The Metamorphosis of MOOCs

Opinion | Digital Learning

The Metamorphosis of MOOCs

By Fiona Hollands     Dec 20, 2017

The Metamorphosis of MOOCs

At a recent meeting of educational technology policy advisors, a well-informed university CIO casually declared that MOOCs were history. It’s true they stopped making headlines a while ago, but they have hardly abated. They may, however, need a change of name, just as we rename mature caterpillars “butterflies” or “moths.”

Increasingly, MOOCs are being packaged into series of courses with a non-degree credential being offered to those who successfully complete the series. Some people wonder whether these credentials could serve as an alternative to a degree. Others hope that they may provide a pathway to a degree. Most likely, these new options will emerge as a low-cost alternative to employer-provided training.

Given the speed at which today’s employees flit from job to job, many employers may be questioning the value of investing in extensive professional development. Perhaps it is employers who should be the most supportive of the latest MOOC developments.

Examples of these online course series, which are open to enrollment by any applicant, include Coursera Specializations which appeared in early 2014, and the MicroMasters, first offered in Supply Chain Management by MITx in 2015 via the edX online platform. Some series now culminate in a capstone project or proctored examination. All charge fees for participants who wish to earn the non-degree credential. To date, over 500 Specializations have been developed by a wide array of academic institutions and corporations, and 24 universities are offering a total of 41 MicroMasters. Udacity’s Nanodegrees, edX XSeries, and edX Professional Certificates are additional examples of these open, online course series joining the growing ranks of alternative credentials.

Unlike the huge numbers enrolling in stand-alone, free MOOCs, participation in the course series is more muted. At a recent conference, Wharton Online reported that it had seen 1.1-million enrollments in its MOOCs since April 2015. Among these, 113,000 learners paid for a certificate verifying completion of a MOOC, and over 2,000 completed a Specialization. MIT’s Supply Chain Management MicroMasters attracted over 180,000 learners, of who 1,100 completed all five courses in the series, and 622 passed the final exam. These 622 are now eligible to apply the MicroMasters courses for credit towards a full Masters’ degree at one of several universities.

These alternative, non-degree credentials are vastly less costly than traditional degrees. A Specialization consisting of four 3-to-8 week courses may cost a few hundred dollars, and a MicroMasters covering up to half the content of a regular Masters’ degree could cost in the order of a thousand dollars. Key questions are whether they will be valued by employers and bring the participants career, financial, educational or other benefits that outweigh the direct costs and opportunity costs of participation.

A 2015 study of the benefits accruing to learners who engage in stand-alone MOOCs indicated that, among those who completed the courses and responded to an online survey, 72 percent reported career benefits and 61 percent reported educational benefits. One might expect that courses offered as a series with a culminating credential could be even more beneficial than individual MOOCs.

Looking For Answers

To test this hypothesis, I partnered with a couple of universities in the U.S. to develop a series of surveys to embed in their MicroMasters programs and in a Coursera Specialization.

So far this year, we have collected 476 responses to a voluntary survey in three MicroMasters programs and one Specialization. Questions address the learner’s education, earnings and career status as he or she begins the first course in the series. The survey also investigates the direct costs and opportunity costs incurred by the learners. For example: Who is paying for the courses? Are participants sacrificing paid work time to complete coursework? Are their employers allowing them to study during paid work time? A second survey will ask for similar information once the credential is earned. Finally, a follow-up survey will be sent around 12 months after the learner has completed the credential in order to assess changes in education, earnings, and career status since completing the credential.

With only a small number of programs surveyed so far, we cannot claim to be representing all participants in these open, online course series, but here are the early findings. Just like stand-alone MOOCs, most learners—over 80 percent—already had a Bachelors or higher degree. Eight percent had no degree at all and were not enrolled in any formal educational program. It will be worth watching these people particularly closely over the next year or two, if they don’t drop out, to see whether earning an alternative credential can help them get on track to a full degree, a job or higher earnings. More than half the participants were employed full-time and an additional 15 percent owned businesses.

In terms of direct costs to the learners, approximately half were paying the course fees themselves. The remainder were mostly taking the free version of the courses or receiving financial aid from edX or Coursera. But employers were paying full fees for 6 percent of participants, and contributing to a few more. In fact, 4 percent of the Specialization participants had been asked to engage in the program by their employers. While this appears to be a positive development with respect to the sustainability of these programs, opportunity costs of time are still high for the learners because only a tiny percentage of participants indicated that their employer was paying them for the time spent on the courses. Given that almost half of participants were looking to improve their performance in their current job, it might be reasonable to expect more employers to subsidize this relatively low-cost professional development.

In addition to improving current job performance, other common goals for program participation included learning something new in a particular field, networking with other professionals, preparing to apply for a different job, planning to start a business, preparing to apply for a degree program or improving English-language skills in a professional field. Surprisingly few were aiming for pay raises or promotions in their current jobs.

At the outset of these course series, learners typically had fairly high expectations regarding the educational and career benefits of participating in the program, particularly in the case of MicroMasters. During 2018, we plan to build up the sample size for this study to include a wider selection of universities and program topics to see whether these findings generalize more broadly. And we’ll start to collect the end-of-program surveys to see whether learner expectations have become reality.

Reaching employers directly to ask how much they value these alternative credentials is harder than reaching the learners: there is no captive audience of employers to survey online.

According to the MicroMasters website, the programs are “Recognized by Industry Leaders.” Twenty-one company logos appear under this heading including those of IBM, General Electric, Walmart and Volvo. General Electric recently announced that it will interview any Massachusetts resident who completes the MITxMicroMasters program in Supply Chain Management.

To assess whether we have a butterfly or a moth in the making, we need a more systematic way to find out how much these alternative credentials will count when employers make hiring, compensation and promotion decisions. Perhaps someone could call each of the 21 industry leader’s HR units and ask what “recognition” means in practice.

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