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Coursera Specializations Forge New Pipelines for Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Coursera Specializations Forge New Pipelines for Institutions
Coursera Specializations provide added value to students and create significant opportunities for institutions.

The following interview is with Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education, distance learning and summer session at UC Irvine. Coursera’s Specializations are a new set of programming developed by the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider where students can master a skill by taking a targeted sequence of courses. UC Irvine Extension recently entered into this space by offering 12 courses across four different topics. In this interview, Matkin discusses the move and expands on UC Irvine Extension’s plans to continue to grow through MOOCs.

1. Why did you decide to expand UC Irvine’s work with Coursera into the Specializations realm?

UC Irvine (UCI) has been a part of the Open Courseware Movement virtually from the start over 12 years ago. We got into MOOCs simply because we felt that MOOCs were yet another version of Open Courseware. As the MOOC phenomenon took off, we wanted to be right there with that movement to provide free education to people around the world. It was logical for us to become a MOOC provider. Luckily we chose Coursera as a partner early on because they were, and are still, the leader in providing MOOCs to people around the world.

2. From a workforce and economy perspective, what is the value of making skills-gap-closing courses accessible to anyone at any time?

Let’s take for one example, the audience we at UCI are most concerned about—UCI undergraduate students. Corporate employers, while they appreciate the knowledge that newly graduated students bring into their workforce, often find these same people not able to fully function in a workforce situation. This is simply because they don’t have the knowledge of the culture, the background of business, the way to interact with people, the way to interact on teams, and maybe even most importantly the way to communicate with others either orally or through written expression. We sought to fill the gap in knowledge of our students who obviously want to be competitive in the marketplace for jobs once they graduate.

We felt that this particular set of courses in career readiness and project management would help those students to be able to adjust from the world of school to the world of work, and also help them become competitive as they find jobs after they graduated.

3. From UC Irvine’s perspective, how does it benefit the institution to offer Coursera Specialization courses?

It’s yet another example of UC Irvine being in the forefront of movements to spread knowledge around the world. Obviously, as a public and a land-grant institution, we’re very interested in our public service aspect: Trying to extend our knowledge base to an ever-broadening set of audiences. The MOOC phenomenon provides us the ability to do that. While there’s been a lot of talk about business models and how this is all going to work out with regard to finances and so forth, our initial and still very strong impulse has been the public service aspect of this. Coursera and MOOCs have been a really good avenue for us to fulfill those traditions of the university.

4. Do UC Irvine’s MOOCs lead neatly into any of the programs offered by the institution?

We hope so. The project management certificate is [a good] example. We’re offering it through Coursera as a MOOC. It’s a basics course. Although it does meet the educational requirements from a certificate of the Project Management Institute, it would be the exceptional student who could do that and learn enough to be able to pass the exam.

Instead, what we hope is that the people taking that Coursera certificate sequence would have a general knowledge of what needed to be learned and then they could go into a UCI certificate program in project management and get the real depth they need in order to pass the PMI exam.

We do feel that we’re both providing a service—the survey notion of the field—as well as the full body of knowledge of project management. At the same time, after that we’re providing much more in-depth information and instruction to our certificate program.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the move to Coursera Specializations and how these types of programs support the institution as well as allow the institution to support the community?

What we’re hoping is that our career readiness and our project management programs on Coursera will first and foremost serve our own students and then, by extension, serve students from other universities who are seeking the same sort of information our own students are seeking. That broadens the scope of our public service aspect and also provides a really good service to students across the country and also to employers who theoretically would get students or employees coming right out of school being ready to work directly in the workforce.

Beyond that, what’s happening is that these course sequences are a strategy by the MOOC providers to increase the inventory of courses and options that they have. The MOOC industry is in danger of having a very huge slowdown in the number of courses that are being offered as the financial reality of institutions involved in MOOCs becomes clear.

What they’ve done is they’ve tried to increase the appeal to both the audience and the institutions by developing these course frequencies, which provide a deeper level of knowledge and understanding than just a single course. This is part of an overall strategy that works both for Coursera and other MOOC providers but also is a very logical way to approach any body of knowledge where you have the ability to go a little bit more in depth than has been possible in some of the other MOOCs.

This interview has been edited for length.

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