Coursera Specializations

Just before my visit to the company last week, Coursera announced a new program called Coursera Specializations that will allow students to use success on specific sets of individual courses to earn a special certificate designed to communicate mastery of a body of knowledge in areas such as education, technology and reasoning/analysis.

Each specialization is sponsored by a college or university offering courses through the Coursera platform and requires passing 3-9 courses in a particular discipline.  A Specialization in Data Science offered by Johns Hopkins, for instance, requires a student to pass nine Hopkins MOOCs in areas such as Statistical Inference and Regression Models (each course four weeks in length), while a Duke University Specialization in Reasoning, Data Analysis and Writing requires students to pass three 10-12 week courses (including my first MOOC: Think Again: How to Reason and Argue).

Students participating in the Specialization program must take each course under Coursera’s Signature Track umbrella, designed to add a layer of security to the program (as well as up enrollments in the company’s most successful fee-based initiative – which I’ll get to in a minute).  And, in an interesting twist, earning a Specialization certificate (rather than just 3-9 Signature Track ones) requires passing a capstone project that ties together learning from all the courses in the series.

Since only two Specializations are currently live, the nature of these capstone projects is still unclear, although numbers and timing might make them suitable for professional human grading, rather than the type of automated scoring and peer-grading that currently places limitations on how rigorously learning can be evaluated within a standard MOOC.

This new program continues an evolution in credentailization that is taking place within the wider MOOC experiment.  For MOOC courses are understandably compared to similar courses taken in a traditional “for-credit” residential environment, while actual degrees are something residential schools offer but MOOCs do not.

Signature Track enhances the value of individual courses somewhat, which is why a subset of MOOC students have plunked down $50 to take the same course others are taking for free.  But Specializations is an academic offering that has no clear parallel in conventional two- and four-year academic degree programs.  The closest parallel I can come up with would be the kind of focused training one receives in order to pass a high-stakes certification exam in areas such as IT management.  And it is the very “in-betweenedness” of the Specialization credential that makes the program intriguing as a new “Undegree” method for demonstrating expertise.

In my upcoming MIT Press book, I look at why Signature Track (which seems to draw revenue primarily from older, educated learners) has become one of the few money-earning MOOC-related programs (as opposed to programs targeted at undergraduate-age students who have so far shown little interest in using them to earn actual college credit, even for pennies on the dollar).

The thesis that people will spend lots of time on self-improvement, but only spend money as an investment in future earnings or savings seems to be holding out with regard to Signature Track which (at least based on the – admittedly – anecdotal data I’ve seen) is attracting older learners with disposable income who have a clear path to turning their MOOC experience into dollars saved or made.

While the numbers of students who complete most MOOCs is generally in the four (vs. five or six) figure range, it’s not entirely clear why significant percentages of those thousands (especially in disciplines tightly tied to employment or job training such as computing and education) wouldn’t opt for Signature Track.  Taking an education MOOC for $50 vs. nothing makes no sense if your goal is self-edification.  But if the Signature Track version of that course could be recognized for professional-development (PD) credit by a school, student-teachers won’t compare it to free but to more costly and inconvenient choices they have to meet PD requirements for their profession.

Specializations provide a way to make Signature Track certification count for something bigger than just a single course, and if they can be enhanced with capstones that are well designed and rigorously graded, there is no reason the program cannot grow into the first MOOC-originated alternative (or supplement) to traditional degree options.

As with any such program (which combines educational and business model experiments) the key ingredient for success is going to be time.  I know from experience how long it takes employers to develop a comfort level with any new type of credential, but as the success of IT certification programs attest, credentials that don’t require a college degree can become more important than a diploma when it comes to obtaining a job in certain professions.

It will also take time to see if Specializations can work chronologically for enough students, given the type of concentrated commitment needed to finish so many courses offered on a fixed calendar.  And it will take time for the first generation of Specialization enrollees working through the program to spot the holes which program developers will have to fill.

Finally, it will take time for the market to become comfortable with the fact that paid-for credentialization for a certain subset of students is compatible with an overall MOOC program still happy to offer free education for those who are just interested in learning for its own sake.

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