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MicroMasters

Back in October 2015, MIT launched a new credential called MicroMaster, "which enables online learners to take a semester’s worth of master’s-level courses on the edX platform, then complete a master’s degree in a single full semester on campus at MIT" (quoted from this MIT news release). Success metrics are difficult to define - the article states that, for MIT's first MicroMaster in supply chain management, "over 127,000 students have enrolled in at least one course — including representation from 189 countries — and more than 7,000 have signed up for verified ID certificates in at least one course" and qualifies that of "incredible success", but many students who enroll in M.O.O.C.s never complete the course, even when they sign up for verified ID certificate. Yet, it is clear there is significant interest, and the program is an innovative way to help students get a taste of Masters' level course as well as reducing the tuition cost, for students willing to forgo the campus experience for one semester. Making graduate education more affordable also helps create a more skilled workforce. Interestingly, MIT's MicroMaster in supply chain management offers a path to a degree not only at MIT but also at several other participating universities.  

Other universities offering online MicroMasters include Columbia (Business Analytics), UC San Diego (Data Science), University of Adelaide (Big Data), Georgia Tech (Analytics: Essential Tools and Methods), RWTH/Aachen University (Managing Technology and Innovation), University of Maryland (Cloud Computing), Thunderbird (International Business Management) and more. I'd be curious to see how the various MicroMasters offering analytics MicroMasters under one name or another fare given the intense competition in the field. (You can see the full list of MicroMasters here.)

NPR also ran an interesting article on MIT's MicroMaster a few weeks ago. You can read it here

I like the idea of blended learning to make degrees more affordable and help students get a credential even if they decide not to go for the full Master, but I feel it will always be hard for online courses to hold their own against on-campus courses if students don't have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with their classmates the way they do in an on-campus setting. So the value is purely going to be cost-based, and if students make it to campus, they may find that some students who have pursued their Master on-campus all along might view them as "second-tier" and might question their accomplishments in passing the course.

Unfortunately, it is a valid question, although I haven't seen much discussion about this. I teach analytics to Master's students this semester and I am using the Analytics Edge textbook by Bertsimas, O'Hair and Pulleyblank, which is also used in the highly popular MITx course of the same name. It turns out, a non-negligible number of students who took the MITx course posted their answers online in places like github or Rpubs. I'm not sure what they were trying to achieve - perhaps they hope a prospective employer will be impressed by their skills in R, or perhaps they want to help everybody else cheat - but as online courses take on popularity, and students try to gain attention of employers, this issue will only rise in importance. 

Most of my students take pains in writing their own solutions to the assignments, but they're Master's students who will have the name and prestige of SMU on their degree and genuinely want to learn, so the pressure for them is not the same as for someone who tries to get a foothold in the analytics sphere without yet having a formal credential. Many of the MicroMasters offered by edX are about analytics or computer science. Honor codes aren't going to be enough. The issue of cheating - or, more broadly, the use of online help to obtain course credit or a formal degree credential - will have to be addressed, since cheaters obviously risk hurting the reputation of a degree program or may prove themselves incompetent when they arrive on campus. Of course, replacing exercises every time a course is offered would be a good step, although I'm not sure if any textbook will have enough exercises to make this sustainable in the long run. And even if the exercises are new, students can still resort to professional services where people will be happy to do their homework for them for a fee, as described in an August 2016 article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed ("The New Cheating Economy").  

Because of this, I think higher education today is moving toward a model where course grades for the semester will be determined by proctored, in-class exams, and assignments will be posted as study guides but won't be graded. (Interestingly, that was the model my engineering school followed when I was in college.) Obviously you can't proctor the 7,000 students who enrolled in a verified certificate for a course of MITx's MicroMaster in Supply Chain Management. But something has to be done. Perhaps students who want to enroll in a Master's program after a MicroMaster should be made to pass an entrance exam first. This way they would be tested on the competences they are supposed to have acquired in the MicroMaster. The number of students who make it to campus would be constrained by classroom size and the like - MIT has said it expects to enroll about 40 students a year in the blended program - and so hopefully that number would be manageable enough to administer such an exam. As competition intensifies for good jobs in, for instance, analytics (I've heard that there are so many programs in analytics these days that many companies with open positions get deluged with applications of recent or soon-to-be grads), more students might be tempted to cheat to gain credentials and more students who don't cheat might be tempted to belittle MicroMasters to sell themselves to employers as holders of a "real" Master's degree. Universities that don't think it's going to get ugly are kidding themselves.

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