MOOC-Based Credential Options Expand in Online Education

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Danaka Porter was always interested in supply chain management. So when her friend recommended the master’s program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she considered applying.

But the Vancouver, Canada, resident wanted to test the waters before diving right in.

Porter audited a lecture for free in a massive open online course, or MOOC, hosted by MIT in partnership with the online course provider edX. MOOCs are generally available at no charge to anybody around the world with an internet connection, though paying usually provides features such as virtually proctored exams and teacher assistance.

[Explore four features you can now get by paying for MOOCs.]

After auditing, Porter enrolled in the online MITx MicroMasters in Supply Chain Management. Costing about $1,300 total, the program requires students to complete five MOOCs with graded assignments along with a capstone exam. Students receive a certificate after each MOOC, building their way up to what the company calls a MicroMasters.

“You have a few weeks where you can take the course and see if it’s the right fit for you prior to officially signing up for it,” the 30-year-old says.

Students who earn the MicroMasters can, if admitted, apply their credential to MIT’ssupply chain management master’s program. They finish the curriculum on campus, getting a full degree and saving money. Porter is in the process of completing her application, she says.

For students considering a credential – or even an affordable online degree – from a respectable university, a MOOC-based option might be the way to go. After piloting the concept at MIT this year, edX announced partnerships with 14 additional universities around the world last month for 19 new MicroMasters programs exploring in-demand fields ranging from artificial intelligence to entrepreneurship.

Students earn a MicroMasters by completing the equivalent of a quarter’s to a semester’s worth of a master’s degree, usually through four to five MOOCs and a capstone component, says Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX. They can then apply to finish the curriculum at the school in person and earn the graduate degree.

Because the MicroMasters are “stackable” in nature, students can learn as much or little as they want, Agarwal says. They might still be able to advance their careers, for example, from the certificates earned through individual MOOCs.

[Discover why “stackable” credential options are rising in online education.]

Coursera, another major MOOC provider, currently offers two similar MOOC-based options in conjunction with the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign: an iMBA, which can be completed in 23 to 36 months, and a Master of Computer Science in data science, which can take as little as a year.

Discussions with universities are in the works to announce several new Coursera MOOC-based degrees, likely within the next few months, says Nikhil Sinha, chief business officer at Coursera.

“Learners get the opportunity to actually experience the content that they would be taking within the degree program before deciding whether or not they want to commit to that program,” Sinha says.

Coursera’s programs also allow students to build up to an actual online degree if the school admits them. They must complete a hands-on, university-led online component in addition to several MOOC specializations, or course series, Sinha says.

In both Coursera and edX’s programs, the MOOC-based portions are open admission, meaning anyone can enroll if they pay and meet the verification security requirements. The university-led components, however, require separate admissions processes.

What school officials hope make these programs attractive to prospective students is their affordability. A MicroMasters costs around $1,000, Agarwal says, which ultimately saves students a chunk of money on tuition. Coursera’s current MOOC-based degrees, says Sinha, both cost around $20,000 total.

These low-cost edX and Coursera programs are comparable with the Georgia Institute of Technology’s online master’s in computer science, announced in 2013 in collaboration with Udacity, a company that offers affordable programming and technology online courses, and AT&T. Students in Georgia Tech’s program can audit for free, but pay roughly $7,000 for the degree, says Zvi Galil, dean of computing at the school.

[Learn how to choose the right online IT training.]

Experts say with the development of the edX and Coursera programs, universities can base admissions decisions off of more than just test scores and GPAs; they get a better sense of how applicants handled coursework for the MicroMasters, says James Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. The school recently launched three MicroMasters programs with edX.

Before enrolling in a MOOC-based degree program, experts say students should be aware that required courses might have set start and end dates for those who pay.

Fiona Hollands, associate director and senior researcher at Columbia University’s Teacher College, says the new credentials’ success will largely be determined by how employers view them, Hollands says.

“I’d be very surprised if employers don’t value the MicroMasters, if they know for sure that it’s the student who has the credential that did all the work for it,” Hollands says.

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