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The Minimum Size of Academic Certification

In the last 6 years, we’ve experienced a set of phases involving online learning. In August of 2012, there was widespread speculation that “brick and mortar” residential universities were headed for replacement by the free internet-based online learning platforms. The higher education community has learned much since the hype phase of online learning.

The level of self-discipline required in multi-course online degrees appears to be much better suited to master’s level education than to bachelor’s level. Online Master’s students are often working full time, and they seek a degree in their off-hours. The motivation for the pursuit is often the hope of advancement in one’s career or the retooling to another field. They tend to be older and more mature than many bachelor’s students.

At the same time, the popularity of online learning of a different sort, short narrowly focused educational learning (e.g., Kahn Academy, has much larger appeal. Further, there is some evidence that employers value certification from shorter learning experiences. For example, in computing fields such certification is used by employers as a qualifier for technical positions (e.g., Cisco certified network associate, Microsoft certified systems engineer).

Further, MIT in the last few years has offered a “micromaster’s,” a series of 5-6 courses using the edX online platform. If the student successfully passes a proctored final examination for each course, they are awarded a micromaster’s credential. The course sequences are designed to offer a short, but integrated graduate-level treatment of a larger area (e.g., statistics and data science, supply chain management). A successful completion of the micromaster’s gives preferred entry into a related MIT Master’s degree.

Educationalists cite this feature of a micromaster’s followed by a Master’s as an example of “stackable” course sequences. It evokes a future of higher education where coursework might extend over a long period of time, with sequences taken in spurts to yield “nano” certifications, which are then eventually combined into a larger degree program. Obviously, one of the issues of such a future is how learning in such a staccato way has the equal educational value as the same courses taken in a more compressed time frame.

As evidenced by these developments, we are seeing a rethinking of what the minimum level of learning is required to be valued by students and their employers. We should admit that this is not completely new. Master’s degrees in many fields were two-year experiences, but are now increasingly one-year curricula. Many undergraduates are completing their bachelor’s degrees in less than four years.

We should expect continuous reexamination of the appropriate volume of course work that merits an academic certification. I suspect that there will be demand for shorter and shorter learning experiences to qualify for traditional degrees (i.e., bachelors, master’s). Whether shorter course experiences will be valued, I suspect, will depend on their educational design.

The sustainable new short curricula are likely to be designs that a) provide a truly integrated experience for the certification, each course building upon the prior, b) have sufficient depth that significant knowledge advances result, and c) provide the student with flexibilities for future educational choices. Drifting into packaging existing subsets of courses into new credentials without seeking those three attributes might not serve well the students we wish to educate.

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