Monday, February 3, 2014

MOOC Majors: An Alternative Route to the Workforce

What is the MOOC Business Model?? That was one of the burning question about MOOCs in 2013. In 2014 we may learn that no one business model will prevail, but MOOC Platform firms will develop a number of promising and complementary revenue streams. 

MOOC Sequences and Specializations

One of these revenue streams will be the Sequence Certificate or MOOC-Mini-Major. Last year several MOOC platforms introduced course sequences. The most heralded is the Georgia Tech Udacity masters degree in Computer Science, sponsored by AT&T. 

But the MOOC firms also introduced several notable mini-courses-of-study that did not carry university credit or connect to a degree pathway. One notable example is the sequence of foundation MBA courses from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, announced by Wharton and Coursera last September. These courses, like others from Coursera, were offered free of charge. In January 2014 Laurie Pickard, a master's degree graduate of my university, Temple, was featured in Fortune magazine for patching together an entire MBA-type program from such MOOCs. 

In January 2014 Coursera announced their Specializations Certificate Programs. These programs package a number of distinct MOOCs - from 3 to 9 - offered by the same institution, plus a final capstone project and exam. Students pay for each course in the sequence, complete the capstone project and exam, and earn a certificate not just for each course but for the entire sequence. The sequences are thus MOOC-based near equivalents of college majors, at least in the sense that the courses are designed by a single institution's faculty to fit together in a sequence and to generate capabilities currently demanded in the economy. 

Two good examples of the new Specializations programs are the four-course sequence in cybersecurity, a hot field with a bright future, offered by the University of Maryland with a certificate available to those who pass all four, complete a capstone project and pay $245 and the sequence of nine MOOCs in data science offered by Johns Hopkins, with certificates available to those who pass all nine, complete a capstone project and pay $490.  

MOOC Mini-Majors

It is not difficult to imagine students in the near future offering up two, three or four of these Specialization certificates in lieu of a university "major". But obstacles remain.

EdX recently experimented with matching more than 800 top-performing MOOC learners with top-tier technology companies. The results, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, were not merely disappointing but disastrous. Despite the sponsorship of edX, only three received interviews, and not one was hired. Subsequently edX has withdrawn from the 'employment agency' business.

That step may have been premature. The top-tier firms get thousands of applicants from the best university programs in computer science and information systems for every opening. Why would they be interested in experimenting with MOOC learners when they can take their pick of numerous Stanford, MIT and Purdue grads, who have shown the persistence to earn four year degrees, rubbed shoulders with top professors, and networked with other top students who will soon enter the workforce and connect up with hundreds of other hot prospects?

Meanwhile,  new business start-ups in Silicon Valley, on Massachusetts Route 128, in New York's Silicon Alley and throughout the country hunger for talent. Most organizations will not be able to compete for the top grads of the top-tier university programs. Is it not possible that edX, which is hardly an expert in the employment agency business, simply directed their efforts at the wrong job market.

One is reminded of Prof. Michael Lenox's Coursera MOOC on Business Strategy offered in February and March 2013. Lenox, a Professor at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, used crowdsourcing techniques to locate business firms and non-profit organizations willing to involve his MOOC students in their strategic planning. As Lenox said at the time:

"The concept can be applied in any number of domains, Imagine a course on graphic design where students prepare solutions for real nonprofits or a computer program course where students develop code for small startups with limited budgets. The potential is enormous."

As it turned out, the potential was enormous -  more than 100 small firms and non-profits participated in Lenox's MOOC, and close to 80% of the active student participants contributed to these organizations' strategic planning.

Now imagine a large scale effort by one of the big MOOC Platform firms to source similar organizations to provide short-term internships or apprenticeships for top performing MOOC students who have earned one or more Specialization Certificates?   My guess is that, unlike the failed edX effort with Google, Intuit, Yahoo, and other top tier firms, a crowdsourced effort to connect top MOOC learners and hungry organizations would place many learners with MOOC majors in the workforce.

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In my next post I will consider the new promise of MOOCs in providing near equivalents of course credit that some universities, faced with declining enrollment and loss of tuition dollars, can accept as transfer credit to forge efficient and affordable 'mixed-mode' degree pathways. 

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