The nonprofit MOOC platform edX, originally started by MIT and Harvard University at a time when pundits predicted large-scale online courses could replace college for some people, is trying yet another new approach, launching the first of what it calls a “MicroBachelors” program.
Each series of courses packaged as a MicroBachelors is designed to offer both immediate value on the job market as standalone credentials and also convey college credit, giving students who complete them the option of eventually applying that credit toward full bachelor’s degrees. The courses appear one year after the group won a grant to try the approach.
The first series of courses available are an IT career framework—three classes designed and credit-backed by Western Governors University—and computer science fundamentals, three classes designed by New York University that may be backed for credit by Thomas Edison State University. Soon, edX expects to add an English composition and professional writing series from Arizona State University.
The edX course catalogue already includes several dozen MicroMasters degrees, which cover a quarter to half of the material of a typical master’s program. Like their graduate counterparts, the new MicroBachelors series have no admissions requirements. Classes are self-paced, and a program with six credits should take between two and four months to finish. Completing the courses needed for a MicroBachelors will cost between $500 and $1,500, coming out to about $166 per credit.
“We’ve been focused on stackable and modular credentials for a while,” says Adam Medros, president and co-CEO of edX. “At the bachelor's level, what we thought was really important was building a credit-backed stackable credential that could ultimately power a bachelor's degree but doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a bachelor’s degree.”
The MicroBachelors program isn’t edX’s first attempt at offering so-called MOOCS, or massive open online courses, for undergraduate credit. In 2015, the nonprofit launched the Global Freshman Academy, a set of online courses backed by Arizona State University and marketed as a way for people to complete their first year of college at a low cost.
As of fall 2019, only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of people who enrolled in these courses paid to receive college credit, and fewer than 150 pursued full degrees at ASU. Five years after the academy started, edX had archived most of its more than a dozen courses, essentially discontinuing them.
Meanwhile, other researchers have found a lack of student interest in gaining credit for MOOCs. And there is a widespread sentiment in higher education that the large-scale online courses will never deliver the kinds of revolution in college access that initial hype suggested.
But the decline of the Global Freshman Academy didn’t sour edX on the concept of offering MOOCS for undergraduate credit, says Medros. Rather, the academy experiment informed the new MicroBachelors effort.
“I think it’s OK that Global Freshman Academy ultimately wasn’t as successful as we all hoped it was going to be,” Medros says. “GFA was a good learning experience for us, and it ultimately led to the evolution of the MicroBachelors.”
He argues that the new effort has several key differences from the academy program that will make it more effective. While the Global Freshman Academy was marketed toward “the 18-year-old that wasn’t in college and needed an alternative path,” Medros says, the MicroBachelors courses target working adults who want to gain skills relevant to the job market.
And rather than mimic a typical set of first-year liberal arts courses, as the academy did, the MicroBachelors courses will be designed to meet employers’ specific needs, drawing on input from companies like IBM and Boeing.
“We took the approach of saying we’re going to involve industry to define what was in demand for them,” Medros says. “If we’re building MicroBachelors around what industry needs, I think that users are going to show up to advance their careers to improve their economic outcomes.”
Students who take MOOCs for credit sometimes have trouble finding institutions that accept their transfer credits. In addition to the few institutions that are already backing the new MicroBachelors courses, edX hopes to build a network of partner colleges that will also accept these credits, Medros says.