MIT’s Online Big Data Class Gets High Marks

MIT and big data seems like a marriage made in heaven, and apparently the relationship is still going hot and heavy. The famed technical institution recently announced two new sessions of its popular online course designed to bring computer science professionals up to speed on big data concepts and execution.

Tackling the Challenges of Big Data, a six-week online course starting November 4 (with another session beginning on February 3, 2015) is offered by MITProfessionalX, the university’s online course platform. The course, taught by subject matter experts from MIT and the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), covers data collection, storage, and processing, extracting data, visualizations, and more.

The first iteration of the course, held last March, attracted 3,500 participants from 88 countries according to the school. Because of that overwhelming response, the next two sessions have been extended from the original four-week run. The course costs $545, and participants are expected to spend about five hours a week on it, including three hours of video.

Tackling the Challenges of Big Data is designed to be appropriate for anyone with a computer science degree or the equivalent experience. But of the students so far, 62 percent called themselves big data novices, 35 percent rated themselves as proficient in big data, and only 3 percent considered themselves experts. “We weren’t expecting such a high level of novices, or at least people who identified themselves that way,” Clara Piloto, director of global programs for MIT Professional Education, told InformationWeek.

Clearly there’s an unmet need for big data expertise. A famous 2011 McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that by 2018, the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills–not to mention another 1.5 million managers and analysts who know how to use the analysis to make decisions.

The course description for Tackling the Challenges of Big Data promises that a successful student will be prepared to:

  • “Position yourself in your organization as a vital subject matter expert regarding major technologies and applications in your industry that are driving the Big Data revolution, and position your company to propel forward and stay competitive” and
  • “Engage confidently with management on opportunities and Big Data challenges faced by your industry; analyze emerging technologies and how those technologies can be applied effectively to address real business problems while unlocking the value of data and its potential use for company growth.”

That approach has garnered positive press. CIO Today quoted Brad Shimmin, a principal analyst at Current Analysis, saying the big data course offered by MIT “should be a requirement in any enterprise where you have business users interacting with data.”  The article continued by highlighting that “business users crave big data and analytics tools, but without an understanding of what makes data good or bad they may make decisions based on insight that’s fallacious.”

MIT’s course joins a wide range of big data educational offerings. On the high end, The University of California, Berkeley, grants a professional Master of Information and Data Science after a 20-month course costing $60,000. EMC has a $5,000 Data Science and Big Data Analytics offering. And for free, you can start with Udemy’s Big Data and Hadoop Essentials and Big Data University’s Big Data Fundamentals, Aspiring data scientists can also choose from innumerable online courses on particular Big Data tools and topics, such as parallel programming or working with Hadoop.

The MIT class fits somewhere in the middle, designed to help both professionals and the companies they work for, “because it provides a platform for discussion from numerous technical perspectives. The concepts delivered through this course can spark idea generation among team members, and the knowledge gained can be applied to their company’s approach to Big Data problems and shape the way business operate today.” At least that’s what the online brochure says.'

Jake Widman is a San Francisco-based freelance technology and science writer, covering everything from big data to quantum physics. He's a regular contributor to Computerworld,, and Photoshop User. View posts by .

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