Big employers such as AT&T Inc. and Google Inc. are helping to design and fund the latest round of low-cost online courses, a development that providers say will open the door for students to earn inexpensive credentials with real value in the job market, The Wall Street Journal reports.

New niche certifications being offered by providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are aimed at satisfying employers’ specific needs. Available at a fraction of the cost of a four-year degree, they represent the latest crack in the monopoly traditional universities have in credentialing higher education.

“The common denominator [among the new MOOC certification programs] is that there really is an interest in finding credentials that don’t require a student to buy the entire degree,” said Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford University computer-science professor who co-founded Udacity, a MOOC with 1.6 million enrolled students in 200 countries. “This is really democratizing education at its best.”

MOOCs began gaining wide popularity two years ago when three providers started offering high-quality online courses free to anyone. Millions of people have taken the classes, but most MOOCs don’t lead toward degrees or help students land jobs.

That is beginning to change. Last week, Udacity announced the Open Education Alliance, which allows students to earn a free certificate based on a series of online courses developed with input from Google and AT&T, among several other companies.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with its MOOC partner edX, is starting a course sequence called the XSeries, and plans to ask for input from a consortium of about 50 companies, including United Parcel Service Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. For up to $700, students will be able to take a test and earn a “verified certificate” in subjects like computer science and supply-chain management.

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