Published on 2013/06/24

To Degree, Or Not to Degree?

To Degree, Or Not to Degree?
Students interested in learning for learning’s sake should turn toward MOOCs. However, if an individual’s objective is career advancement or change, a traditional degree or certificate is still the most effective option.

For some people, the thirst for knowledge can never be fully quenched. In many cases, people who want to expand their education enroll in college courses and/or programs. However, with the rapid rise of institutions such as Khan Academy and resources like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, are degree programs becoming a thing of the past?

Traditionally, people who hold a degree are able to prove they have a certain level of expertise in their chosen field. Additionally, many institutions offer certificate programs that also demonstrate to potential employers that the certificate holder has a certain level of knowledge about the program in question.

For the most part, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) do not offer college credit, only completion certificates. Outside of academia, these types of certifications are common, especially in the information technology (IT) sector. People who have worked in IT are very familiar with vendor-based product knowledge certifications.

Additionally, some students may not do well with the “firehose” content delivery style of a MOOC. Some students may prefer to attend lectures in person, where they can ask questions as they arise, rather than having to e-mail an instructor and wait for a response.

So where do these MOOCs fit into the equation of expanding one’s education? One possible reason for attending a MOOC would be if a person wanted to learn about a subject for personal gain. With MOOCs being in the early adoption phase, many employers still prefer traditional degrees and/or industry-specific certificates.

For those considering a return to college, attending a MOOC may be a great way to get warmed up for college courses. However, the final decision on whether or not to attend a MOOC, or whether to pursue a traditional university-based degree or certificate plan, is up to the individual.

When people consider taking the plunge into expanding their academic horizons, taking their “end goal” into consideration can often be the most influential factor on which direction to take. Is their goal to simply learn for their own benefit, or is the goal to switch (or enhance) their current career? Since most employers still prefer university degrees and/or professional certificates, a person wanting to advance his or her career should look at these traditional offerings.

In the case of people who want to learn more than what they can obtain from educational television programming, enrolling in a MOOC may be the better course of action.

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Readers Comments

Stephanie Ritchie 2013/06/24 at 10:26 am

This is a great break-down of the different reasons someone would go back to school. It’s so important that we’ve finally created a pathway for lifelong learners with no particular career goals in mind to enrich their minds and lives without having to pay out the nose.

I see MOOCs becoming the Osher of the future, except open to everyone — not just seniors.

Chelsea Bellows 2013/06/24 at 4:22 pm

As undergraduate degrees become more expensive and out of the reach of many Americans, employers are opening up to the idea of non-traditional learning and credentials. Sanders’ advice to stay the path well traveled rather than pursuing new, innovative opportunities is shortsighted.

Ray Sanders 2013/07/02 at 12:13 pm


Shortsighted? While the landscape of education *IS* changing, the vast majority of employers are still preferring a traditional degree.

Some specialized industries do place value on training certificates for industry specific skills, but in many cases, that training often rivals the cost of an entire semester at a public university.

That being said, I love the idea of MOOC’s, groups like Khan Academy, and MIT’s OpenCourseware. Easier/better access to education is a great thing.

At the end of the day though, how do you demonstrate mastery of the skills and concepts learned in a MOOC?

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