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Higher Education Undergoing a MOOC Makeover

June 25, 2014

Phoenix TS Intern

Every couple weeks, hundreds of thousands of people enroll in massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These courses permit people from around the world to participate in prestigious academia for free.

MOOCs have gained universal popularity among students, however employers still have not come around to accepting instructor signed certificates of completion in lieu of traditional degrees.  Companies such as Intel, Dell, Apple, and Facebook put it, “we probably wouldn’t hire a potential employee who holds an online certification over another prospect who holds an actual degree”.

No rejection letter. No degree. No job.

EdX, Udacity, and Coursera programs offer people a chance to take part in a new form of higher education. One that they may not have been capable of financially supporting otherwise. With student loans finding their way onto credit statements everywhere, why shouldn’t MOOCs be considered an amazing substitution for the traditional college education?

Institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Stanford allow millions a chance to peek inside their historically renowned lecture halls. This is made possible through EdX, Udacity, and Coursera. Like traditional college campuses, these platforms have pros and cons.

MIT, Harvard, Stanford yielding massive dropout rates

Whether it be Coursera, Udacity, or EdX, there is an essential part of every course on all of these platforms that is missing, students. This may sound somewhat ridiculous at first. In 2011, 160,000 people around the world enrolled in “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence”. This course was offered by two Stanford professors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. In the end they only signed 23,000 certificates of completion.

Although the free classes come from outstanding schools, less than 10 percent of students who enroll actually complete them, i.e. “Circuits and Electronics”. The class offered by MIT’s EdX program began with 155,000 students. 23,000 students attempted the first problem given to the class. 9,000 students completed and passed the midterm exam, and 7,157 successfully completed the course.

If a student beats the odds and completes a course, they receive a certificate of completion. These certificates are simply glorified letters from the professor who taught the class. Actually, they might not even be that impressive.

Institutions offering these online classes somewhat disaffiliate themselves from the certificates of completion distributed. MIT and the leaders of the EdX institution stated the difference between bachelor degrees and MOOC certificates.

“MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process.”- Massachusetts Institute of Technology   

“EdX will grant certificates of mastery based on course performance, but not issue them on behalf of Harvard or MIT, nor will course completion count toward credit at either institution.” (EdX, 2012)

Stanford also expressed their opinion. The school required that the statement of accomplishment offered by Thun and Norvig’s CS221, “Include a disclaimer stating that the class wouldn’t count toward Stanford credit, a grade, or a degree.”

So what does this all mean for the student trying to decide what looks better on their resume; a certificate of completion given to them by a professor or a traditional degree from a school considered “lesser” than MIT and Harvard?

Nanodegrees create jobs that MOOC certificates can’t

MOOCs allow people to further their education. These programs even offer certificates of completion to students who pass their courses. However, employers are currently not willing to accept these certificates in place of degrees.

These certificates are looked at by employers as resume boosters. The certificates are not enough on their own unless your employer is AT&T and you received a nanodegree from Udacity.

Recently Udacity and AT&T teamed up to create a new online program, the nanodegree. This program offered by Udacity, can be completed in less than a year for 200 dollars a month.

Becoming a nanodegree recipient is similar to that of receiving a certificate of completion from Udacity, EdX, and Coursera. The biggest difference however, is AT&T honors their partnership with Udacity by hiring 100 paid internships to those who receive the degrees.

AT&T collaborates with Udacity to guide course materials and tailor the degree towards company needs. The degree preps students for these positions at AT&T with nanodegrees:

  • Frontend web developers
  • Backend web developers
  • iOS mobile developers
  • Android Developers
  • Data analyst

The Choice is Yours:

Over Priced Degrees or Unappreciated Certificates

MOOCs are here to stay. With free classes and enormous enrollment rates the institutions offering these courses benefit from the exposure they receive online.

The problem with these courses are employers do not accept these certificates of completion as replacements for degrees. Unless more companies develop courses offered through one existing online platform or they create their own (like AT&T), they may only be seen as resume boosters.

A traditional degree is much more valuable to employers across the country. This could be because the universities that are offering these programs are placing distance between themselves and the certificates of completion.

The higher education system remains stagnant. “30 percent of first time students who began college in 2003 earned a bachelor’s degree by 2009.” That statistic is nothing for higher educational systems to brag about, though it is better than MOOC completion rates. Massive open online courses are free, while a tradition education can leave young adults buried in debt with only a 20 percent higher chance to complete their degree in six years.

Change needs to come to higher education. Massive open online courses could be a viable answer. If these platforms could become accredited forms of education, they could revolutionize learning process. Until that moment happens, I do not think that the type of online courses which are being used by either Udacity, Coursera, and EdX can be used as a substantial form of an educational supplement to college.

In today’s job market, I personally would chose to take a traditional route to education. That is just me however, what is the better form of education in your eyes? A degree, or Massive Open Online Courses?

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