Today’s guest post is by Nick Gidwani, founder of SkilledUp.com, the Internet’s leading source of information on online courses, with over 50,000 courses from over 200 providers available in every subject. Nick previously worked at Bain Capital and WebMD, and graduated from MIT. Find online courses at SkilledUp.com, and visit them on Facebook and Twitter.
Over a lifetime, the average college graduate earns $570,000 more than the average person with just a high school diploma.
To what can we attribute this substantial difference in income? What are the signals the degree gives off to employers to justify this difference? Is it that the body of knowledge that college provides is so valuable? If that were true, it should be argued that someone who enrolls in the equivalent of a degree program via MOOCs or even MIT’s OpenCourseWare (which has been available for several years) could potentially see a similar, if not the same, gain in income without a degree.
It should be fairly obvious that this is not the case, and that it will not be the case any time soon. Taking OCW or MOOCs will not have a substantial effect on a student’s income. In fact, it can be argued that along with the cost of education rising tremendously, the value of a degree has also risen in recent times, despite so much educational content being liberated.
Many companies are attempting to dislodge degrees as the primary metric to judge graduates. Degreed.com offers a way to build an online repository of your educational background, including what online courses you have taken, what books you have read, and even what articles you are reading. LinkedIn now allows you to list your skills, and have others vouch for these skills. For freelancers, sites like Elance and Odesk offer short multiple-choice tests to place you in a percentile rank based on your knowledge, so you can show if, for instance, you are in the top 10 or 20 percentile in SEO or Photoshop.
Even MOOCs are getting involved in creating new credentials. Coursera is now offering certificates, dubbed their Signature Track program, for completing a given MOOC and the associated tests. EdX has a similar program where students take in-person proctored exams to gain certificates. Udacity places their top students directly in jobs in their career center.
Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, called the certificates a “much more meaningful and valuable credential that [students] can use in their professional life or for their own personal reward.” EdX President Anant Agarwal said that the edX proctored exams have value: “A number of students are using this on their resumes. Our expectation is that the proctored certificate will certainly have more value because the exam was taken in a setting where it was the student’s own work that was counted.”
However, a cursory look at these new-age credentials, and how employers are using them, shows that they do not come close to the value of an actual degree. Even professors agree. “I figure that anybody with half a brain will know how to evaluate this,” said Duke Biologist and Coursera teacher Mohamed Noor of the certificate for his very own course. “It’s probably worth a very small amount of money.” A recent study of MOOC professors reiterates this point, as only 28 percent of professors believe that students who succeed in MOOCs deserve credit from their home institutions.
Same Great Content, 95 Percent Less Earnings Potential
Why is it that MOOC graduates have little hope of closing the income differential on their degree-holding peers? It’s the same content, isn’t it? Why is it that everyone — professors, employers, even students — believe that the same content in an online setting is worth so much less than if done in an institution with lecture halls, dorm rooms, and tuition?
I would argue that to close this gap, the missing piece is the credentials themselves.
With the exception of degrees in engineering and science, few students are being hired to use specific knowledge gained in their four years. Often times, companies hire fast learners who work hard and are easily trained to do the job at hand. The GPA and major can only give some sense of a candidate’s ability to work hard and absorb information, or where his or her interests lie.
The actual knowledge gained from the degree has little value — instead, the holistic notion of what it means to be an NYU or a Carnegie Mellon graduate is what is paramount to getting a job. This notion came from many decades of graduates forming a reputation around what it means to have a bachelor’s degree from a given school.
In the new world of education, this concept of a holistic degree does not fit, nor will models that attempt to emulate it. The growing number of those that cannot afford, or do not wish, to attend a four-year college are looking to avoid waste in their educational achievement. They wish to learn what is required to help them achieve in the real world.
Similarly, they are unlikely to capture all their learning from a single provider, making it more difficult to create the analogy of a single degree. Instead, a new set of credentials is needed to better evaluate a student’s ability to learn, their specific knowledge, and their usable skills. These credentials will be created from the ground up to focus on what an employer values, and can use open source frameworks like Mozilla’s open badges. These new credentials should do more than just evaluate content knowledge by involving employers directly.
Online Education 3.0
The next revolution in online education will not be focused on delivering content. We are well into that disruption, and nothing will slow it down. Instead, I’m interested in finding ways to help online learners demonstrate their intellect, ability to learn, and their body of knowledge and skills so that they can hope to actually gain meaningful value from their online courses. When that happens, education will truly be disrupted.