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MOOCs and the Master's Degree

The University System of Maryland is experimenting with the use of massive open online courses to accelerate the path to an advanced degree — and the work has shed light on surprising new benefits of the MOOC format.

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It has been just about 12 months since the University System of Maryland (USM) announced a partnership with edX to deliver four MicroMasters programs: non-credit master's level courses intended to accelerate the process of earning an advanced degree. The idea was to support an "inverted admissions process." Students could try out the master's-level coursework before making the commitment to a full-on master's degree program.

Even in those earliest days, the system made no promises about the possible results they were expecting. A headline for a news release at the time used the word, "may," as in, "may accelerate [the] path to advanced degrees and save students thousands of dollars." As with much about MOOCs, nobody knew whether the "mini-master" concept would gain traction among students, let alone become a "gateway" to advanced degrees.

Now, a year into the experiment, while the gateway model might be a bit wobbly, the mini-master concept thrives for other reasons.

Opening the MOOC Gateway

USM kicked off its first massive open online course on edX in September 2016. While another institution in the system, College Park, already had a relationship with MOOC competitor Coursera, this was to be the first MOOC launched by the system itself, and the first to appear on edX. On top of that, it emphasized cross-institutional collaboration; the global health course was co-taught by faculty from the system's Baltimore campus and University College (UMUC), its online school.

The thinking behind signing a systemwide agreement with edX was "to help raise all boats," said MJ Bishop, an associate vice chancellor in the system and director of the William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation. "We work very much at the 30,000-foot level, looking at all this strategically." That means figuring out how MOOCs might fit into the individual missions of the 12 institutions making up the system — research vs. HBCU vs. regional comprehensives and so on.

Even as USM's MOOC effort was approaching lift-off, edX introduced its MicroMasters offerings, announcing 19 such programs with 14 universities. One of the founding ideas was to address changing workforce needs. By finishing several online courses on a topic, such as supply chain management, learners could prepare for "jobs of the future." At the same time, the "digital credentials" could count as credit toward a portion of an advanced degree within those participating schools.

The MicroMasters program expanded, primarily driven by the wild success demonstrated by the Georgia Institute of Technology. There, over the course of a year, an analytics program that began with 250 students in fall 2017 grew nearly five times, to more than 1,200 by fall 2018. And while the residential program could cost as much as $49,000 for an out-of-state student, the MOOC-supplemented version was less than $10,000. The gateway was wide open.

Identifying the Real Win

By February 2017, USM had joined the pack with plans to offer four edX MicroMasters, all through UMUC. (The count has since grown to six, five of which UMUC is producing.) At the time, university faculty estimated that between 20 and 50 percent of the institution's master's degrees could be completed through the MicroMasters programs.

Those initial MOOCs drew 135,000 unique students. So far, said Bishop, 5,816 have signed up for the "verified track" — meaning they would be eligible to apply to the university if they passed a specific set of MOOC courses — and 2,788 verified learners have succeeded in passing the track. Out of that total, she estimated, "about a hundred" have matriculated into UMUC as full master's students.

By those measures, the success rate has been less a gateway and more a needle eye. For every 10,000 students enrolled in the original MOOCs, seven headed to a USM institution to pursue their advanced degrees.

But that's not the end of the story. As Bishop added, "If those verified learners are utilizing those certificates to go and advance their careers, then as far as we're concerned, that's a win."

So, can that stand-alone credential also play nicely with a master's degree? Bishop isn't yet convinced. On one hand, she explained, building those stand-alone credentials requires pulling together relevant concepts from a variety of traditional courses and putting them together into a MOOC format. On the other hand, "When we unpack that and try to bring that student back into the master's program, how does all of that come back together into something that makes sense? I feel a little bit like these things might be mutually exclusive, and combining them as we are right now is a little problematic."

At the same time, there are fears from some individuals in the system that as an online provider of education, UMUC is "poaching" from itself by engaging in MicroMasters. The thinking is this: Those who go the distance through MOOCs will be doing so at a "greatly reduced cost" while others "are coming through the usual admission process." Similarly, what will the student think who has paid full price on tuition when he or she learns there's a MicroMasters equivalent for part of the program? Will there be demands for refunds or course shortcuts?

"We're wrestling with these questions. We're trying to demonstrate how the verified track adds value and also trying to make sure that we're clear about what's part of our 'secret sauce' in the usual degree programs versus the things we're putting into these pathways," said Bishop. "This is all very much experimental for everybody engaged. I think everybody is trying to sort out where it fits in."

The poaching qualms might create a bigger hurdle for future MicroMasters ambitions if the data didn't belie the worries. By digging into the MOOC numbers, the university system has discovered that some 120,000 learners participated in the MOOC "never having approached UMUC before. They'd never inquired. There was no record of them having ever had interest in UMUC before," said Bishop. "Essentially, 98.2 percent of the learners out of that 135,000 were previously unknown to the institution."

Just as importantly, the data was showing a MOOC student population quite different from what UMUC was accustomed to attracting to its online programs. UMUC has traditionally appealed to adult learners overseas, especially those in the military. "Now," said Bishop, "they're reaching a very different kind of international audience." As a result of those findings, the institution "is in the process of trying to pivot their marketing," she noted.

At its foundation, the MicroMasters effort has become a branding and recruitment coup — whether for career acceleration or master's gateways — that should lay poaching worries to rest.

The Future of MOOC Data

In the meantime, new data generated by those MOOCs and MicroMasters programs keeps rolling in, no doubt containing additional potential insights. And that is a story in itself. As part of their contractual agreements with edX, institutions are obligated to appoint a "data czar," somebody who works with the data to make it usable by the schools so they can act on what they discover. Typically, that individual will come out of the institutional research area.

In the case of a systemwide contract, the system also needs to appoint a czar. But at USM, Bishop said, the "folks doing data analysis are pretty well strapped with everything else they're already doing." As an alternative, the system chose to contract out for the edX data management services it needed. HelioCampus was perhaps the obvious choice, since it originated at UMUC to begin with.

"UMUC began experiencing unprecedented enrollment volatility, and we tripled down on our use of analytics to navigate a path forward," recalled HelioCampus CEO Darren Catalano, who previously served as vice president of analytics at UMUC. "We had a very successful outcome — so much so that the [System] Board of Regents spun us out into a separate company and gave us a $10 million seed investment."

Now the company uses its data warehouse and data analytics expertise to do work — not just edX-related, but any kind of data work — for a multitude of institutions, including community colleges, four-year schools and entire systems. The agreements are subscription-based and last for between three and five years. Why that lengthy duration? As Catalano pointed out, "Analytics is not a project. You're building a capability on campus, and it's a multi-year journey that's never done."

Paul Walsh would concur. He serves as program director for USMx, USM's edX platform, working at the system level. He's also the liaison between the system and participating institutions. While HelioCampus has helped with preparing the edX data and offering it in different reports or dashboards, one of Walsh's jobs is to support the creation of a "community of practice" within the individual universities to help their people learn how to use the edX data "to answer questions related to enrollment, marketing and research and prioritize what is most important to the institution."

Somewhere in that data, the future is sending out signals. For example, while the emphasis on the mini-masters concept has so far neglected undergraduate education, edX is starting to explore the idea of "micro bachelors." While those might help somebody accelerate through a four-year degree, more likely — if the MicroMasters model holds shape — they could see a pending graduate through preparation for the workforce, by adding, for example, a coding or user design certificate to an English major's portfolio.

Then there's the market for post-degree professional certificates. Those could be a ramp-up of certificates like the one currently being offered out of the College Park campus for agile project management, which costs $562.50 for five courses. "If you've been working as a project manager for the last 10 years, you probably don't have any credential in agile or scrum. They're seeing a need and filling it from a professional development standpoint," Walsh said. "That is pretty successful right now."

Time and the data will help much of this get sorted out, he added. "Our institutions are excited about what the MicroMasters could be. But after some of these programs run for three years or maybe a little bit longer, they'll want to do some re-evaluation as to which ones they want to keep on the edX platform and which might be getting to a sunset point."

In the meantime, USM and its ilk need to continue building up their data super powers, suggested Catalano. "My opinion is, no one has figured this out yet. Not a specific school, not a specific vendor. We're still in the early stages of getting good analytics in higher education."

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