Oregon State University online CS degree eCampus program review and recap

In this article: my review of Oregon State University’s online post-bacc CS degree program, which I attended for 3.5 years, starting in September 2016 and finishing in June 2020, completing 15 courses with a 3.9 GPA and graduating with my second bachelor’s degree, a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science.

Yay! Being done is a great feeling. Pictured: my new diploma surrounded by the books, notes, and worksheets that were my BFFs during this program.

First, I’ll answer the most frequently asked questions I was asked while in the program:

  1. Yes, the program is completely online – the coursework is unlocked weekly in the online portal known as “Canvas”, you take tests online with a proctor supervising you over webcam the whole time, you submit coursework and get your grades online
  2. No, it is not self-paced – quarters are 10 weeks long, deadlines are firm barring exceptional circumstances (I never pursued an extension but they exist for those who can justify the need for one)
  3. But you can vary your pace through the program, such as taking 1 class a quarter to go at a slower pace and leave more time for the rest of your life, or taking 2-3 classes a quarter to get through the program faster (more thoughts on class pairings later in this article)
  4. You can take quarters off – I took a few quarters off here and there for things such as moving cross country and having a baby
  5. Yes, you have to already have a bachelor’s in some unrelated field – it’s a “post-bacc” program, so your first degree entitles you to skip all the gen-ed classes you’d normally need to do
  6. It’s still a normal bachelor’s degree on paper and the degree does not call out the “online” nature of the program in any way (you can see the diploma I received at the top of this article)
  7. Yes, there is a decent degree of “self teaching” in the program – at a high level, the courses give you problems to solve and they usually provide lectures and readings to guide your learning, but you’ll be on YouTube, Stack Overflow, experimenting in your own codebase, etc. to find answers and a deeper understanding than the course materials alone give you.
  8. Yes, it was still challenging (and I learned a lot) even with prior industry experience. I came into this degree with about 2.5 years of web development experience and prior to that, a bootcamp, and I still learned a ton from most classes. Previous experience will give you a small advantage, but there’s still a ton of work to do and problems to solve that take time and effort.
  9. Yes, it requires sacrifice – there are many things I missed out on during the last four years because I was busy with school, which dominated evenings and weekends.
  10. Yes, it was an excellent experience – I learned so much and rounded out my CS knowledge in ways that my bootcamp and industry experience had not.

Computers have been my passion since I was a child, and completing this degree meant a lot to me. It formalized something I’ve explored via hobby projects, game mods, my own little websites, etc. since I was a kid.

My favorite resource for learning more about the program is r/OSUOnlineCS. I lurked here for nearly a year before I applied, and visited frequently while in the program.

About me (and some encouragement for other “non-traditional” students)

I want to write briefly about being a “non-traditional” student because that’s basically who this program is for: students who already have an established life and commitments outside of school.

Returning students usually have at least a couple reasons why they think they can’t go back to school – they’re “old” (over 30, or 40, or whatever), they have children, they have a full-time job, etc.

I check all of those boxes – I’m almost 37, I had two babies while I was in the program, I worked full-time for part of it, I relocated cross-country, blah blah. If this is you, with all these existing demands on your time, I just want to say: it is possible! It is hard but it is possible.

I met quite a few other parents with full-time jobs on my journey through the program so I don’t think I am unique, just disciplined and willing to work hard. If this is you, too, don’t count yourself out just because you have other things going on in your life.

My path through the program

Here are the classes I took in the order I took them, along with links to my reviews on each class.

I put a ★ next to my top three favorites.

  • Fall 2016: CS161
  • Winter 2017: CS162
  • Spring 2017: CS225
  • Summer 2017: no class
  • Fall 2017: CS261
  • Winter 2018: CS325
  • Spring 2018: CS271 + CS361
  • Summer 2018: CS290
  • Fall 2018: no class
  • Winter 2019: CS344 + CS340
  • Spring 2019: CS475
  • Summer 2019: no class
  • Fall 2019: CS372 + CS362this was a punishing schedule, I do not recommend these classes together
  • Winter 2020: CS492
  • Spring 2020: CS467 ★

OSU regularly updates and revamps the courses, and some of these courses were revamped since I took them.

The most notable (and controversial) change was the switch from C/C++ to Python in the foundational classes. I took the C/C++ versions of 161, 162, and 261.

I think this was a good change. While I appreciate the experience I got with pointers, memory allocation, and a relatively “low-ish level” language, sometimes it felt like debugging C got in the way of learning the higher level concepts the courses were trying to teach.

What to expect from OSU’s online CS program

Pacing and scheduling

Classes follow a strict schedule. Each week, usually on a Sunday, a batch of lectures, worksheets, projects, quizzes, discussions, etc. unlocks. Most classes have a “late work” policy you can invoke (once or twice) if you need an extra day or two, but this is not a self-paced program. Deadlines and exam windows are generally strict.

The workload and time commitment varies a lot between classes. The OSU CS Course Explorer is a tool I made to help students determine which classes to pair and which to take alone. It scrapes its data from the survey hosted on r/OSUonlineCS. You can also search the OSUonlineCS subreddit for tips and advice from other students.

At any given time in the program I was either working full-time with a baby, or caring for two children while working my way through the courses. I frequently alternated between one class a quarter and two classes a quarter.

When I took one class at a time, I felt like I was making glacial progress towards the degree but I also had room to breathe. I could dig into each assignment, do extra credit, work on side projects, or spare a few days for an illness or a short trip somewhere. I even went to Disney World for three days in the midst of CS225! :)

When I took two classes at a time, every week was the time management Olympics with no room for slop. I started assignments the moment they unlocked and made every minute count, but the sheer workload guaranteed the two-class quarters were brutal. I lost my 4.0 GPA the first time I attempted two classes at the same time. It was exhausting, but… faster progress!

Classes to take alone

I realize there are financial aid and “I want to get this over with” reasons to take two (or more) classes at a time, but my personal recommendation is that these classes benefit from being taken alone due to their difficulty, time-consuming nature, and/or overall importance to one’s CS education:

  • CS162 Intro to Software Engineering II – insane workload and challenging topics, but I took the C version so maybe it’s not quite so unforgiving now
  • CS325 Algorithms – most challenging course of the program, it dominated my life for 10 weeks
  • CS261 Data Structures – high workload and challenging, especially when it was taught in C
  • CS271 Computer Architecture and Assembly – high workload and challenging subject matter
  • CS467 Capstone – it’s your final project, give it (and your group) the time it deserves

Classes to take with other classes

These classes were lighter weight or just generally not so programming heavy. A coding problem can occupy me up for hours as I investigate and trial-and-error my way through it, but I never get stuck like that when the task is just to write a document or forum replies.

  • CS225 Discrete Math – challenging but manageable
  • CS361 Intro to Software Engineering I – mostly a writing class
  • CS290 Web development – relatively light workload
  • CS340 Database – a very entry-level look at SQL plus a final project you can do the bare minimum on if you are so inclined
  • CS3344 Operating Systems – the projects are huge but they’re manageable, topics aren’t exceptionally challenging
  • CS475 Parallel Programming – well-scoped assignments, evenly paced
  • CS492 Mobile Development – predictable workload

Obviously, your mileage may vary – and courses get revamped every so often, too, so my opinions and experiences will become less relevant over time. (This was written summer 2020.)

Exams

Most classes have some sort of big test to take at some point. Some classes split this up as a “midterm” and a “final”, some require it to be proctored (supervised), some allow open book, and a few don’t have any kind of big tests at all. At one end of the grading spectrum are classes that treat exams as the bulk of your final grade, while others weight their exams so lightly you can basically fail them. Every class is a little different in this regard.

Before doing this degree, I was never the kind of person who studied for exams. I usually just winged it and did okay, but the OSU classes demanded it. Flash cards, practice worksheets, practice exams – I did them all, and usually managed a B or better on midterms and finals.

Proctored exams are no fun but they help ensure the quality of the program’s graduates. A proctored exam is taken either at a local test center (if you live near a community college they may offer proctoring services) or online with a service such as ProctorU on your usual computer. The overwhelming majority of students seemed to be using ProctorU.

For the first half of the program I took my exams in person at a community college branded testing site near me. The big advantages with an in-person testing site:

  • a dedicated testing environment where no one is going to come along and ring your doorbell mid-exam
  • you get to use scratch paper instead of a whiteboard

ProctorU makes you use a whiteboard, and it’s small so you have to have to wipe it every few problems and can’t easily refer back to previous problems later in the exam. With a stack of scratch paper, you don’t “lose” your work as you work through the exam.

But, after a scheduling snafu with my local test site, I switched to ProctorU and never went back to my local site. ProctorU was half the cost of the test center and way more flexible with the scheduling options (my test center was only open a few days a week and after they lost my reservation and had no proctor present on the last day of the exam window, I was done with them).

As a whole, I would describe the exams in this program as tough but fair. There are a few exceptions, of course – CS290’s final stands out as being particularly bizarre and nonsensical, but it made up for it by being worth just a small portion of the final grade. Most classes seemed to derive around 20-50% of the final grade from tests alone.

Course content and materials

Unfortunately, as a whole, the course lectures are not great. There are some exceptions (CS492 had amazing lectures), but in general, you can find better instruction on virtually every topic covered by this degree program on YouTube, and you should. There are tons of talented people out there who can teach you how to do a summation or how to step through recursion better than the OSU course materials.

Courses get refreshed every 3 years on a rolling basis (so not all at the same time), and you’ll see people in the Slack channels and the subreddit talking about upcoming refreshes and retooling their schedule to get in either before or after a refresh. In my experience, the refreshes tend to be a good thing – you want to get in after a refresh, rather than before.

The most notable refresh that occurred while I was in the program was the switch from C++ to Python in CS161 and CS162 (with the change propagating up to the higher level classes after I graduated). There was also an elective that got split into two separate courses (Mobile & Cloud became Mobile and Cloud). Also, CS372 became an elective, and new electives were added.

I think these are good changes – they are trying to keep the courses relevant to the industry as a whole and useful to students. When I was in it, CS162 was like being punched in the face every week, but in the three quarters since that change occurred I’ve heard much better things about the class.

Feedback and help

You will get little to no feedback on the code you turn in. I never got any kind of “Hey, you know what might make this code read better…” input on any of the code I wrote for this program. Do not enroll in this program hoping to get 1:1 feedback on your code, because it will not happen. (I did get quite a bit of that kind of help at my bootcamp, though.) This was a disappointment for me in the program. I was accustomed to code reviews on everything I wrote at work so just turning in whatever I wanted and never hearing a word about whether the code style or approach was any good was a weird feeling.

Office hours – most courses had a scheduled set of times each week where you could drop into the Slack chat or a meeting room and converse with one or more TAs about the coursework. I rarely attended these – they were almost always at some impossible time (either they overlapped my work hours or they were right in the middle of the dinner hour) or way too late in the week (I was not going to “save” my problems for a Friday TA chat when the thing is due Sunday).

There’s a Slack channel for every class but the usefulness of each one varied widely. Some were great, with active discussion and helpful links and tips being shared. Others were completely dead.

As I was finishing up at OSU they were moving to a system of having official Slack channels for each class but having a teacher and/or TA in the room seemed to kill any interesting discussion beyond simple Q&A about the assignments.

Other student projects on GitHub/blogs – these were a goldmine of help. Usually the assignment had changed in some way since someone posted their code five years back, but having something similar to analyze was extremely valuable to me. Some OSU assignments are identical to assignments given by other universities, too, so if you find yourself stuck on an assignment just searching for the premise of the assignment might uncover something helpful.

Group work

There is a lot of group work in this degree program and for the most part it sucks.

The group work in this program is at its best when it’s things like discussions on Canvas or Piazza, and it’s at its worst when you’re a team of 3+ and one (or more) of your team members isn’t doing anything at all.

The problem with group work in an academic setting is there’s no recourse for problem teammates. In a professional environment, the team usually has avenues for dealing with a non-performing or always-absent teammate. Generally, managers don’t let someone do nothing and collect a paycheck. In a classroom setting, though, these non-performers are your problem.

I cannot sugarcoat it: many group projects in this program will feature one or more students who just don’t give a shit. I had group members who promised to do work and then just never did it, group members who turned in garbage, group members who skipped meetings and acted like it was no big deal if they turned their part in the same day it was due while others in the group were unable to work until that part was done. I had one group member drop a mess into the codebase and then go out to dinner for two hours just hours before it was due.

The TAs and teachers don’t want to hear about your team’s turd, so it is best to make peace with it and come up with contingency plans for your group’s non-performers. Try to arrange the workload to minimize dependencies – ie: don’t make it so you can’t start your part until someone else has finished theirs, because that person might wait until the 11th hour to do the part you’re waiting on. I’ve talked with enough other students to know that my experience was not unusual. Expect some dead weight on at least a few of your group projects. The group work is one of the worst parts of the OSU program.

Why I enrolled in OSU’s CS program even though I’m a web dev bootcamp grad who already works in software

My first degree is in fine art and my first career was in designing video games. The industry shift to “free to play” style games left me unhappy with my role. I’d always liked making websites, so in 2014 I quit my video game designer job and completed an 8-week web development bootcamp with Code Fellows in Seattle, WA.

My first engineer role was at Expedia, where I worked on a web app that allowed Expedia’s suppliers (people selling tours and activities) to list their products on the flagship website. This was great – I loved the bootcamp and I loved my job at Expedia, but I felt like my long-term advancement might be held back by the lack of a degree. (Some people even made comments to me to that effect, too.)

With decades of career still ahead of me, I decided to invest in a degree to support it.

I was impressed at how many of the topics I first encountered in my bootcamp resurfaced while working on this degree. Recursion, picking the right data structure for the task, interfacing with an API, CRUD operations, writing tests, and performance considerations were all covered in the bootcamp. Doing this degree made me feel even better about how good my bootcamp was! (Thanks, Code Fellows! You guys are legit!)

To me, this CS degree symbolizes my commitment to my new career and dedication to learning. I was already tooling around with side projects all the time, why not focus them into something tangible?

People argue that you can learn all of this stuff online for free, and that is true – I relied heavily on free online resources for every class in this degree – but the program exposed me to (and pushed me through) to things I’m not even sure I would have found on my own. For example, I don’t think I would have built a shell in C or worked through recursive algorithms on my own. I definitely would not have studied discrete math on my own. And I probably would’ve given up on some of the harder things if it weren’t for needing to pass a class motivating me to work through it.

People say you don’t need a degree once you’re already working, but I was called “just a boot-camper” or “just a front-end dev” enough times to convince me otherwise.

With the degree, now I feel like I can do anything!

Job prospects

I was going to fill out this section with a brief discussion of my post-degree job search, but due to COVID-19 I’m in a holding pattern as I wait for my children’s daycare to reopen and for it to be safe to venture into the outside world again. Many companies seem to be on hiring freeze, too.

I’ll write something useful here when I have something to report.

In conclusion

To some extent, it’s hard to say if the degree is worth it when I’m only a month post-graduation and have barely begun my job search (in the midst of COVID-19, no less).

But I can say this: it was a good 4 years and I’m proud of the work I did.

The degree was no replacement for on-the-job training: the degree didn’t touch 90% of the technologies, techniques, workflows, or complexities of the codebase that I encountered in my professional job. The bootcamp I did in 2014 handled those areas better.

Here’s a diagram that attempts to illustrate how much “overlap” there was in topics and learning between my bootcamp, the OSU degree, and the web developer job I had for the first three years after I finished the bootcamp:

This diagram needs a big fourth circle labeled “tinkering around with stuff on my own”.

Just going by what my other CS-degree having friends have told me about my coursework and projects vs. theirs, the OSU program seems to be roughly on par with what other state schools are offering for on-campus CS. In general, the OSU program seems to be more modern than what some of my friends did for their degrees (circa 2005-2015), though less math-heavy.

Overall, the degree gave me what I wanted: the peace of mind that comes from having put in the hours and the work to earn the same degree so many of my colleagues have. I think the degree will open doors down the road, especially if I ever want to do something besides front-end web dev (which I’m actually very happy in). Hopefully, the degree communicates that I am serious about my career change and dedication to CS!

I’m glad I did it.

Be sure to check out my individual course reviews if you want to know more about the classes in greater detail.

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