5 Ways MOOC-Based Degrees Are Different From Other Online Degrees

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5 Ways MOOC-Based Degrees Are Different From Other Online Degrees

By Dhawal Shah (Columnist)     Oct 10, 2018

5 Ways MOOC-Based Degrees Are Different From Other Online Degrees

Online degrees are nothing new. Since the late 1990’s, a steady stream of online degree programs have entered the market, including many reputable options from top-tier schools.

But in recent years a new type of online degree has emerged, born of partnerships between elite universities and the platforms that support MOOCs, such as Coursera, FutureLearn, and edX.

The first of these new MOOC degree programs emerged at Georgia Tech, which partnered with Udacity in 2013 to create a low-cost online master’s program in computer science. Two years later, the University of Illinois and Coursera started a master’s program in business that it called an iMBA. Since then, more and more degrees have run through MOOC channels.

This has essentially created a new round of hype about MOOCs.

Just this week, in fact, edX announced nine new MOOC-based master’s programs from institutions including Arizona State University, University of Queensland, and the University of Texas at Austin.

It’s worth considering what makes MOOC-based degrees different from other online degree programs.

So here are five things that differentiate MOOC-based degrees. While not every MOOC-based degree has all five of these features, enough of them do to make them worth pointing out.

MOOC-Based Degrees Can Be Less Expensive

Online degrees are generally offered at the same price as on-campus degrees. Most (though not all) MOOC-based degrees, on the other hand, are cheaper than their on-campus equivalents.

The best example of this is the first MOOC-based degree, Georgia Tech’s online master’s in CS, launched in partnership with Udacity. That program costs $6,600 total, which works out to about $170 per credit hour. By contrast, the on-campus version of the same degree costs $1,191 per credit hour for out of state students. This means means that just one semester of the on-campus Master’s costs twice as much as the entire online degree.

Unfortunately, most other MOOC-based degrees haven’t adopted such an ambitious pricing model, but many have slashed prices significantly compared to on-campus online degrees.

MOOC-Based Degrees Are More Flexible

A second point of differentiation between MOOC-based degrees and traditional online degree programs has to do with flexibility.

Traditional online programs mimic the schedule of on-campus programs, for both course load and payments. MOOC-based degrees don’t require enrolled students to take a certain number of courses per semester. Rather, students decide how many courses they can fit into their schedules, and even more importantly, they only pay for the courses they take. This flexible structure alleviates both the financial and the time burden on students—and potentially makes these programs more accessible to international students.

But even though the course load can be less hefty, MOOC-based degrees are are not necessarily an “easy” alternative as compared to on-campus or other kinds of online degrees. For example, interviews with graduates of the iMBA found that all of them noted the program’s rigor.

MOOC-based Degrees Can be Stackable

A third point of differentiation is that MOOC-based degrees are in fact built on MOOCs or series of MOOC courses. Degree students benefit from the MOOC formula, which has been honed through testing by tens of millions of students around the world.

The iMBA consists of six Coursera Specializations. FutureLearn’s online degrees are similarly divided into FutureLearn Programs. When degrees are structured this way, students can amass credentials along the way. That way, even if they end up not completing the program, they still have something to show for their efforts.

Many Courses Are Free to Audit

Another way MOOC-based degrees are different is that they make some of their content publicly available. Prior to the advent of MOOCs and Open CourseWare, university classrooms were quite literally walled off from the general public. Now, anyone, anywhere in the world can audit university courses free of charge.

While some MOOC-based degree programs offer only introductory courses or teaser versions of their courses to the general public, some allow people to audit a majority of the courses that degree students take.

The degree students benefit from being able to actually sample the contents of the degree before taking the plunge. Non-degree students benefit from getting access to high-quality university-level courses.

Non-degree students can also choose to pay and earn a microcredential or course certificate. Unfortunately, however, it seems that many of the newer MOOC-based degrees release less of their content to the general public.

The Application Process Can Be More Relaxed

Finally, the application process for MOOC-based degree programs tends to be more open than for other kinds of online degree programs. Because these programs are designed to operate at larger scales, they are often interested in accepting all students who can be successful, rather than limiting admission to a small number of applicants.

The Georgia Tech online master’s, for example, does not require its applicants to submit a GRE score and has an admission rate of 66 percent. The iMBA from the University of Illinois and Coursera allows students to demonstrate their eligibility for the program by taking the MOOC courses as unenrolled students, saying, If you have completed an iMBA for-credit course or specialization, we will consider your performance in these courses a criteria for admission to ascertain academic preparedness.

One recently announced MOOC-based Masters degree program in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder flips the entire admissions process on its head, requiring that prospective students first demonstrate their ability to complete some of the courses in the program as unenrolled MOOC learners. Only once these prospective students have successfully completed one or more of the MOOC courses, can they be eligible to earn the full degree.

This approach to the admissions process is one of the more radical and potentially disruptive features of MOOC-based degrees. In this model, the value proposition of the degree program does not include the prestige and exclusivity of its admissions. This approach is known as Inverted Admissions, and it is one of the most unusual innovations coming out of the MOOC phenomenon.

So far around 35 to 40 MOOC-based online degrees have been announced. Not all of the degrees fully embrace the five features, but some do.

Throughout 2018 and later, I expect a lot more of these online degrees being launched. But we will have to wait to see how many of these features the newer MOOC-based degrees adopt.

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