Published on 2016/03/29
The EvoLLLution | Assessing the Impact of Emerging Credentials
While unaccredited education providers have unquestionably shaken up the postsecondary space, their lasting impact may not be as significant as first thought.

When it comes to professional education, many of today’s students are looking for flexibility, competency and recognition in the workforce from their programming. When Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers and other unaccredited education providers emerged on the scene and began offering their own microcredentials, college and university leaders prepared for the worst. Some began introducing innovative credentials of their own. In this interview, Daniel Szpiro reflects on the competitive landscape of higher education today and shares his thoughts on the true impact of microcredentials and nanodegrees.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the competitive advantages non-degree arms of higher education institutions have over non-institutional entities (like Udacity)?

Daniel Szpiro (DS): The recent hype around technology-facilitated learning has allowed our focus on some underlying—and unchanged—truths about learning get blurred.

First, organizations like Udacity (or Udemy or Coursera) are not institutes of higher education and learning; they are merely conduits for the knowledge and insights developed (for the most part) at higher education institutes. In other words, Udacity, Udemy and Coursera are simply service providers for access to the knowledge created by subject matter experts who typically reside at higher education institutes.

Second, the majority of the learning experts who are studying the effectiveness of various forms of technology-facilitated learning are not employees of Udacity, Udemy, or Coursera. They are academics who are employed at higher ed institutions. Thanks to where this research is being done, these service providers not only depend upon traditional universities and college for most of their content but for the source of innovation as well.

Third, technology-facilitated learning is too often incorrectly depicted as a competitive threat to traditional classroom-based learning. Analysis has shown, however, that participants in the courses offered by these service providers were not considering traditional classroom-based learning as an alternative: the accessibility offered by online learning did not come at the cost of an empty seat in a classroom.

Focusing specifically on non-degree and non-credit courses, traditional institutions of higher education still enjoy a competitive advantage with respect to recognition and credibility. For anyone tempted to list such courses on his or her resume today, it is still more likely for a potential employer to notice, say, a course from an Ivy League or highly ranked university than from a learning content service provider.

Finally—and this is a biggie—successful traditional universities and colleges have an existing tuition base from on-ground courses that provides a financial foundation upon which to experiment and build technology-facilitated offerings. In contrast, while they have received significant coverage in the press, service providers like Udacity, Udemy, and Coursera are still struggling to finesse a sustainable business model from the MOOC origins.

Evo: Conversely, what are a few of the advantages these non-institutional entities have over non-credit higher education providers?

DS: Learning content service providers like Udacity, Udemy, and Coursera can contact subject matter experts and work with them to produce courses in areas where traditional academic institutions may not typically enter (e.g., hobbies, cooking).

Additionally, without having an installed base of faculty, the learning service providers can potentially be more agile in developing courses that meet the emerging interests of learners. However, given the increasing investment by many traditional academic institutions in developing and offering technology-facilitated learning, it is not clear how long the non-academic learning service providers may enjoy an advantage of agility.

Evo: How has the increasing popularity of microcredentials impacted the competitive non-credit marketplace?

DS: What has actually increased recently is the popularity of offering microcredentials. It remains to be seen if such a feature holds any real appeal to learners or employers.

To be of any value, a credential must be recognized. The sine qua non of credentials when it comes to confirmation of learning is a university degree and service providers like Udacity, Udemy, and Coursera cannot compete in that space today. For a non-academic organization to offer a credential like a certificate of completion is simple but potentially meaningless. We typically pay respect to credentials that are earned through some form of assessment and verification. It is not clear that a “microcredential” or “nanodegree” offered by a service provider will carry any more weight on a resume than a list of books you read on your summer vacation without any form of credible assessment to verify any learning that took place.

On a related note, I can imagine a legal challenge for any non-accredited, non-academic organization claiming it will grant a “nanodegree” for the completion of a course. Clearly that organization would face a legal challenge if it were to claim it granted a “degree” so the prefix “nano” does not change that.

Evo: What are some of the challenges facing non-credit higher education leaders when it comes to delivering their own more diverse set of microcredentials?

DS: The uncertainty of the appeal of non-credit microcredentials applies to those offered both by higher education institutions as well as non-academic organizations like Udacity, Udemy, and Coursera.

If growing interest in these non-degree microcredentials does occur, then the learning service providers can potentially adapt to the demand faster than traditional academic institutions. The latter group tends to have more difficulty thinking outside the necessary constraints of credit-bearing courses (length, rigor, learning outcomes, assessment) while much of this is an afterthought—rather than a prerequisite—for the learning service providers.

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Key Takeaways

  • While increasing numbers of microcredential and nanodegree programs are emerging, it’s unclear whether these programs are actually beneficial for students.
  • At present, unaccredited education providers are agile enough to develop innovative credentials more quickly than established colleges and universities, but this is changing.
  • The brand power of colleges and universities makes their offerings more valuable to students than those of unaccredited providers, especially when it comes to employer recognition.