OMSCS | Part III, My First Week (HCI)

The OMSCS series covers my personal experience going through Georgia Tech's Online Master's in Computer Science. Part I can be found here. My hope is that this guide will be useful as a reference for current and prospective students. Part III covers the results of registration, some early reflections on my first course, and some positive feedback on the OMSCS program itself.

How Did Registration Go?

Buttery smooth on my end. Both of my waitlist positions were under #20, essentially guaranteeing me a spot in either GIOS or HCI (my top choices). I researched the process closely online and you can find that preparation in my OMSCS Part II blog post. OMSCentral was an invaluable tool throughout the process for reviewing independent student feedback on each course.

My First Course: Human Computer Interaction

So I've gotten into my first class in the Georgia Tech OMSCS program! I decided on Human Computer Interaction. Although I was gunning for GIOS (Graduate Intro to Operating Systems), I learned that the first project for that course was very time intensive (especially for those who haven't programmed in C in a while). Since I am in the middle of moving from Chicago to Iowa City, I felt it might be better to take GIOS next semester and stick with Human Computer Interaction (HCI) this semester. I really want to devote my full attention to GIOS and that's simply not possible with the move.

What is HCI?

In brief, Human Computer Interaction is a field dedicated to the study of how humans use interfaces to accomplish tasks. Sure, this includes web and UI design, but it's much broader. It also includes things like gestures in AR/VR, embedded system usability (i.e. wearables, electric vehicles, and smart appliances), and devices supporting special needs/accessibility. In fact, the course itself (as an online education program) is a form of HCI and perceives itself as such (with surveys and student feedback incorporated into its design).

Thoughts on the Class So Far?

I love the class thus far, although I haven't been graded on any assignments nor taken any tests. The lectures feel much more applicable and interesting than my undergraduate CS curriculum, and I have genuinely enjoyed the readings too. You get a real sense that the lectures were carefully planned and coordinated in HCI.

While I can't speak to other OMSCS courses, Prof. Joyner takes advantage of the online lecture format in HCI to switch locations and demonstrate applications of course concepts in the real world. In one video for example he sits inside a Tesla Model S and explains how its navigation system might utilize concepts from the lecture. That's just not the kind of thing you get in a physical lecture classroom.

I'd never thought of an in-person class as being the limiting factor. To me, I had always somewhat perceived online education to be limiting relative to an in-person lecture hall at a traditional university. Now I realize I had it backwards. I simply hadn't seen the online format utilized in such an elegant manner.

I aim to do a full course review towards the end of this course (and every one afterwards), so expect more closer to December. For now, suffice it to say that I am really enjoying it.

Thoughts on OMSCS So Far?

I love it too. I paid my tuition this semester and was incredibly satisfied with the quality of the material for the price (~$800 for a one course semester). In other words, the whole OMSCS program (a 2-3 year Master's in Computer Science) will cost me the same as 1 month of UChicago (which took me 3.3 years to complete).

I think comparing UChicago to OMSCS might be apples-to-oranges. I don't want to do that quite yet until I've finished this program and can speak more intelligently about it. What I will say is that, financially, UChicago's bar must be 10x better than OMSCS to justify it's cost (rational consumers treat Marginal Benefit = Marginal Cost, one of the things I learned as an Econ major). And I think OMSCS is setting a ridiculously high bar.

Did you know UChicago did not adjust spring quarter tuition during Covid-19? When all of its classes went online? Colleges can justify this because their mission statement has changed. Wendover Productions has a video I'd recommend watching, but essentially colleges are now more-than-ever viewed as a ticket to America's middle and upper-middle class. When your tuition is not tied to the learning experience (but instead to say signalling employers or increasing your lifetime earnings by $1m), your choice of college is a risk-minimizing strategy, not a learning-maximizing one.

Something I love about OMSCS is that my classmates come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and all walks of life. The program is intended to support students who have either had prior CS education or who are working professionals making a career pivot midway through their careers. Through Zoom meetings during Covid-19, I've gotten a chance to meet some of them and hear about their paths. OMSCS is authentically the kind of experience some colleges cough cough claim to care about, but toss by the wayside.

US News Rankings for National Universities and Colleges give standardized tests a 7.75% weighting, but social mobility a 5% weighting. Other nebulous metrics (i.e. "Expert (Academic) Opinion" = 20% weighting) are given a much greater precedence to social mobility. Traditional colleges only have a little incentive to focus on the latter.

OMSCS isn't bound to this misaligned incentive structure. Georgia Tech gives it space to be its own program while it treats its students like full members of the Georgia Tech student body. I get access to Career Resources and student software licenses (including O'Reilly) for example. I can even vote on Student Government outcomes in the College of Computing. I use all the same IT that other Georgia Tech students might use to register for classes or pay tuition. It's brilliant.

Most importantly the program adapts to my schedule. As an online program, it's no biggie if I need to (as in my current case) move across states. I can spend the week packing and moving, and then catch up on the weekends. That's the biggest advantage thus far over traditional college classes. No 8AMs, where I'm absorbing 60-70% of the material at best in a sleep deprived caffeinated trance. When I tune into lecture, I can devote my full attention to the material and rewind if I don't catch something. Piazza is used for class questions, and it's so much more efficient than Office Hours. I can't imagine wanting to go back to a lecture classroom.

So OMSCS has already won me on diversity, financial affordability, and structure. I don't even have constructive criticism for the program yet -- everything has worked seamlessly. I'm immensely looking forward to the rest of this semester.