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Lumina Foundation Interviews edX about New MicroMasters® Programs

It may seem an unlikely investment for Lumina Foundation—which focuses on Americans acquiring degrees, certificates, or other high-quality credentials—to support edX’s MicroMasters programs. But something fascinating is going on at edX that may make it a canary in the coal mine for the future of learning. I recently interviewed the project lead for this grant, Nina Huntemann, director of academics and research at edX, to see how the work is going.

What is your “elevator speech” for explaining a MicroMasters program?

A MicroMasters program is an online, open-admissions program comprising four to six graduate-level courses offered by edX and one of our partner universities. All programs are industry-endorsed, credit-eligible if the learner selects the certificate option, and can be used to apply toward a traditional master’s degree program if the learner wishes to continue her or his education and is admitted to the university’s graduate school. Completion of the certificate will satisfy 25 to 50 percent of the traditional master’s degree credit requirements, upon acceptance to a campus program.

When did the MicroMasters initiative work start?

We offered the first MicroMasters program in supply-chain management from MIT in fall 2015; it was a proof-of-concept if you will. We then started developing a suite of MicroMasters programs in summer 2016. The plan called for launching 10 programs in the first year of the Lumina grant, but we have launched 35 programs to date, all available for enrollment ─ and we continue to add many others.

Why has this gone so much faster than predicted?

Interest in the blended master’s degree model from our university partners has been incredible. With the launch of supply chain management, our partners quickly realized the potential for expanding access to advanced, career-focused education as well as pioneering new pathways to full master’s degrees. People often criticize academia for moving slowly, but when the value of innovation is so clear, in our experience colleges and universities are eager to participate.

What are the enrollment numbers so far?

The projection when we started was to reach 200,000 students enrolled by the end of the first year. Nine months in, we had more than 1.3 million people signed up.

There’s the widespread perception that most learners enrolling in edX programs have degrees, that learners enroll to update their skills or learn new skills—but not acquire new credentials. Is this true for the MicroMasters programs, and are you able to reach new populations without prior degrees or college?

It’s a yes-and-no answer. Many enrollees do have degrees. So far, we have seen that 2.4 percent (31,641) have a doctorate; 25.6 percent (334,624) have a master’s or professional degree; 36.4 percent (476,156) have a bachelor’s degree, and 4.7 percent (61,573) have an associate degree.

What’s very interesting is that 22 percent of 33,388 learners we surveyed indicated they had completed an associate degree or lower level of education. So, we’re reaching some learners in the MicroMasters program who are below the bachelor’s level of formal education: 16.5 percent (215,364) report secondary/high school as highest level of education; 1.4 percent (18,397), junior high/middle school; 0.20 percent (2,591), elementary/primary; 0.22 percent (2,835), no formal education; and 1.8 percent (23,303), other education. The remainder have less education or didn’t report their level of education.

We’re instituting marketing campaigns to target the populations with “no prior college” and “some college but no credential.” One of the challenges in this work is understanding whether the baccalaureate degree is required for entry into various careers. For the campaign targeted toward “no college” and “some college” learners in the United States, for example, we identified MicroMasters programs that would be most accessible for learners without a postsecondary education based on job postings and labor market data. The programs open for enrollment and for which a bachelor’s degree are not required for employment right now are project management (Rochester Institute of Technology) and user experience research and design (University of Michigan).

EdX reaches a global audience. Who is enrolling in these programs, and how many of the enrollees are from the United States?

The top five countries enrolling in these programs are the United States at 17.8 percent (232,777); India, 10.6 percent (138,072); Canada, 3.5 percent (45,975); United Kingdom, 3.3 percent (43,092); and Brazil, 2.9 percent (38,467). All other countries accounted for 56.8 percent (743,131), so there are many more countries than these five who have learners enrolling in the MicroMasters programs.

Where does the content for MicroMasters programs come from?

Right now, 23 universities from 10 nations are providing programs within the MicroMasters suite of 35 programs. Here are the universities partnering with edX and what they offer:

Location

University

MicroMasters Program

Australia

Australia National University Evidence-Based Management
Curtin University Human Rights
Marketing in a Digital World
University of Adelaide Big Data
University of Queensland Leadership in Global Development

Belgium

Universite Catholique de Louvain International Law
Management

Canada

University of British Columbia Software Development

Germany

The RWTH Aachen University Managing Technology & Innovation: How to Deal with Disruptive Change

Guatemala

Galileo University Professional Android Developer
e-Learning: crea actividades y contenidos para la ensenanza virtual

Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University International Hospitality Management

India

Indian Institute of Management—Bangalore Business Management
Entrepreneurship

Netherlands

Delft University of Technology Solar Energy Engineering
Wageningen University & Research Biobased Sciences for Sustainability

Spain

Universitat Politecnica de Valencia Liderazgo y trabajo en equipo en grupos de major continua

United States

Arizona State University: Thunderbird School of Global Management International Business Management
Boston University Digital Leadership
Digital Project Management
Columbia University Artificial Intelligence
Business Analytics
The Georgia Institute of Technology Analytics: Essential Tools & Methods
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Supply Chain Management
Rochester Institute of Technology Project Management
Cybersecurity
University of California San Diego Data Science
University of Michigan User Experience (UX) Research & Design
Leading Educational Innovation & Improvement
Social Work: Practice, Policy & Research
University of Pennsylvania Robotics
University System of Maryland, University of Maryland University College Cloud Computing
Software Testing & Verification
Bioinformatics
Instructional Design & Technology

How are you ensuring the participating universities have demonstrated curriculum strength in the targeted program areas?

We issue requests for proposals (RFPs) for MicroMasters programs that reflect the top skills identified by our corporate advisory board members and in-demand jobs that surfaced from labor market data. We also know our university partners well, both their curriculum and employability strengths. So we match the strengths of our partners with the targeted programs. We also connect corporate advisory board members directly with university partners to help design MicroMasters programs to meet the knowledge and skills needed for in-demand jobs. For example, Shell was connected with the Delft University of Technology (in the Netherlands) to help shape the MicroMasters solar energy program.

One of the concerns of online programs is they won’t deliver the same quality as traditional programs.

Yes, one of the challenges is the quality question: Are we able to implement robust online academic integrity mechanisms to assure students gain college credit for the learning and use that knowledge to continue their education if they wish to in a traditional master’s degree program? To ensure academic integrity we have instituted several mechanisms such as:

  1. virtual proctoring;
  2. building automatic cohorts so learners on the verified certificate track can receive different content and assessments than students on the audit (non-credit-eligible track);
  3. platform capabilities that support assessments including timed exams, peer or hand grading for open-response questions, and randomized test banks; and
  4. accessibility support.

We’re also building other improvements into the platform for these programs. For instance, we’ve developed processes to enable stackable courses and pathways that give students greater choice and flexibility to complete multi-course sequences and MicroMasters programs. Also, we’ve devised analytics and dashboards to support students while they learn and to help course development teams create highly engaging and effective learning experiences.

How are you ensuring that employers will be interested in hiring those who complete MicroMasters programs?

We have an active Corporate Advisory Board that provides curriculum input and industry endorsements for the MicroMasters programs. The board is helping edX establish the MicroMasters credential as an industry standard. Nineteen companies are represented, including Google, McKinsey & Co., Samsung Group, General Electric Co., Accenture, Boeing Corp., Hilton Hotels, Burning Glass, Shell Oil Co., and IBM. We surveyed the board to ask, “what are the top skills and programs employers are seeking from candidates for in-demand jobs?” We have used this information to select MicroMasters programs from our university partners. We’re only selecting programs with demonstrated curriculum strength in targeted program areas that will meet the knowledge and skill needs of employers.

EdX has jumped out of the gate quickly with the MicroMasters programs. Do you project this growth to continue?

We believe much of our growth is due to the interest of the universities in offering their programs through the MicroMasters approach (three times our expected number). Given the level of interest from employers and learners, coupled with growing interest in offering programs from our partnering universities, we do project substantial growth in the next year.

What’s the biggest takeaway from this work so far?

EdX’s mission is to expand access to high-quality, career-relevant education at a fraction of the price of traditional education pathways. We’re on track on our mission and on a steady path to meet increasing needs by learners and employers. We have already announced our next expansion plans—to introduce 16 new programs across in-demand fields such as business analytics, digital product management, cyber security, and data science with 12 prestigious university partners.

Are you seeing learners change what they’re interested in? Do you see this model needing to evolve over time?

Academic credit remains an integral part of edX’s goals because we’re continuing to see that learners not only want courses that provide certificates but also programs that will lead to credentials to help them professionally. Our MicroMasters programs are seeing wider-than-expected adoption, by both our university partners who are developing credit-backed MicroMasters programs and by learners. We expected to be at 400,000 students enrolled by this time; again, we are well over 1 million people signed up. We believe the large volume of students we’re continuing to attract, coupled with their willingness to pay small fees for verified certificates and the MicroMasters credentials, speak volumes about the future of this delivery system for learners from many backgrounds.

The final question is about cost. How are these options low-cost?

Compared to a traditional master’s degree program, the MicroMasters credential is a fraction of the cost, both regarding tuition and time. The cost of a master’s degree program varies widely; several thousand dollars or more is common. A MicroMasters credential ranges between $600 and $1,500 and is designed to be a stand-alone credential—meaning that further study may not be needed for launching or advancing a career. If a learner does pursue a master’s degree and is accepted into a campus program, the time to complete the degree is reduced by a quarter to a half.


Here are my takeaways from edX’s progress in launching the new MicroMasters programs:

  • Credentialing is a global issue. We’re going to see more collaboration among universities from many nations, reaching out to serve students from many nations.
  • These programs appear to be able to serve learners whose highest level of education is below the bachelor’s degree, although it will be important to follow completion and employment data for all students in these programs. With the increasing imperative to serve “no-college” and “some college but no credential” populations, we should see this approach as an important solution to expanding access to postsecondary credentialing.
  • Employers will step up and play a needed role in alignment with education when their priority interests are at stake.
  • Data on high-demand professions and data collected from job ads are significant sources for future program planning.
  • Often viewed as traditional in their actions, the more prestigious institutions can be innovative and provide leadership to the field regarding new models of delivery to hard-to-serve populations of learners.
  • Issues of academic rigor and quality are vital, no matter the institution providing the programs.
  • Pathways from nontraditional MicroMasters certificate to traditional master’s programs are in process, demonstrating the important principle that learning counts wherever it is acquired.

Next year, we’ll revisit the edX MicroMasters programs to see what transpires, especially to see how many learners complete their programs and improve their employment prospects as a result. We hope there will be much significant new information to share.

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FEATURED VIDEO
edX MicroMasters
edX MicroMasters
September 23, 2016

MicroMasters programs are a series of graduate level courses from top universities designed to advance your career. They provide deep learning in a specific career field and are recognized by employers for their real job relevance. Students may apply to the university offering credit for the MicroMasters certificate and, if accepted, can pursue an accelerated and less expensive Master’s Degree.