by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content
For aspiring software engineers, a bachelor’s degree can provide an invaluable education for developing the skills needed to succeed in the competitive technology industry. With new advancements in the field accelerating the demand for these types of professionals, there is no better time to consider pursuing this highly sought-after qualification.
Software engineering is a lucrative, in-demand field. Software engineers in the U.S. earn an average of $75,770 annually (PayScale, 2023). Software developer employment is growing 22% faster than other jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Working individuals or those who can’t learn on-campus, however, can attend the best online bachelor’s software engineering degrees to pursue this tech career.
Typical job titles for software engineers include front-end, back-end, and full-stack software engineers (Thinkful, n.d.). Job roles can also be based on what kind of program they are building, such as mobile app developer, graphics engineer, or game engineer. But with the pandemic impacting face-to-face, on-campus classes, those who want to have a software engineering degree might wonder if an online degree is a viable option.
In this article, you can learn if an online bachelor’s degree in software engineering will have the same value as a traditional degree earned on campus. It will help you compare the online versus traditional learning experience plus, let you know what you can expect from an online degree program.
Can you get a degree completely online?
Yes, you can get bachelor’s and master’s degrees in software engineering online. Online degree courses in software engineering are delivered either via asynchronous or synchronous classes. Meanwhile, there are schools that operate under the blended or hybrid model, offering course delivery both online and on-campus. However, if you plan on continuing your education, it is best to note that online degrees for a Ph.D. in software engineering are difficult to come by.
The rise of online learning for software degrees is but a reflection of a general educational trend that has been prevalent due to the pandemic. In a survey of over 1,400 college students in the US, 57% said that their school offered both online and in-person classes. On the other hand, 29% said that their school offered purely online classes. Only 1% said that their school offered purely in-person classes (New America & Third Way, 2020).
Source: New America; Third Way, 2020
Will employers take my online degree seriously?
Employers do take online software engineering degrees as seriously as they do traditional on-campus degree programs. What matters most to employers is that the candidate has a degree, and not so much that the candidate earned it online or on-campus. In fact, 61% of HR leaders think that online learning is of equal or greater quality than traditional learning methods. Moreover, 71% of organizations have hired an applicant with an online degree in the past 12 months (Northeastern University, 2019).
In addition, the growing prevalence of online learning is also poised to help in erasing the stigma against online degree program (ODP) holders according to a 2019 study by René Kizilcec, Dan Davis, and Elle Wang. The research Online Degree Stigma and Stereotypes: A New Instrument and Implications for Diversity in Higher Education explores the stigma and stereotypes associated with ODPs and similar programs (Kizilcec, Davis, & Wang, 2019).
“People who are active in the workforce and who seek professional development or retraining are likely to turn to ODPs or online micro-credentials,” said Kizilcec, who is the founding director of the Future of Learning Lab at Cornell University, and his co-authors. This can only lead to a higher demand for online learning as well as an increase in the number of universities opening up opportunities for this learning method.
Meanwhile, the research found that “the decision to pursue an ODP may come with an additional cost, a psychological barrier that can affect academic and workplace performance, even health outcomes, and cause people to hide aspects of their academic identity.” They also noted that for those who do push through with an ODP, 73% “thought that you learn at least as much online as in a residential program,” which signals the efficacy of online learning.
The research concluded that if more people become aware of the benefits of ODPs, perhaps learners will become more inclined to opt for it. In turn, “the rapidly increasing number of online degree holders in the workforce is expected to gradually revise public perception and reduce online degree stigma.”
Are online degrees recognized all over the world?
As there is a huge demand for software engineers worldwide, online degrees are recognized all over the world most of the time. However, there is also an increasing trend of self-taught engineers. As a result, traditional university degrees whether obtained online or the traditional way are less relevant than in previous years. In a survey, 50% of respondents said that they have a computer science degree in 2019 while in 2020, this percentage has decreased to 45%. On the other hand, 21% of software engineers said in 2019 that they were self-taught and this has increased to 23% in 2020 (Northeastern University, 2019).
Online vs. Traditional Software Engineering Degree
An online software engineering degree is one where students can learn how to apply engineering best practices, principles, and methods in developing software products. Students must learn how to identify the software requirements, creating a roadmap for building the software, writing code, and testing the product, and monitoring results. (Cast, n.d.).
Online software engineering degrees differ from traditional programs in the following ways:
- Format. Traditional degree programs require students to attend face-to-face classes. This requires out-of-state students to get student housing within or near campus. On the other hand, online courses are delivered mostly through asynchronous classes where students can access course materials over the internet as their schedule permits. However, there are online courses that require in-person attendance on campus at least once during the term (Software Engineer Insider, n.d.).
- Schedule. Traditional degree programs require learners to attend classes on-site, so they must do so at a time and frequency set by the school. On the other hand, asynchronous delivery methods allow students to access course materials and video lectures at their own pace. But it is important to note that they must also accomplish deliverables within deadlines, otherwise students will lose points (Software Engineer Insider, n.d.). However, if the institution uses synchronous learning methods, the student must meet the teacher at the agreed-upon online platform at the set schedule.
- Learning Experience. Traditional degree programs offer students plenty of hands-on experience in addition to coursework, such as co-ops or internships. Some degree programs offer collaborative opportunities where students can work with others and with the assistance of faculty on projects for real clients. In addition, they will have access to a school’s laboratories and research facilities to complete their coursework. Meanwhile, online degree programs may offer a project-based curriculum. Others require completion of a capstone project where students will design an original software. There are also institutions that allow students to take industry certifications for course credit. Today’s online learning environments also use tools like virtual blackboards, lecture recording technologies, and exam proctoring tools to mimic a live classroom environment as much as possible (Software Engineer Insider, n.d.). Thus, an online course is ideal for students who like to learn independently. Meanwhile, traditional courses are best for those who want to have a structured approach in studying for the degree.
- Pacing. Depending on the university’s offerings, it is possible to study both online and traditional software engineering degrees on a full-time or part-time basis. If you are pursuing the degree the traditional way, you would have to factor in transportation costs around campus and travel time to and from your place of work. This is not so much of a problem for an online degree.
- Flexibility. Like in most engineering degree programs, traditional software engineering degrees have limited flexibility, as one is required to take the classes at the schedule set at the beginning of the semester. However, it affords students the chance to select electives that are of interest to them or that allow them to take a certain path set under the curriculum. On the other hand, online degree program schedules are much more flexible, making them ideal for working students or those who have other commitments that limit their study time. However, as with any type of class, students are expected to turn in assignments within the deadline and take exams and assessments as scheduled.
- Cost. The average cost of college in the U.S. is $40,000 annually. (Thinkful, n.d.). However, this does not include living expenses, transportation costs, and other fees (Springboard, n.d.). Taking all these into account, it would cost over $140,000 to get a four-year software engineering degree under a traditional program. In contrast, online software engineering programs cost $320 to $720 per credit and around $37,000 to $91,000 in total tuition fees.
- Duration. Traditional bachelor’s degrees in software engineering typically take four years to complete. Online bachelor’s degrees also take four years to complete. However, some institutions offer an accelerated option where one can complete the degree in two or three years.
Is an online degree cheaper?
In most cases, getting an online degree in software engineering is cheaper. This is because there are no living expenses and transportation costs usually associated with a traditional degree taken on-campus. However, students must also expect other fees like technology fees, which they do not pay under the traditional setup. Moreover, they would also have to pay for their own device and internet connection.
Is an online degree as good as a regular degree?
The best online degree programs have the same rigorous requirements as their on-campus counterparts and give students the same advancement opportunities. What is more, in the field of software engineering, there have been proactive efforts to improve online programs.
In a 2020 research detailing the evolution of the first Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited online software engineering degree program, Kevin Gary and his co-authors noted that “the number of students enrolled in online courses at public institutions in the US has been rising annually.” Their study “Scaling to Meet the Online Demand in Software Engineering” posited that “it is clear that online education is now part of the mainstream educational experience in the United States” (Gray, Acuna, Mehlhase, Heinrichs, & Sohoni, 2020).
This has caused online instructors to improve how they deliver courses from using solutions like Slack and Zoom to improve communication to rolling out project-centric learning strategies for improved course experience. They have also strived to make online courses to be closer to on-campus courses in terms of delivery.
As these changes are rolled out, the study noted that the students’ satisfaction of their online experience has improved.
The research also noted that while these student evaluations are not scientifically rigorous, “it demonstrates consistent improvement despite variability outside the unitʼs control—enrollment, new technology platforms, use of different instructors in different semesters.”
With these in mind, one can surmise that it is as good as a regular degree. However, students must also consider the networking opportunities they cannot otherwise get in an all-online environment.
How much does an online Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering cost?
College fees for online and traditional undergraduate degrees in software engineering vary due to many factors. With an online degree, one does not have to spend on in-campus housing and meals. One also has to budget for books and other course materials, which costs an average of $1,250 per year for a public four-year college (ValuePenguin, 2021). These are what largely make an on-campus education more expensive than an online software engineering degree. With an online course, students do not have to spend on housing, food, and transportation.
Moreover, data shows that there is little difference between the per-credit rate between online and on-campus offerings for public colleges. Based on data from 170 ranked public colleges in the US, an online bachelor’s degree for in-state, in-district students costs $316 per credit versus $311 per credit for in-state students studying on campus. It is in private colleges where the difference between online and in-campus rates is more pronounced. On average, the per-credit price at 168 private colleges in the US is $488 versus $1,240 for on-campus programs for 113 colleges that reported such data (U.S. News, 2020).
Online students must also remember that schools charge a flat rate for tuition for online students regardless of their location. However, there are also institutions that charge higher for out-of-state students. Be that as it may, there are fees unique to the online setup that students must account for. Aside from the tuition, one such cost is technology fees, which are assessed to cover the school’s costs on technology improvements, online learning platforms, and round-the-clock tech support, and other computer-related infrastructure (U.S. News, 2013). Schools may also charge additional fees for course-level placement, exam proctoring, and other costs. And while they do not incur expenses for housing or student meals, online students do have to bear personal expenses for devices and a reliable, high-speed internet connection.
Is an online software engineering degree worth it?
An online software engineering degree signifies to employers that your knowledge and skills have been vetted by an academic institution and that it passes what one would expect from a job applicant for an entry-level position. However, one also has to keep in mind that students also have to supplement their learning with internships and side projects, especially if they want to learn a specific skill or language (BetterProgramming, 2020). This is because university programs can be decades behind the developments happening in the software industry (Programming with Mosh, 2018).
What are the requirements of an online Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering?
To be admitted into a program, students must comply with the following requirements:
- GPA of 3.0. Most schools require applicants to have a GPA of at least 3.0. However, there are also schools that admit students with a lower GPA if they exhibit proficiency in other areas.
- SAT or ACT scores. Students may be required to show proof of standardized test scores, and place emphasis on math and science subjects.
- Application form and personal essay. Candidates will be asked to fill out an application form containing basic details with a personal statement or essay. It should answer why you want to study for a software engineering degree. In addition, it should showcase your skills, explain your academic goals, and show why you are a good fit for the program.
- High school transcripts. Software engineering degree programs usually require applicants to have graduated high school or pass General Educational Development (GED) tests, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma. Some schools may require that students take a certain number of units of math and science subjects.
- Letter of recommendation. Applicants may be asked to provide letters of recommendation from a teacher or employer. Recommendation letters usually contain the applicant’s performance in the classroom or his or her contributions to the workplace, as the case may be (The Balance Careers, 2020). Make sure to secure a letter well in advance of the application deadline.
- Strong understanding of math. Software engineering courses will require completion of statistics, quantitative analysis, calculus, algebra, and more. Thus, proficiency with numbers is a must.
- Organizational skills. Software engineering requires following a process every step of the way. Thus, students need to have good planning skills so that they can identify the project scope, prioritize tasks, and set deadlines so that they can accomplish the project on time (BCS, 2020).
Source: Stack Overflow, 2020
What are the technological requirements of students for online learning?
- Laptop, smartphone, tablet, or devices. Your chosen device must meet the specifications of your school’s online learning platform. This will include the operating systems (Windows or Mac), OS version, hard disk space, and the like.
- Browser requirements. Students must also see to it that they use the browser supported by their school’s learning platform so they can access course materials without any issues. They must also configure it according to guidelines set by the school, such as enabling cookies and disabling pop-up blockers.
- Internet connection. A broadband internet connection, whether cable or DSL, is required to access lessons and course materials and attend synchronous sessions if any.
- Sound card, microphone, and speakers. Students would need these to access course materials in audio or video format or attend and participate in any synchronous classes.
Courses to Expect in Online Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering
When studying for an online software engineering degree, one can expect to study the following core subjects:
- Programming Languages. There are various programming languages like object-oriented, functional, and scripting (Dev, 2018). Learning at least one language will help students develop code that is functional and secure.
- Software Security. This course will allow students to learn security concepts so that they could develop code that can pass security testing protocols. They will learn methods and practices for developing secure software systems, such as requirements engineering, architecture and design, risk management, coding and testing, and governance and management. This skill will be helpful to students to address the cybersecurity workforce gap, which stands at 3.12 million unfilled jobs worldwide (ISC2, 2020).
- Client/Server Development. This course lets students use internet tools and network protocols so they can create, design, and implement client/server applications. It will also let them use database applications and use logical and mathematical solutions for developing web-based and software programs.
- Full Stack Development. This course will let students develop the client-side (front-end) and the backend (server-side) of a web application, as well as debug web applications and websites. It will also allow them to explain highly technical concepts to various audiences using different formats.
In addition to completing the coursework, students are typically required to submit a capstone project. This allows students to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned in previous courses in designing and implementing a software solution that addresses a real-world problem. A capstone project is usually completed near the ending stages of the degree.
Things to Look for in an Online Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering
Not all online software engineering degrees are the same. You need to choose one that supports your lifestyle and educational goals. Below are some factors to consider in choosing an online degree:
- Availability in one’s location. Students can enroll in online software engineering degrees regardless of location as they are attending classes virtually. However, there are some schools that collect different per-credit tuition fees for in-state versus out-of-state students.
- Inclusivity and Accessibility. As of 2020, 11.6% of college students in the US have ADHD while 3.7% have a learning disability. These disabilities need to be addressed with the shift to online learning. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires schools to address students with visual, hearing, cognitive, and motor disabilities when delivering courses online. Thus, there are schools that can make such accommodations after the student makes a request to their campus’ adaptive educational services. However, in a survey, 75% of college instructors in educational institutions in the US and Canada said that they have not received training to make their online courses accessible and ADA compliant (Inside Higher Ed, 2020).
- Teaching methods. Online software engineering degree programs often use the flipped classroom model where students access pre-recorded lectures at their own pace. This model has been proven effective with one study concluding that “overall, flipping the classroom increased student learning and it is recommended that the approach be tested in teaching more software engineering topics” (Gren, 2019). Other schools may also apply a competency-based approach where students can move on to the next topic in the course once they exhibit mastery of certain topics (Teach.com, 2020).
- Reputation. While there are reputable online degree programs, one should also be wary of diploma mills. Diploma mills are for-profit institutions that give students fake degrees in exchange for huge sums of money but do not equip them with the skills to be competent professionals. There are red flags that might alert you to an institution being a diploma mill. Proceed with caution if the degree can be completed in too short a time. Shady institutions also lack support services, such as a guidance counselor or technical support and a fee structure that charges per program instead of per credit hour.
- Accreditation. A degree program with accreditation is an indicator that its curriculum has been vetted and produces graduates that are ready to enter the workforce. One of the most prestigious accreditation bodies is the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET, which keeps a list of accredited IT online programs in the US. Aside from national accreditation, you can check whether the program has regional accreditation. Regional accreditation bodies include the Higher Learning Commission, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, and WASC Senior College and University Commission, to name a few.
- Hidden costs. Online students must factor in technology fees, which schools assess to defray the costs of the learning platform and IT infrastructure to support online learning. They should also be ready to shoulder the cost of their own laptops or other devices they may need, as well as the costs of having a reliable internet connection.
- Support Services. A good degree program should have support services in place to address a student’s technical issues as well as academic concerns. Schools with online learning platforms should provide round-the-clock access to technical support through phone, email, or an online ticketing system. They should also provide an online format traditional services that on-site students can avail of such as admissions support, financial aid advising, academic advising, and library services.
- On-site requirement. Some schools offer virtual labs that allow students to take classes completely online, with the option to pursue coursework on campus. However, there are also degree programs that make an on-site experience a requirement for completing the degree.
- Other considerations. Students studying for an online degree must be ready to be independent and hold themselves accountable for their own learning. This is because unlike in a traditional setup, there is no teacher to guide them through a structured learning environment (Computerscience.org, 2021).
Source: National College Health Assessment, 2020
All these are consistent with the findings of a study that name certain conditions that could influence online degree acceptance in the hiring process, such as “name recognition/reputation of the degree-granting institution, appropriate level and type of accreditation, perception that online graduates were required to be more self-directed and disciplined, candidates’ relevant work experiences, and whether the online graduates were being considered for promotion within an organization or if they were vying for new positions elsewhere or in a new field” (Columbaro and Monaghan, 2009).
Choosing the Right Online Software Engineering Degree Program
An online degree in software engineering will allow you to realize the real benefits of a college education while staying in the comfort of your home or anywhere with an internet connection. Moreover, it allows you to complete your degree at a fraction of the price of an on-campus degree and gives you the flexibility of learning at your own pace. Still, as all online degrees are not the same, an aspiring engineering major must carefully compare different degree programs, taking into account factors such as costs, reputation, accreditation, support services, and the like. This will help you select the best online degree program that will suit your lifestyle and your goals.
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