Why Udacity and EdX Want to Trademark the Degrees of the Future—and What’s at Stake for Students

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No one owns the term “master’s degree.” But upstart education providers dream of getting a lock on the words for the next generation of online graduate certifications. Their strategy says a lot about how today’s online programs differ from those in the past (Hint: duration and price are just one part of that).

Udacity won a trademark for Nanodegree last year. And in April, the nonprofit edX, founded by MIT and Harvard University to deliver online courses by a consortium of colleges, applied for a trademark on the word MicroMasters. And MicroDegree? Yep, that’s trademarked too, by yet another company.

Sean Gallagher, chief strategy officer at Northeastern University’s Global Network, picked up on this trend recently and wondered what’s going on. He knows the space well, since he literally wrote the book on “ The Future of University Credentials.” And he noticed that at least one key player can’t seem to decide whether it wants its new degrees to be universal or proprietary.

When MIT announced its first MicroMaster’s degree last year, for instance, officials there said they hoped other colleges would adopt the term for their online offerings. The idea was that the diminutive (yet techy-sounding) term would come to stand for a professional degree equal to about a quarter to half the material covered in a traditional master’s program. More recently, though, edX registered for a trademark, which would give it far more control over who could use the distinction. 

In fact, that could mean that only colleges in edX can adopt the term. This fall more than a dozen edX partner colleges announced new MicroMasters programs in a variety of fields. But what about the thousands of U.S. colleges that aren’t in that club, Gallagher wonders.

Anant Agarwal, head of edX, said in an email statement that the group is committed to making sure that all of the company’s programs, including its MicroMasters, “remain a reliable indicator of source and quality and distinguish edX and its offerings in the marketplace and to learners everywhere.” In other words, the trademark is a way to control who gets to use the term. Officials were reluctant to say more because the trademark application is still under review.

Udacity got into the trademark game earlier, registering the word Nanodegree for its online programs just before they began, in 2014. “We are concerned that others might use the same name for something very different—like a low-quality certification program,” says Sebastian Thrun, the company’s cofounder, in an email interview. “Udacity wants to make sure we can enforce certain quality standards, so that students understand what a Nanodegree program entails.”

Employer Buy-In?

The trademarked words don’t mean much today, since they “aren’t really recognized by employers yet,” Gallagher says. Their rise has been driven by what education providers want to offer, he argues, rather than what students or employers are clamoring for.

The question of buy-in explains why edX and Udacity keep partnering with large companies that effectively endorse each new microcredential, in an effort to jumpstart acceptance. For instance, Udacity’s latest Nanodegree program in artificial intelligence, announced last week, boasts “hiring partnerships” with IBM Watson and Didi Chuxing, the largest ride-sharing company in China. What does that mean? “These partners are committed to looking at graduates from this specific program,” Thrun says.

Trademarking degree names could be part of an overall strategy to route around traditional regulation, such as accreditors, and define quality by market reputation alone. That broad approach follows the playbook of companies like Uber and Airbnb that want to reinvent a sector rather than just be the latest entrant. Thrun describes his Nanodegree programs as if they are not part of higher education at all. “Udacity is not focused on college students, our Nanodegree programs are for people who have completed college and are looking to get new skills or find a new job,” he says. “The world of education is changing as we move more into lifelong learning, and that's a good thing.”

Some observers say that old rules may still apply to these new education services. “These people are running headlong into violating state authorization regulations in many states, and I think they’re in denial about that,” argues Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis for WCET, a nonprofit promoting e-learning programs. “Each state has the ability to say who can and who can’t offer postsecondary education in their state,” he says. “I have to imagine that some state is going to go after them soon.” Officials for Udacity and edX did not respond to requests for comment on that issue.

To Poulin, the issue is consumer protection for students. After all, a master’s degree can still hold clear meaning and value even if the college that issued it goes out of business (though reputation still matters, so it might depend on how the institution meets its end). If Udacity failed, would a Nanodegree hold up as well?

Of course, students trying out these new degrees probably realize they’re trying something new and untested. The bigger question is, can the marketplace alone serve as enough of a quality control on something as complicated as professional education?

And if every new credential gets its own trademarked name, that could create confusion for employers and students.

That may be less of a concern, though, says Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, who co-founded his own free platform for online courses in economics, called Marginal Revolution University. If a word salad of names does emerge, he guesses that some player will devise a clearinghouse that would help employers quickly figure out what they all mean.

Though his website issues certificates for students who complete courses, and he has no plans to trademark a term for those, he says he doubts that most students put these on a resume. “A lot of people using the site are already taking a class at some college, and they’re already getting certified there,” he says.

He says that new microcredentials from players like Udacity will likely work best in technical fields where students can show their skills by sharing code they’ve written, using sites like GitHub. In those cases, the certifications are less important, whatever they’re called.

“For most of higher education, I think it’s about the person as a whole rather than some specific skill,” Cowen says. “And there, I think it’s much harder for these new certifications to gain any ground.”

His takeaway: “Don’t assume everything is different now” because of technology.

Just look at a list of top colleges from 1920, he says. “It’s amazing how much the list is identical to the list today. You may think that is good or bad, but there’s some kind of barrier to entry in that market, and the advantages to incumbency are very high.”

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