Are nano degrees the future?

Massive Open Online Courses haven’t lived up to the hype but may prove useful yet

<p>Blend Images/Hill Street Studios</p>

Blend Images/Hill Street Studios

In 2011, higher education watchers were all buzzing about “massive open online courses” (MOOCs for short). Online course software had reached a point where professors could give away their lectures to thousands of students simultaneously.

Many predicted a revolution. Some said MOOCs would allow poor students to finally gain access to education. Others predicted some traditional schools would no longer be able to compete and be forced to shut down.

A few years later, companies like Coursera and edX have convinced many of the world’s leading universities, including Toronto, the University of British Columbia and McGill, to offer some freebies. There are thousands of courses and hundreds of thousands participating.

While it’s still early, neither of the two big disruptions has come to pass.

One of the biggest studies to date showed that rather than helping the poor, most MOOC participants already have degrees and are among the wealthiest classes, even in developing countries. It seems those who didn’t make it through a traditional college aren’t motivated to plod away at online modules, even if they’re free.

That’s not to say that MOOCs aren’t useful. There is a group that’s quite motivated to complete them: those who want to upgrade their skills to advance their careers.

Udacity, one of the biggest private MOOC providers, has recognized this and is moving ahead with its strategy to offer what it calls “nano degrees.” These will be groups of courses that working people can take part-time. The degrees will be “compact, flexible and job-focused credentials that are stackable.” The first few will focus on various forms of IT, like mobile application development. An early partnership with AT&T will reserve up to 100 paid internships for graduates.

While some say nano degrees are the disruption everyone was waiting for—the New York Times called them “A smart way to skip college”—educators are more cautious.

Sidneyeve Matrix, an associate professor of media at Queen’s University, sees some value but says they’re being oversold as a replacement for traditional credentials.

“This is trying to revive the whole idea of, ‘universities and colleges are going to be over because of online learning,’ ” she says. “But traditional credentials are in demand by employers because [universities and colleges] have strong brands.”

Employers appreciate the broad education, socialization and soft skills that are gained by studying on a physical campus, she says. “If there’s a company  looking for an employee from a more well-rounded background, who can work across [business] units, who has communication skills … this wouldn’t compare.”

“You hire someone from Waterloo because you know what you’re getting,” she adds.

Researchers from Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education recently interviewed dozens of professors and administrators and found that most, like Matrix, believed MOOCs wouldn’t dramatically affect traditional schools. They did, however, expect to see more innovations resembling MOOCs, such as “flipped classrooms,” where lecture content is delivered online before class, freeing up classroom time for more “active learning” like class discussions.

The authors of the study agreed. “We ourselves expect that MOOCs or their derivatives will continue to play a role in the continuing education of working professionals, in experimentation with various types of blended or hybrid delivery models on campus, and in efforts to help struggling students find low-risk options to build skills that allow them to test out of developmental education courses,” they wrote.

Translation: don’t expect a higher education revolution anytime soon.