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Stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap – get your micro-credentials here

From MicroDegrees to MicroBachelors, Paul Greatrix introduces us to the rich pickings at the educational salad bar.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I’ve written a number of times before here about a range of curricular innovations including these ‘pop-up courses’ at the University of Nebraska where students could take really short additional courses for credit.

These courses are just one example of what was predicted by many just a few years ago to be a massive disruption to higher education which would sweep away the traditional curricula and indeed institutions.

The charge was led by the big MOOC providers – edX, Coursera, Udacity, Futurelearn and others – all of which were offering lots of exciting new online courses which everyone would want to study at their own pace and on their own instead of dull and time-consuming full-time degrees at universities.

Udacity continues to offer a range of ’nanodegrees’ in various IT subjects, none of which appears to lead to an accredited qualification but holds out the prospect of significant career benefits apparently.

The high water mark for the MOOCs may have passed but the ideas haven’t gone away and this story on Inside Higher Ed in 2019 notes a recent report from a group with a keen interest in securing the future of alternative qualifications:

“Higher education institutions are being challenged in their role as the dominant credentialing player in society,” the report states.
“By providing a fully digital, information-rich record of workplace-relevant skills and competencies in the near future, the use of [alternative digital credentials] will seriously challenge the validity of traditional university transcripts making them obsolete and, in the long-term, irrelevant,” the authors write. Colleges that do not embrace them will face the same fate, it suggests.
“individual institutions which fail to adopt ADCs will experience a slow decline in relevance and market position.”

But despite all the hype around MOOCs and the like, universities and their traditional offerings have proved remarkably resilient and therefore the logical next step was for the MOOC providers to start offering actual qualifications themselves. Not traditional awards of course but excitingly named micro-credentials, nano-degrees and micro-masters courses all of which were described as ‘stackable’ qualifications and would, again, destroy universities with all of their tedious, fusty old style qualifications.

Not only are these stackable micro-credentials sexy and edgy, they apparently come with major employability benefits for those who acquire them. See for example this on Udacity’s guaranteed jobs pledge and a more recent piece which looks at others who have made similar commitments.

Of course the focus is now on real accredited courses for a good reason – it’s about substance rather than appearance and the knowledge that such qualifications meet certain standards and quality thresholds which are understood and carry weight by virtue of the awarding bodies behind them really does matter.
So, how is one provider selling itself now? Yes, it’s time for the ‘MicroBachelors’, another approach to the stackable qualification stuff from edX:

MicroBachelors are programs offered by universities through the edX platform that can be taken as a stand-alone credential or counted toward a full degree. Unlike the MicroMasters programs, the MicroBachelors programs target the 36 million Americans with some college but no degree. The first MicroBachelors programs are focused in computing and are less substantive than the MicroMasters programs — some of which can account for up to one-third of a full master’s degree.
These stackable credentials are part of a larger trend of universities breaking their degrees down into shorter, less expensive and faster-to-attain qualifications that give people more pathways into the workforce.

I’m not certain this is such a large trend as suggested here but the idea that there is a quick and easy alternative to a degree is a little fanciful. There may be some demand for this but you still have to do the work, accumulate the credit, progress from one level to the next and meet all the requirements to the necessary standards to secure the award, whatever qualification you are doing. These aren’t ‘micro’ degrees, m they are small components of courses which MIGHT, in the right circumstances, add up to a degree. And they do depend on universities actually deciding that they deserve to be accredited. It’s not entirely clear though why you would use someone like edX to provide this for you although their co-CEO remains optimistic:

Adam Medros, president and co-CEO of the nonprofit edX, said he expects many more institutions to award credit for these programs. Eventually the company plans to launch a fully online undergraduate degree made up of MicroBachelors programs taught by different institutions.

His optimism flows through to the blurb on edX’s MicroBachelor’s home page:

No matter if you have some or no college experience, MicroBachelors programs are built for adult learners looking to progress their career. Created by top universities and influenced by Fortune 1000 companies, edX’s MicroBachelors programs are the only path to a Bachelor’s degree that make you job-ready today and credentialed along the way. Now you don’t have to wait years to change your future.

The “only” path to a job-ready degree? Really? And you don’t have to wait years to do it. I can see why they decided to trademark the name. Mind you the entertainingly named Da Vinci Coders (website not updated for a few years now) had already trademarked Microdegrees so they needed to move quickly.

Over at the salad bar…

Some universities are keen though and Jeffrey Harmon, assistant provost for learning outcomes (interesting title) at Thomas Edison State University, told Inside Higher Ed his institution was intending to offer a bachelor’s degree in computer science through edX in the near future:

“One of the pieces that was missing from the edX platform was the ability to accumulate college-level learning from a variety of sources and transfer that into a degree,” said Harmon. “Our institution has been helping students who have amassed credit from a variety of sources for years — we began life as a degree aggregator,” he said.
At around $166 per credit, this salad bar-style degree, with programs taught by multiple institutions, could potentially be a cost-effective option for students. But they won’t be restricted to getting their degrees from Thomas Edison. The institution plans to award students transcripts so they can transfer their credit to other institutions if they choose to, said Harmon.

It remains to be seen whether there is significant demand for these excitingly labelled new programmes and whether they will prove as popular as these extremely small awards previously promoted on Wonkhe.

But given the treatment that MOOCs, advocates of ‘unbundling’ higher ed and those who favour the ‘uber-isation’ of HE receive in Audrey Watters’ wonderful list of the 100 worst ed-tech debacles of the last decade you have to ask if MicroBachelorsTM or the like are going anywhere fast.

One response to “Stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap – get your micro-credentials here

  1. I thought the main attraction of micro credentials was that they are small, not that they may aggregate to substantial qualifications.

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