Sunday, August 16, 2015

Goodbye MOOC, hello microcredentials

Blended learning (Biology) by queensu, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by queensu

MOOC spin-offs are coming thick and fast as the term starts to dissolve into lots of new concepts. The free plain vanilla MOOCs are still flourishing but they've now developed a layered structure where you opt to pay for tutoring, assessment and even credits. Coursera's signature track option now offers verified credentials for a fee and this has spawned equivalent solutions in most MOOC consortia. These are not university credits but they are verified by the awarding university.

Slowly the term MOOC is fading and being replaced by terms like microcredentials and nanodegrees with students being able to study a series of short online courses that lead to verified certificates or badges whose real value on the job market is yet to be established. They aren't degrees or credits but they may be the next best thing and many hope they may create a new niche. Short online course modules offered by MOOC consortia are being packaged into a new qualifications shorter and more accessible then the traditional degree. Coursera offers what they call Specializations, EdX offers XSeriesUdacity offers nanodegrees and there are a number of other solutions such as Udemy for business. Many of these non-credit programmes are developed in close cooperation with major corporations (in particular Udacity's range) and are marketed as teaching students exactly the skills they need for employment. Most seem to be aimed at graduates as part of their professional development rather than trying to offer an alternative to traditional degrees but who knows how this will play out. If employers accept these new credentials then who knows.

Many institutions are now prepared to let others build their MOOCs instead of devoting so much internal resources to course design and creation. The Dutch company MOOC Factory offers universities and corporate customers expertise and an attractive platform to build online courses and course modules that use methods and tools from the MOOC movement but that now may not be so open or massive. The lessons learned from the first years of MOOCs are now being refined and developed in less massive closed online environments.

An article in Inside Higher Ed, Establishment Goes Alternative describes a new initiative from a group of seven US universities to offer skills-based microcredentials by offering a range of online modules, skills assessment and tutoring under the banner of University Learning Store. The venture is not yet in operation but the article describes the plans to create an alternative credential solution that offers sub-degree qualifications.

The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees,” said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at Wisconsin Extension.

What's interesting with University Learning Store is that it is driven by the universities and colleges themselves, thus creating a new tier of higher education that may other compete with or complement the traditional degree system. The other players, although involving the higher education sector, are generally driven by commercial interests and venture capital. I suspect that the main target group for microcredentials are those who already have a university education and are looking for career development courses that are not as long and demanding as regular post-graduate qualifications like a masters degree. This also links in with the growth in competence-based degrees where professionals can progress more quickly to degrees by getting credits for proven skills at work and where assessment is based on real work projects.

These new types of credentials will I believe only enrich the education sector and provide people with alternative paths to learning new skills. Maybe it's time for universities to offer alternatives to traditional degrees such as microcredentials before that niche is taken by the corporate sector.

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