Consortium announces major expansion of MicroMasters programmes

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • MIT has been piloting a new online MicroMasters credential that has to date attracted nearly 30,000 students
  • The leading Boston-based institution is now partnered with 13 additional institutions via the edX MOOC consortium in offering an expanded slate of 19 MicroMasters programmes
  • The consortium has in turn partnered with Pearson, who will offer local support and additional learning resources to MicroMasters students around the world

Founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2012, edX is the world’s second-largest provider of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Along with other leading providers – notably Coursera and FutureLearn – edX has demonstrated an increasing focus in recent years on delivering fee-based credentials, including those leading to academic credit or full degree programmes.

One of the interesting models piloted at edX has been the “MicroMasters” credential, a for-credit, for-fee programme that is roughly equivalent to a semester of coursework in a corresponding master’s degree. Students who complete the micro credential successfully receive academic credit for their studies and may also apply for admission to an accelerated master’s programme.

This model has been demonstrated over the last couple of years via a MicroMaster’s in Supply Chain Management offered by MIT. EdX CEO Anant Agarwal said recently that the programme has to date attracted 27,000 registrants, 3,500 of whom are currently studying towards the paid MicroMaster’s credential. This compares to the class of 40 new students admitted annually for the full Master’s in Supply Chain Management degree at MIT.

Both edX and MIT clearly feel they are on to something with the path-to-credit option represented in the MicroMasters model. Earlier this month, the edX consortium announced a major expansion of its MicroMasters offerings with 19 new programmes now available from 13 additional institutions in the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, India, Guatemala, and Hong Kong. The new MicroMaster’s programmes span a wide range of subjects from artificial intelligence to international business to environmental studies and more.

The MicroMasters model, says edX, is designed to “provide high-quality education from top universities to help learners launch or advance their career, or follow a path to an accelerated Master’s degree,” and to “enable learners to begin advanced education in an affordable and flexible manner.”

“The workplace is changing more rapidly today than ever before and employers are in need of highly-developed talent,” adds Mr Agarwal. “Meanwhile, college graduates want to advance professionally, but are realising they do not have the career-relevant skills that the modern workplace demands. EdX recognises this mismatch between business and education for learners, employees and employers. The MicroMasters initiative provides the next level of innovation in learning to address this skills gap by creating a bridge between higher education and industry to create a skillful, successful 21st-century workforce.”

There is no application process in the MicroMasters model nor do students pay fees to follow the courses, until the point at which they sit the course exams for credit and to pursue the official credential. Total fees range between US$750 and US$1,200 per programme.

MIT President Rafael Reif has said the MicroMasters are “an experiment in what I call inverted admissions. Anybody anywhere can try to take those courses online…It is an important project for me. I believe in the model of empowering people.”

“MIT recognizes that not all high-potential Master’s candidates can afford to spend a year or more on campus. As part of our mission to attract the best talent, we understand the importance of providing multiple pathways to degree programmes,” adds Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning at MIT. “MicroMasters broadens our admissions pool, and also allows learners to demonstrate their abilities through a series of online courses. All who pass earn a credential valued by the marketplace; those who excel may apply and complete their Master’s with an additional semester’s residence.”

MIT is joined by a number of other top-ranked universities in the expanded MicroMasters group, including Australian National University, Columbia University, University of Michigan, University of Queensland, and Wageningen University. Harvard is expected to offer its own MicroMasters in the near future, and edX has indicated that other institutions will be joining the consortium to offer additional MicroMasters in the coming year.

EdX has also partnered with Pearson, which will offer MicroMasters students the opportunity to study at local centres in up to 70 countries around the world. The Pearson centres will provide in-person support for MicroMasters students, and will enable collaboration among local cohorts and access to additional learning resources – effectively creating a blended learning aspect for the MicroMasters programmes.

All of these developments suggest that we will see a considerable expansion in MicroMasters enrolment in the coming year, and further linkages between for-credit MOOC study and enrolment in on-campus Master’s programmes.

This is part of a broader pattern in online learning, one that puts a distinct focus on flexibility and employability and with alternative credentials that bend or break traditional models of higher education. This is a trend, says Dr Michelle Weise, that is in turn driven by a demand for economic relevance. Dr Weise is a noted expert in disruptive innovation in higher education and she foresees a future where elite brands will compete with niche or alternative providers who are able to solve what she sees as essentially a “human capital” problem – matching the skills of graduates with the evolving needs of the job market.

For additional background on related developments in technology-enabled higher education, please see “More online degrees on the horizon?” and “Opening the door to new learning models”.



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