Virtual since 2014: MSc in data analytics

Data analytics is one of the major growth areas of the past decade, and the pandemic has accelerated the need for businesses and organisations to operate efficiently online.

Dr Michael Salter-Townshend

Dr Michael Salter-Townshend


In 2014, UCD launched a three-year, part-time MSc in data analytics, with students also having the option to exit after a year with a professional diploma in data analytics.

The course was fully online from the outset, so the Covid-19 emergency didn’t change too much. “Our lectures have always been pre-recorded,” says Dr Michael Salter-Townshend, the programme director and a lecturer in UCD’s school of mathematics and statistics. “Our students are located around the world and usually working full time, so it needed to be as flexible as possible.”

Salter-Townshend says that the course is different from a free massive online open course (MOOC) because of the level of interaction between students and teachers.

“A few years back, we offered live tutorials, but they didn’t suit every student, particularly those based overseas where there was a time difference. Interaction primarily takes place through discussion forums. These are academically-focused and monitored by a PhD or postdoc tutor who answers as many questions as they can; if there’s anything that they feel is complex, it’s kicked up to the director. Typically they don’t wait more than 24 hours for an answer.”

Students are generally advised that they will need to commit about 10 hours per module per week, with two modules studied at any given time. Employers often facilitate their staff with time off to study. Many of the lecturers and tutors on the online course are part-funded by Insight, Science Foundation Ireland’s centre for data analytics, meaning they can tap into a wider research expertise.

When Covid-19 hit, the course continued as usual, but assessment changed. “Previously, students had to attend exams at the end of each trimester in the RDS, even if they had to fly in. That wasn’t possible with Covid-19 restrictions. We looked at proctoring – monitoring exam students with a camera – but proctoring looks for unusual keystroke patterns, and because our modules are computer programme based, it would have flagged the whole video. Instead, I wrote an eight question paper, with two versions of each paper. Then I made the exam challengingly short and gave them two hours to complete it, so they couldn’t really check in with each other.”

This change may be permanent, making the UCD course fully and wholly online. “From UCD’s point of view, it saves money; from the students’ point of view, they save on travel and a hotel room. It could be a really good option for our international students.”

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