These 4 online courses—including one at Harvard—teach computer science for free

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 28, 2022, 1:54 PM
Students and visitors in the Old Yard of Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, as seen in August 2021. (Photo by: Sergi Reboredo—VW Pics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

It’s a good time to be a computer scientist, as the number of jobs in this field is projected to grow 21% between 2021 and and 2031, much faster than the rate of growth in other industries, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. While thousands of new computer science job openings are forecasted for the years to come, these roles often require a master’s degree in the field or at least one related to it.

Pursuing an advanced degree obviously requires a big investment of time and money, but it could be well worth your while. Computer scientists make average salaries of $131,490, and those with a master’s degree in the field can bring home $200,000-plus. 

This one-to-two years of extra study “paves the way to a job which pays, on average, $30,000 more in an annual salary than those holding just an undergrad degree in computing and, on average, $60,000 more for those transitioning from outside the field of computing,” says Craig Gotsman, computer science professor and dean of the Ying Wu College of Computing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“Annual salaries can be anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000,” Gotsman adds. “After a few years in software development, you can move into team leadership and then into management roles.”

If you’re contemplating a career switch to computer science degree, you may want to try some courses before you commit to an advanced degree program. The following list of beginner computer science courses—all of which are free and taught online—are hosted by top universities that have ranked or recognized academic programs by Fortune

Harvard University: Computer Science for Business Professionals

This course hosted by Harvard University is designed for managers, product managers, and other business professionals. The six-week long course teaches participants about computational thinking, programming languages, web development, and cloud computing, among other subjects.

Computer Science for Business Professionals, also known as CS50, is self-paced and requires about two-to-six hours of study per week. Taught by David J. Malan, the Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science at Harvard University, CS50 is also Harvard’s largest online course and has been completed by more than 2 million people. And YouTube CEO Susan D. Wojcicki even said, “CS50 changed my life.”

Vanderbilt University: Introduction to Programming with MATLAB

Vanderbilt University, which is ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s list of the best online master’s programs in computer science, offers an Introduction to Programming with MATLAB course. The course is targeted to users with little to no programming experience and teaches participants how to program in MATLAB, a programming language. This language is often used by scientists and engineers to solve matrices and linear algebra, but it’s “easy to learn,” and “versatile,” according to Vanderbilt.

The course takes about 35 hours to complete and is the first course in Vanderbilt’s free online MATLAB Programming for Engineers and Scientists Specialization, which includes two other courses. 

Carnegie Mellon University: Principles of Computation with Python

Touted as another top university for its tech-related programs, Carnegie Mellon University offers an intro course on one of the more widely used programming languages, Python. Principles of Computation with Python is offered through the school’s Open Learning Initiative. While the course teaches users about programming in Python, it’s also targeted for a general audience to learn more about computer science and to “show students that there is much more to computer science than learning to write code,” according to Carnegie Mellon. The course is broken down into modules that gradually get more technical.

Stanford University: Computer Science 101

Stanford University, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, hosts a self-paced introductory course Computer Science 101 to teach the fundamentals of the field to users with no prior experience. The course starts with a general background on computers, software, hardware, and internet, and also allows participants to begin to learn the basics of coding.

The course takes six weeks to complete at about four-to-six hours per week. It’s taught by one of Stanford’s senior computer science lecturers Nick Parlante whose lectures and other videos appear widely on YouTube.

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the doctorate in education programs MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).