How edX MicroMasters Might Transform Higher Education and the Workforce of the Future

  • Micro-credentials offer professionals the opportunity to extend their education and acquire the skills that will help them get the jobs they want in a competitive job market.
  • In the increasingly unbundled world of college education, MicroMasters have emerged as the ‘AP Classes’ for Graduate Degrees.

MicroMasters – the AP Classes of Graduate Degree Programs

In his keynote speech at the 2015 NEASC Conference, Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, asked, “Is the future of education unbundled?” This was the first of many ideas Mr. Agarwal has offered  on the unbundling of the components of traditional degree programs, and foreshadowed the announcement to come.

A couple of weeks ago on Twitter, the higher edi-verse blew up about the edX’ MicroMasters announcement. Exciting words like “revolution” and “breakthroughs” were hurled about as enthusiastically as those in the 2016 presidential debates (albeit less colorfully).

What is a MicroMasters? In a nutshell, it’s master’s degree-level classes, hand-selected by students, that can be strung together to form the credits, or academic currency, which can then be applied towards a traditional master’s degree program.

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Is this a Master’s Degree? No, but it can help you get one. MicroMasters is a bit like an Advanced Placement (AP) class. AP courses began as a way for students to stand out on their college applications. The purpose of these classes and tests is for students to earn college credit while in high school. They are a means to help students prepare for a competitive college entry market.

MicroMasters benefits the learner in two ways, similar to AP classes:

  1. Professionals, employees and job-seekers can earn credit from a prestigious institution that can be applied towards a traditional master’s degree and,
  2. They get salary-boosting gravitas for knowledge that can be placed on a resume or LinkedIn, and become more marketable as their credentials will attract the notice of employers.

“I think the MicroMasters is a big next step in the evolution of education,” said Mr. Agarwal, in an interview with The Hechinger Report last month.

Hyperbole aside, the MicroMasters concept is a milestone. Or a trailhead. Why? Because unlike most MOOCs, the MicroMasters’ program provides a curated pathway to the ultimate destination: a real master’s degree from an institution that has agreed to accept the credits.

What is Driving The Need? Long Term Employment Viability

The master’s degree business is booming. And with good reason. In the 2016 Georgetown University report America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots, one of the findings is that out of 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy, 11.5 of these went to workers who possessed some form of college education. 3.8 Million of these jobs went to graduate degree holders.


 

“Higher education is becoming less affordable to many in the bottom 60 per cent just at a time when higher education is more necessary than ever before to succeed in the modern economy.”

Robert Reich, Former United States Secretary of Labor


 

According to the Georgetown University’s 2013 report: Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, 65% of all jobs will require post-secondary education. Many of these jobs in STEM, Healthcare require degrees beyond a Bachelor’s Degree.

Despite the crowded market for online learning, the MicroMasters represent a new breed of credential that can help anyone get closer to the most relevant jobs.

Many professionals considering an investment in education are going to find these very attractive. The opportunity to gain professional development – in some cases, at a fraction of the cost, in order to get a leg up in their career – or even to start a new one. Students can apply to prestigious and reputable institutions to get the education requirements and highly coveted skills that employers are demanding.

Eligibility and Student Cost Accessibility and affordability will have additional appeal to the busy and cost-conscious. The MicroMasters program has no eligibility requirements, and is available to anyone wanting to learn via the edX platform. Students can try it out for free, and for $1,000, can earn a verified certification of completion of the courses offered through this program.

Online Masters: But Will Students Go For It?

Georgia Tech seems to think so, the institution’s approach was discussed in The New York Times article, “An Online Education Breakthrough? A Master’s Degree for a Mere $7,000.”

What’s different now, is that students are demonstrating a willingness to pay for access to prestige as explained in The Times article:

“Some may see online learning as experimental or inferior, something associated with down market. But the nation’s best universities have fully embraced it.”

And this willingness to pay is one of the reasons institutions are doubling down on micro-credentials. 14 institutions have joined the newly formed edX MicroMasters Partnership, demonstrating how much they believe in this new approach.

But to see how far we’ve come, let’s dig into the past.

MOOCs Spur Online Degree Revolution

Way back in 2012, MOOC pioneers edX and Coursera promised the ultimate in education accessibility. And with technology as the curriculum (content) delivery vehicle, anyone-anywhere would have access to world-class education. In the end, what learners really got was proximity to prestigious professors and content for a great price. However, what MOOCs didn’t offer, were ‘official college degrees’.

That was a problem because as it turns out, students pay for school because they want the outcome, the degree – the kind that gets them a job. Yet many institutions held back on participating in MOOCs.

And then something happened that caused a change.

A few years later in 2013, enter the micro-credential. These were a natural extension of a learner’s journey. The ability to gain recognition for what they’ve mastered in a single competency. Students could ‘blockchain’ these recognitions into a valuable credential. Now, anyone could self-construct the curriculum necessary to develop the skills they needed that were previously attainable only by those who could afford to pay for a traditional education.

MITx Re-imagines Credentials by Disrupting Traditional Course Structure

Building on this trend, in 2014 MITx offered a new approach to MOOC instruction and certification, greatly expanding on the individual course doctrine, long the staple of the traditional classroom world. We actually explored this topic three years ago: ‘Imagine All the Credentials’. MITx believed that learners and employers would ultimately find value in an earned certificate. MITx began offering the XSeries – which took a modular approach to building a credential. They utilized edX’s ID verification process to provide the added value of identity assurance for the certificates.

Protecting Credential Integrity

Assuring the academic integrity of the assessments given in the MicroMasters program is imperative to safeguarding the value of the micro-credential. That’s why all institutions participating in the edX’ MicroMasters will be required to make a percentage of exams in their programs – online proctored exams. Similar to the proctoring process utilized by students in the edX Global Freshman Academy, MicroMasters learners will take a percentage of their exams using online proctoring technology. To be eligible to earn credit for the course, students must take and pass the proctoring review for the class.

EdX partnered with Software Secure to ensure the integrity of online assessments. EdX needed a solution with an asynchronous approach that could scale very quickly to thousands of learners. The proctoring solution was an important next step in providing a secure and verified learning environment for those students interested in credit bearing courses.

Becoming Legit: Value to be Gained in Non-Traditional Degree Pathways

One of the greatest achievements of the MOOC category is bringing legitimacy to online education. Brand-conscious students who would not consider taking a class from the for-profits were lining up to take an online course offered by top-tier universities like MIT.

However, choosing an online degree program should not be based on prestige alone of the institution offering it. Selection should also take into consideration the best combination of resources and most importantly: quality and integrity – as these are what gives the credential legitimacy and value.

This is where edX’ MicroMasters has a distinct advantage over other micro-credentials: all three have been designed and built into its framework.

The resources include extra services – like additional support from faculty. The quality is assured through the rigor of the course design and delivery, the integrity is assured through validation of student identity, and securely proctoring the assessments.

That said, prestige of institution matters as the cache they possess will be noticed by future employers. Legitimacy is a component of prestige – and thanks to the MicroMasters design, its prestige will not only be perceived – but concrete. For this reason, it is a very valuable credential as it can be used as universal currency.

Critics may argue that that online credentials earned through MOOCs cannot be compared to credentials from on-campus programs – or even traditional online programs, i.e. not the same experience, level of engagement or quality. EdX MicroMasters challenges this notion and presents an innovative, credible and viable solution.

Taking a Shape-Shifting Approach to Education

The hope is that we can evolve from talking about whether or not MOOC credentials are good or just less expensive, to how they are a legitimate and valuable alternative to the status quo.

A University of Florida professor (link to comment here) summed it up in his remark in Kevin Carey’s NYT article:

“Online Learning needs to move away from justifying itself by trying to replicate the traditional campus experience. I believe the real contribution of these programs will happen when we start to get a better understanding of the new things online can do better than traditional programs.”

This professor has a refreshing and modern perspective. He further extolled the benefits of exploring online education – and challenges institutions to take risks:

“Once that exploration becomes more robust, and institutions start taking more chances to do things no one would dare to do in traditional programs – then we’ll start to see programs that are attractive not because they are less expensive – but more expansive.”

It’s clear that the jobs of tomorrow will go to those who invest in their education today. The edX MicroMasters has aligned itself to the needs of the economy – and provides professionals an affordable and legitimate pathway to the top jobs of today and the future.

Next Up: What Does Unbundled Accreditation Look Like?

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