Making Education (More) Affordable

Alternative models of education—MOOCs, coding boot camps, sites like Lynda and Treehouse—have made educators, employers, and students think again about what education really means. For example, the success of boot camp graduates has made employers reconsider the kinds of credentials they are looking for in job applicants, and making students think twice about plunking down $100,000 or more for a traditional computer science degree. But perhaps the biggest contribution these models have made is demonstrating that a high-quality education, one that will lead to a well-paying career, doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

In a recent article at The Evolllution, Chari Leader-Kelley of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning describes three major innovations—ideas that “were likely viewed as ‘fringe elements’ only five years ago”—that can greatly cut the cost of education for adults who are looking to go back to school to stay competitive in the job market. The three elements she identifies are:

1. Competency-based education and prior learning assessment. Giving students credit for prior learning based on demonstrated competencies can cut costs by reducing the number of courses learners must take to earn a degree.

2. Micro-credentials and badges. Micro-credentials and badges represent smaller pieces of education than certificates or degrees. Many such credentials are available for free, and they may be sufficient for many people who don’t actually need degrees.

3. Open online high-quality learning content. The number of quality online content options has exploded in recent years to include MOOCs, Saylor courses, open academic journals, open textbooks, and more. This content can not only be used by self-direct adult learners, but also, as in the case of open textbooks, can reduce the cost of a classroom education.

These are all promising ideas that have been gaining a good deal of momentum and are likely approaching a tipping point. In five years, we will probably hardly remember a time when competency-based education and micro-credentials weren’t the norm. And I predict this won’t just be standard in adult education, but in traditional higher education as well. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that in five years, there will be much less of a distinction between adult and traditional education, as we will all just be recognized for what we are: lifelong learners.

The current situation of high tuition and suffocating student debt is unsustainable. These three innovations are leading the way toward making education affordable—for everyone.

The Ends Versus the Means

In a post over at Slate today, Jeffrey Selingo describes how shifting demographics and the changing needs of the workforce are giving rise to “just-in-time,” lifelong education.

The pool of traditional college students is shrinking, while many people who have already graduated are going back to school in one form or another to enhance their skills. For these “nontraditional” students, the credentials are not important: they don’t need degrees; they need knowledge and skills. The problem is that the traditional college system is fundamentally at odds with the needs of these new students. As Selingo puts it: “Traditional colleges are all about the endpoint—think about the pomp and circumstance of commencement—but many MOOC students find value in simply watching a lecture or two.”

The “ends versus means” struggle is a very apt way to describe not just what is happening in higher education, but in education in general, and even in workforce training. For decades, we have used a system that is “all about the endpoint.” Degrees, grades, even cumulative exams—these are all ends of some sort. The problem is that only recently have we discovered that we have no idea the means that went into making them.

In response, there has been a growing interest in “means”—digital badges and other microcredentials. And these microcredentials are getting ever smaller, down to the size of a single competency or piece of knowledge. So far, there is no real way to track watching a single MOOC video, but this is probably on the horizon. And using Degreed, you can keep track of everything from courses you take and conferences you attend to books and articles you read, and even YouTube videos you watch. Of course, it would be silly to suggest that reading one or two articles on a topic constitutes much of an education, but over a month, a year, or a lifetime, even these ultra-microcredentials can provide a picture of the full range of an individual’s lifelong learning activities.

The question now is do we even need a new endpoint or are learning and knowledge so fluid that any endpoint we try to attach to them will risk the same fate as the degree—quickly becoming obsolete.

How to Pick a MOOC: 5 Things to Consider

Perhaps you are thinking about taking your first MOOC. Or maybe you are a serial MOOC enroller, but then never manage to finish (and sometimes never even login to) your courses. One of the biggest advantages of MOOCs is that, since they are free and open, you can dip in and out depending on your interests. But if your goal is to finish and get the most out of your course experience, here are 5 things to consider when selecting a MOOC.

1. Course length

MOOCs have a pretty low completion rate, but people are generally more likely to complete shorter courses than longer ones. When MOOCs first came out, most were structured like a traditional college course (i.e., around 13 weeks), but lately they have been becoming shorter and more modular. If you are unsure if you will be able to commit for a full 13 weeks, start with a course that is only four or six weeks long.

2. Course schedule

Many MOOCs have a structured weekly schedule, with quizzes and assignments due in specific weeks. In others, you can enroll and complete the work whenever you want. Still others have a hybrid schedule—specific start and end dates, but you can do the assignments and take the tests anytime within those dates. Check the course schedule with your own to make sure you will be able to complete the work. After you enroll, put the assignments, tests, and any other important dates into your regular calendar.

3. Available support

One of the top factors that determines whether or not students succeed in MOOCs is the support they have available. Look for MOOCs that have a solid team of teaching or community assistants as well as professors who offer regular office hours. If you are taking a MOOC for professional development, consider asking a colleague for support or even joining a group of other like-minded MOOCers.

4. Course rating

There are now MOOC providers around the world, but the experiences they offer are all different. Even within the Coursera catalog, you can often find several courses on the same topic, such as Intro to Programming. Check out these MOOC rating sites to see what former students have to say. This is also a great way to get an idea about the level of the course and the existing knowledge and skills required to succeed, which the actual course pages can sometimes underestimate.

5. Assessments

The assessments used in MOOCs can range widely, from multiple-choice exams to weekly blogs and peer-graded papers, to machine-graded computer code. Especially if you are taking a MOOC with the intention of advancing or changing your career, pick one where the assessments are things you could put into your digital portfolio (i.e., code examples rather than just multiple-choice tests). If you are taking the course just for your own enjoyment, make sure the assessment style fits with your own learning preferences. Along with assessments, look at the opportunities for certification. If you want your MOOC to count on your resume, look for one that has a verified certificate option.

Once you’ve chosen and enrolled in a MOOC, you are ready to begin your next lifelong learning venture. To help you make the most of it, check out these 5 ways to stick with your MOOC.

The Rising Power of MOOCs [Infographic]

MOOCs make learning anything and everything free and available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. They can support an unlimited number of students and are currently being taken by millions of people around the world. For more facts and figures about this rising force in higher education, check out this infographic from


MOOCs for Executive Education?

In the 2008 recession, many companies slashed their training budgets. In particular, executive education was put on the back burner. But now, with the economy recovering, businesses are starting again to focus on executive education, and Jeremy Jurgens, a managing director at the World Economic Forum, suggests that some of that attention should be turned toward MOOCs.

Jurgens advocates bringing some of the current disruptive forces in higher education to work in executive education as well. He states that traditional corporate training programs are inadequate because what executives really need is to be familiar with trends not only in their industry, but those “that emerge on the edges of their industries, or that cross over from different sectors altogether.”

The technological disruption in education can help executives learn from other industries, and MOOCs can be a key player in this arena. Here are some of the advantages he sees of using MOOCs in executive education:

Learning from the best. Jurgens writes: “It’s not difficult to see why students might prefer to listen virtually to lectures from the best minds in the field, rather than listening in person to lectures at their local institution. The same dynamic is applicable to corporate training.”

Continuous learning and lifelong. MOOCs are ideal for incorporating learning into one’s regular life and work schedule and also for helping executives “think about potentially transformational combinations of ideas at the periphery of their industries.”

Highly personalized education. As MOOCs evolve, it will be possible to use adaptive technologies to tailor the courses individually to executives’ needs.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the possible use of MOOCs for leadership training. Executive education represents yet another environment where these courses could not only be useful, but Jurgens suggests they could provide a level of training that is not currently addressed in executive education programs.

Do you think that MOOCs could be a successful tool for executive education?

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