Online higher education is growing up

Universities aren’t going anywhere. In spite of some predictions that MOOCs would make universities irrelevant, the fact that traditional higher education provides qualifications that employers still insist on basically guarantees their permanence on our education landscape. Aside from the “life experience” of living on campus and meeting other people and doing things you’ve never done before, the depth of inspiration provided by hallowed institutions cannot be completely replaced by “distance learning”, however technologically advanced and interactive it may become. Now, if only it weren’t so prohibitively expensive…

The cost is considerable, especially in the US (anywhere between $20,000 – $150,000 a year, while in the UK most undergraduate universities cost £9,000 a year plus lodging). And is it worth it? That is a key question in this tight job market: will I earn enough to make the cost a good investment? And that question is becoming more relevant, even urgent, as alternatives to higher education and to the concept of traditional degrees are becoming more accessible and more attractive.

by Ravi Cristian for Unsplash

by Ravi Cristian for Unsplash

The combination of increasing costs and online alternatives is forcing a re-think of what a degree is for. It serves as a filter, obviously, and as proof that someone has a certain level of education and intelligence. But is that totally necessary in this age of accessible data and new employment needs? What are employers looking for?

The general assumption that without a good degree you won’t get a decent job has led to a surfeit of qualified workers. The problem is, according to the employers, that these are not the workers they are looking for. According to the Manpower Group, almost 40% of employers in the US complain of a talent shortage. And by “talent”, they mean training, ability and applicable skills.

And it’s not just the employers who are frustrated. A report by the consultancy McKinsey found that 42% of recent graduates are in jobs that do not require a four-year college education. In 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 260,000 college graduates were earning the minimum wage (or less). True, a large number of these probably have degrees in a liberal arts subject such as Art History or French Renaissance Literature, which, with respect, are not as “needed” as more pragmatic degrees in business, media or science. But combine that frustrating statistic with the employer’s leaving positions unfilled because of lack of qualified candidates, and you find yourself wondering whether higher education is the societal solution it claims to be. Especially now and looking forward into the future.

Understandably, the need for official degrees is being questioned. Not by all, obviously, a good college degree is still very much in demand, and there always will be demand for that level of experience. But certain sectors have always preferred specialized qualifications. That preference is expanding. And universities are starting to offer accredited, specialized certifications that employers are taking into account in their selection criteria. These courses understandably cost a lot less than the expensive, all-inclusive experience, not only in money but also in time, or opportunity cost, or months of your life. Especially when they are online.

from Death to the Stock Photo

from Death to the Stock Photo

MOOC platform Udacity teamed up with Georgia Tech in 2013 to offer a $7000 Masters Degree in Computer Science, significantly cheaper than the $40,000 on-campus option, even though the duration of the course and the quality are similar. The courses are prepared by Georgia Tech faculty and follow the same material, although with fewer available specializations than in the residential program. They are tough, and a relatively high grade is required to graduate. What’s really interesting is that relative affordability and the fact that this Masters can be taken from almost anywhere in the world. We’re looking at a very important shift in graduate education.

edX offers Verified Certificates on some of its courses for a cost of about $90. To verify that it is you doing the work (and that you’re not outsourcing it to someone better qualified than you), a photograph of you holding an official ID is taken via your webcam at the beginning and at several stages during the course. The XSeries Certificate applies the same principal to a series of courses. Effectively, a “microdegree”, for between $100 and $500. Coursera offers a similar option with their Specializations, a series of Verified Certificates topped off with a project.

In case a “microdegree” sounds too grand, MOOC platform Udacity offers a Nanodegree program (“Industry credentials for today’s jobs in tech”). At the moment they seem to be focussed on would-be programmers and data analysts, but the list is bound to expand. The approach is somewhat original, very education 2.0 – instead of completing a series of courses, you create a series of projects for your portfolio. Udacity offers courses and advice on how to complete those projects, but the courses themselves are not obligatory.

udacity's nanodegree programs

A few weeks ago Coursera announced partnerships with Google, Instagram, Swiftkey, Shazam, iHeartMedia, SnapDeal and 500Startups to offer joint Specializations. Specializations have been around since early 2011, so they’re not exactly “new”. What is new is that corporate muscle expertise is joining the party. For instance, Instagram is supporting a University of California Specialization called “Interaction Design” (“Learn how to design great user experiences”), in which Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger collaborates in the development of portfolio projects and contributes to some of the evaluations. 500Startups has teamed up with the University of Maryland to offer an “Entrepreneurship” Specialization. This week edX announced that it was offering courses in conjunction with Microsoft. The courses are free, but you pay for the Verified Certificate, which could get you a job as a Microsoft developer.

So, we are increasingly looking at online college degrees that are “official”, as in, certified. Now, should they carry as much weight as a traditional, experiential degree? That these specializations are being offered does not mean that they will be accepted by employers. Yet. But with big names supporting this development, it is only a matter of time.

LinkedIn launched in 2013 the “Direct to Profile” option for courses taken at any one of the main MOOC platforms (and some paid online courses), in which you upload a badge to your LinkedIn profile by clicking on a link sent by the course provider. It is therefore easier for an employer to search for candidates with certain MOOC qualifications. And it is becoming easier and more acceptable, even expected, for MOOC students to include their courses on their curriculums.

It’s also worth looking at the data advantages. With an online course, you have a lot of work to show for the time invested. Assignments, quizzes, even exams and final projects – they’re online for anyone to see (with permission, of course). With online credentials it is so much easier for employers to see what you have done, and to understand what was included in the course. With an offline degree, all they get is the information that you worked hard enough to finish. If they choose to dig deep, they could perhaps find out your average grade, and you could always offer your final thesis, but the information is, relatively speaking, sparse. Online courses usually allow you to store your work in folders in the cloud, for potential employers to look at.

And as we’ve seen with Coursera and edX, employers who complain about the lack of qualified talent can do something about that. By sponsoring courses on MOOC platforms, not only are they adding an even higher level of credibility and expertise to the course providers, but they are also creating a pool of talent from which to pick future employees. The open access (or even “relatively” open access – financial aid is often offered to those who can’t afford the certificates) makes the proposition more cost-efficient than developing an in-house training program, and they have access to a much broader group of qualified people. The student can be relatively sure that the training that he or she is receiving is industry-friendly, as in, at least one employer (the one who helped to design the program) values those skills. And then can also be relatively sure that at least one employer will take a look at them, and possibly even hire them if their results are good.

So, while traditional universities will continue to exist, as the depth and breadth of the experience they provide are virtually impossible to replicate online, MOOC qualifications are gaining respectability amongst employers. The access and affordability of online courses allow employers to choose verifiably qualified workers from an ever wider pool of specialized applicants. Less expensive, more focussed mini-degrees are easier to complete for the student, and more useful for businesses. This is how MOOCs are going to shake up the traditional universities. It’s not through the open access and the low cost. It’s not through the community and the convenience. It’s through the certification of employable qualifications, at a fraction of the price. This affects not only young graduates, but also those wishing to change careers, or seasoned workers wishing to move up the ladder faster. With certified MOOCs, students have the freedom to take courses on their time and for relatively low cost, and they have the hope that specialization will make them more employable. As any student of history can tell you, the combination of freedom and hope is a powerful one.


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For more on online education, check out my Flipboard “Internet and Education”:

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