Computer science is a continually growing and ever-changing field. At the heart of this course of study is learning about computation, programming and algorithms and how they work in software and networks. Getting a computer science degree can help graduates earn comfortable salaries in high-demand jobs. Starting online classes is a great way for busy people or nontraditional students to get started on a pathway that can transform their lives for the better.
How We Chose Our Ratings
We looked at several websites to aggregate the best online courses for a computer science degree. For undergraduate degrees, it is often possible to transfer most lower-division courses between accredited institutions. However, for master-level courses, most institutions permit one or two courses to be transferred, and often only for elective credit.
With that in mind, we crafted our ratings based on someone who might be interested in a computer science degree, but not ready to commit to a full course of study. We even checked in with professionals in higher education to make sure we had selected the best fundamental courses and core competencies.
We searched for free and low-cost options for starting a self-directed or set-interval study in computer science. One important criteria for selecting courses was their potential role as a foundation for a formal course of study at the college level.
Although not a guarantee, more and more colleges are providing transfer credits or placement into higher-level classes based on certificates earned from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) hosted by platforms such as Coursera, Udacity or Udemy. If the certificate earned does not grant automatic credit, many students are able to challenge or test of out of required coursework based on the knowledge acquired during their online course of study.
Top 9 Best Online Courses for a Computer Science Degree
We scoured the internet looking for the best courses to get started in computer science. Many reputable universities offer completely free introductory courses. These types of courses are great ways to explore what areas students may need to brush up on before diving into a full degree program.
Stanford University offers Computer Science 101, a completely free online course. This self-paced study has no prerequisites and is designed for those with no prior computer science experience. The purpose of the class is to demystify computers and the patterns that make these seemingly complicated machines work.
The class is designed around students practicing computer code within their internet browser. Background information on the history of computing and definitions of hardware and software also are provided throughout the course.
The topics covered in the class from Nick Parlante, senior lecturer of computer science, include:
Created by Princeton University, Computer Science: Algorithms, Theory and Machines is designed for individuals who already know how to program. Based on the textbook Computer Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach, this class is offered every few months via Coursera, a MOOC platform backed by venture capital.
Users say this is a great introductory course to computer science principles. Students must commit to 2 to 5 hours of study per week for 10 weeks. There are graded assignments as part of the course. However, in order to access that material, users must pay a monthly fee to access Coursera’s catalog of classes. For individuals new to paying for Coursera classes, there is an option where they can try paid courses free for a seven-day trial. In general, many Coursera courses are free to audit. Auditing a course means users can access the videos, but they cannot access the class materials or earn a certificate at the end of the class.
The course itself requires users to be familiar with Java programming and provides background on the field of computer science. The course covers:
If you ever wondered how you’d do if you never attended class and only did the readings and tests, then this Carnegie Mellon Computer Architecture course Introduction to Computer Architecture designed by professor Onur Mutlu will answer that question. This online deposit of professor Mutlu’s 2013 course includes homework assignments and quiz and exam solutions. With video lectures as well, this course is perfect for self-study. The course requires some programming knowledge and covers:
Created by the University of Toronto, Learn to Program: The Fundamentals is offered every few months on Coursera. Led by professors of computer science Jennifer Campbell and Paul Gries, this seven-week course requires four to eight hours of study each week to be successful. The course covers the fundamentals of programming and introduces users to writing fun and useful programs using the programming language Python. However, without paying the monthly access fee of $49, users are unable to access anything more than the videos. Without the assignments and practice, the course is not as valuable.
We spoke to a higher education professional who took this course back in 2013. She learned how to program in Python in less than two months, but also cautioned that due to the nature of the online course, when she got stuck, it was hard to get unstuck alone. “Without a textbook, sometimes it’s easy to get lost,” she told us. “You don’t actually have the benefit of going to office hours. If you do this course, don’t put off the homework assignments until the night before. The difficulty of the projects ramps up significantly as the weeks go on.”
Also created by Stanford’s Nick Parlante, Google’s Python class is a free resource for folks with some programming experience who want to learn Python. The class includes videos, written material and many code exercises to become comfortable with Python coding. Students should know about variables and if statements prior to starting the class, which covers:
If you need to learn calculus as part of your computer science education, then Paul’s Online Math Notes is one of the best places online to start. In essence, these math notes are a free, interactive textbook designed to walk users through calculus.
Udacity’s free Intro to Computer Science has students build a search engine and social network as part of their coursework. The class takes approximately 3 months to complete and does not require any prior programming knowledge or experience. Created by University of Virginia professors Sebastian Thrun and David Evans, this course covers how to solve problems using the computer language Python. In this course, students learn to:
Online Course: $0.00
Online Course: $0.00
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Certificate: Included w/ premium membership
Online Course: Free
Online Course: Free
Online Course: Free
When thinking about paying for online courses for a computer science degree, it’s important to keep in mind whether or not those classes will transfer to a degree program. The courses selected here are a great way to explore computer science before committing a lot of money to a degree in the field. These free and low-cost classes can help give you an idea whether or not computer science is the right fit for you and your interests.
Before you start a formal degree, look at what the prerequisites are and what programming languages you will need to know. Take a few online classes in those areas before committing several years and thousands of dollars. Then, explore the cost per credit hour. Pay close attention to in-state versus out-of-state tuition.
Several MOOC platforms offer degree and certificate programs at the undergraduate and graduate level. If a formal degree is the objective, then make sure the university is accredited and able to accept online students residing in other states.
There are two types of accreditation: national and regional. Although national accreditation is acceptable, many universities require regional accreditation for undergraduate coursework to be considered acceptable for entrance to graduate study in that field.
Other Helpful Tips
Along with these ten online courses, the higher education professionals we talked to made a few recommendations. They all emphasized working with the admissions office of the institution the student is interested in attending to make sure that prior coursework can count towards some of the computer science degree coursework.
- Check out or buy books related to computer science.
- Seek out classes from your local community or state college.
- Look for extension and certificate courses.
- Watch relevant YouTube videos.
- Ask your local librarian for help.