all the Udemites (I envy you guys) dance and celebrate, there’s one crucial element people always forget about in these comparisons. And that’s the extras. Which extras you ask? That’s easy:

  • Sporting facilities;
  • Medical Aid;
  • Gym membership;
  • Internet access.

Now I know not everyone is an athlete but these costs ARE included in the fees of every student. Plus that last one for internet access is the one gotcha that always gets people. Sure there’s places like incubation hubs and the like where there’s space to learn and access internet, but they aren’t free. Also if you’re like most people it’s difficult to study at home, so you’ll have to find somewhere to study. Which over the course of a few years adds up. I did forget to mention that some of the Udemy courses are really short and straight to the point, so you’ll be able to get through a lot more material faster. But even if it takes 2 years instead of 4 to learn everything you’ll still be paying close to $600 at a popular hub assuming you’re learning only 8 months a year. That adds a lot to the DIY overhead meaning that even at best you’re looking at a $1.2k to go the MOOCs route. That’s still pretty good but not nearly as prolific a saving as most people tout it to be.

Options…

I thought it would be interesting to look at possible alternatives and scenarios. An obvious one is a situation where somebody knows exactly what part of the Tech industry they want to be a part of and focus on that. If that’s your plan then maybe going the Udemy route is much more productive as you can just do the few courses offered on that and then go on your merry way. If you’re planning to compete skill for skill with a computer scientist though, there’s really no benefit from staying at home doing the same thing. Except maybe it would take you less time if you’re really dedicated) so going to school might not be such a bad idea. After all, it’s the best place to meet smart and cute boys and girls which can’t be so bad compared to staying at home. If you’re broke and school isn’t really an option for you at the moment: you could try doing some courses that will get you a job for now. Then supplementing courses to broaden your skill set every now and again. There is also the option of learning what you need and starting a business. Or even hoping into free lectures. Whatever you do, just don’t sit at home and play video games whilst watching Korean Movies. Unless you’re making a video game based on a Korean movie. Then that’s slightly okay.

About the authorShingai Shamu is a University Student with a passion for technology, especially in the bleeding edge. You can get in touch with him on:
and oh yea on his ‘small little site’: http://shamwayne.github.io

3 thoughts on “Deep Dive: Are Online Courses Really Cheaper Than A Computer Science Degree?

    1. I’d have to agree with this statement. If all you want is “cheap”, “cheap” is always available. But, cheap is cheap for a reason. Since I have first entered this field of work, 1974, I have heard the glory stories, “In only six weeks, you too can be making the big money in computers.” And, “From the comfort of your own home, no muss, no fuss, you too can have a degree.” These stories are false in every way. There is nothing that substitutes for being mentored and taught day by day by experienced, mature, and knowledgeable professionals. There is nothing that substitutes for interacting day by day with those striving to achieve goals similar to your own. Online courses, at best, give training, or additional facts to support traditional courses. Education provides the foundation upon which training is built. It is a face-to-face human-to-human elder-to-junior activity that is not well supported by artificial means such as teleconferencing, even if high-definition in real-time, nor by postings or email.

      Having been on the hiring side in industry, I want to tell you about the blacklists and whitelists companies keep, if only informally. Resumes from candidates who graduate from institutions and “universities” on a blacklist are simply tossed into the trash without further consideration. At least here in the States, we are buried in high-cost/low-quality “universities” who simply water-down courses so that even the most unprepared and immature appear to be passing. Industry is not fooled and does not hire such “graduates”. There are other companies who will only hire graduates from universities on a very short whitelist.

      The bottom line is that you need a solid education from a quality university if you want to succeed in computer science. Do not be fooled into thinking you can achieve this online or by attending a KoderKamp, not even a four-year KoderKamp.

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