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MOOCs vs. a Degree: What’s the Real Value of an Education?

Two years ago Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were all the rage. Elite universities were lining up to partner with MOOC providers, such as Coursera, and they were free to boot. MOOCs had something new, cool, and disruptive to how larger institutions provided curriculum. But they also had one major flaw: Few people took them seriously, including me.

I would sign up for dozens of Coursera MOOCs, download some material, watch a few videos and call it good. Very few did I actually complete and even then I just watched the videos and took some notes, never engaging in any of the forums, discussions, or the exams. There was little true incentive to stay 100 percent engaged in the course. In fact, most people don’t. According to recent analysis of MOOCs, only 10 percent of registered students actually complete the course.

Still, with enrollment reaching hundreds of thousands, MOOCs are providing access to higher education to the masses—just maybe not the masses they originally expected to reach. As The New York Times article “Demystifying the MOOC” shows, most people enrolled in MOOCs already have a degree.

So with high numbers of enrollment from educated users, but low completion rates, what now? Until recently, no one had cracked that code. Now Coursera is making a run at it with Specializations—a series of classes strung together to provide an elite university certificate for a minimal fee, especially compared to if you took the same series at a local institution. For example, the Data Scientist Specialization through Johns Hopkins costs $470 or Data Mining through Duke University is $294, a bargain compared to other certificate programs or universities that might charge 10 times that much. This lends itself to an important question: Are MOOCs, for the first time, developing a model that could disrupt education as we know it?

If MOOC specialization skills become as valuable as the skills obtained from a regular university, this model will have the ability to disrupt what higher education has to offer, especially the ones positioned as continuing education. MOOC specializations are also competing against other traditional online universities such as University of Phoenix and Walden University. These MOOCs offer similar advantages compared to other major online degree granting universities while keeping costs down even more. The MOOC platform started out by offering individual courses, but now is extending into specializations. If this platform can be scaled to provide online degrees, it will be able to disrupt both campus-based and online universities.

You might be thinking, “True, but how will these specializations hold up in the real world, especially compared to a Data Scientist degree from say the University of California Berkley?” And you would be right to have that question. But remember the true reason you educate yourself in institutions and universities—to make yourself more marketable in the real world, so businesses find you valuable. And remember who makes that decision; it is the HR reps, CEO, your manager, etc. These days, where and how you get your education is becoming less relevant as a differentiator than it used to be. The business decides whether you fit the bill. Clearly, Coursera is recognizing this trend with its users—that they are taking targeted courses as part of their professional development to build their value to the business. Udacity is also shifting its focus to concentrate on fee-based corporate and vocational training.

So here is the big question: When will a business treat someone with a Data Science degree from Berkley the same as one with a specialization in Data Science and Data Mining from Coursera? I understand there are other classes and activities from a university that comprise an education, but will the business care? Or do they just want the best person with practical experience, application, drive, and relentless passion and curiosity? Then ask this: When will the $50,000 degree matter compared to the $766 certificate of Coursera specialization?

In my experience, it is as much about the person as it is the education, which leads me to my last point about the business model for universities and educational institutions: It is broken. This isn’t a model that should be fixed, it should be buried, and a new model created around the value proposition for universities and institutions. Universities are trying to compete based on the education they offer instead of focusing on the real value they can provide.

I always said my degree in engineering, even though I never used it professionally after school, was a great investment for me. But it wasn’t the degree that mattered; it was the life lessons it taught me along the way—time management, stress management, focus, and attention to detail, among others. The truth is universities and institutions are not in trouble just because they are failing to reinvigorate their business models, but because they lost focus on a value proposition MOOCs simply cannot, and will never be able to, give you—an education in life itself.