Micro-Credentials: The Future of Professional Learning

In 2012 many of us thought massively open online courses (MOOC) would transform higher education. What could be better than free courses from the world’s best professors?

MOOCs extended access and created compelling success stories like Luis Tandalla, a college student from Ecuador who took one of the first free online classes in machine learning and won a global data competition a year later.

Disappointing course completion rates suggest that DIY HigherEd isn’t for everyone. Free courses are enticing but it turns out that motivation and support are important to most learners.

MOOCs and other low cost models will continue to pressure second and third tier HigherEd as, as John Danner puts it, “Mass education is going to be free.”

   Daphne Koller, Coursera president, is enthusiastic about learning hubs, small, facilitator-led study groups using open content. Leveraging this concept, the famous Boston charter school Match Education launched Match Beyond, study groups around College for America’s project-based curriculum.

MOOC providers achieved significant scale but struggled to develop a sustainable business model. Most have pivoted to a focus on job training partnerships where completion motivation runs high and there’s a better chance of getting paid.

Market signaling. In addition to local support as a value added service, marketing signaling strategies are becoming more important–and more lucrative. Demonstrated competence and the “show what you know economy” is on the rise. Competence is increasingly codified by a badge or micro-credential, a portfolio of artifacts, and a list of references.

Coursera launched a Global Skills Initiative this week linking universities and companies work together to create a course sequence resulting in certification in a Specialization. Initial collaborators include BNY Mellon, Cisco, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Splunk, and UBS. The will work with a university partners to produce online courses in fields like data science, computer programming, and finance.

A Coursera blog said, “These Specialization are so applicable that participating companies also plan to use them to enhance their internal employee training and even to expand their hiring pools to interested Coursera learners.”

Coursera is in the process of raising $60 million, on top of the $85 million raised in the last three rounds, to support this focus on job specific training and expand in Latin America. (Learn Capital, where I’m a partner, is an investor.)

The company offers 1,118 courses to almost 15 million users. Half of the learners are seeking to advance their careers. Over 1 million users are in China.

A year ago Udacity launched a series of nanodegrees, “compact, flexible, and job-focused credentials that are stackable throughout your career,” developed in partnership with AT&T.

In most cases these new micro-credentials are post-baccalaureate. But in dynamic job categories like web design, coding bootcamps are becoming a viable degree alternative.

Edu implications. As discussed in a May report written with Digital Promise, we think a system of micro-credentials is how educators will be prepared and how they will be recognized for their professional learning.

Like students, educators deserve a clear map of what they need to know and be able to do, multiple ways to learn, and options for demonstrating mastery. In most cases we think progress will be marked with a stackable series of micro-credentials. No more random courses for continuing ed credits, just highly relevant job-linked learning. We’re optimistic about recent developments in this space, like Relay/GSE’s new modules, that give educators on-demand access to authentic and meaningful professional learning experiences.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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