Pioneering New Ground: Creating One of the World’s First Modular, Stackable Microcredentials
Discover how edX and MIT piloted the first MicroMasters® program—bundles of career-relevant courses that can offer credit toward a master’s degree. They were revolutionary for their time and have since paved innovative pathways for learners of all kinds.
Whenever we consider doing something “innovative” in education, we should first ask ourselves this question: Is it good for the learner? Innovation is not always synonymous with great student outcomes, so we must be sure to keep learners’ needs front and center when experimenting with new educational programs.
Back in 2016, that’s exactly the question we considered before edX and MIT launched one of the world’s first modular, stackable microcredentials. The result was MicroMasters® programs—bundles of career-relevant courses for deep learning in a specific field, from which credit can be applied toward 25-50% of a master’s degree.
Our goal in developing MicroMasters programs was to help people either advance in their career or learn new skills. We did so by establishing the following criteria:
- Programs typically take six months to complete and thus are shorter than full master’s degree programs, making them more accessible to working professionals who cannot take off a year or more to pursue a degree.
- The admissions process is inverted, meaning anyone can enroll freely and can begin learning right away to work toward a certificate. Learners can apply for a master’s degree later if they choose, and their performance in the MicroMasters program can be taken into account toward the degree application.
- MicroMasters programs are ultra-affordable, typically a fraction of the cost of a master’s degree.
- The curriculum is fully online, so the programs are flexible for learners to work through any time and at their own pace.
- The programs are backed by credit, enabling learners to apply to the institution delivering the program or another university that accepts a MicroMasters program certificate for credit. If accepted, learners can pursue an accelerated and more cost-effective pathway to a degree.
To date, over five million distinct learners worldwide have engaged with MicroMasters programs, equating to over 11 million enrollments in all—and over the past six years, we’ve heard from learners that degree credit isn’t the only reason they seek out these programs. In fact, only one-third of enrollees we’ve surveyed say they plan to transfer credits toward a complete master’s, while the other two-thirds have told us they intend to use a MicroMasters program as a standalone credential for upskilling and career development.
My good friend Sanjay Sarma, an MIT professor and the university's former vice president for open learning, was the fearless leader of the team at MIT that pioneered the first MicroMasters program pilot on edX. In a recent webinar with the National eLearning Center (NELC), I led a panel that included Sanjay as well as Barbara Brittingham, president emerita for the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), to discuss how MIT and edX worked with NECHE to get MicroMasters programs accredited. Sanjay and Barbara both shared why this alternative credit pathway was not only important for learners but also revolutionary for its time—and how it paved the way for the creation of other innovative pathways to opportunity for learners of all kinds.
“A Gig Economy Deserves a Gig Education System”
In explaining the groundbreaking nature of MicroMasters programs during the webinar, Sanjay described how the world is going through tremendous change with its greater emphasis on a gig economy—one in which employers focus more on temporary versus full-time permanent jobs and hire more independent contractors and freelancers. Within a gig economy, workers must change the way they educate themselves and embrace lifelong learning in order to remain viable and relevant.
“Our social contract with education over the years has been problematic,” Sanjay said. “‘Go to college for four years and you’ll be set for a job the rest of your life’ is like saying ‘go to the gym for a while and you’ll never need to exercise again.’ At MIT, it became clear the world needs a more work-compatible approach to education, because a gig economy deserves a gig education system.”
The edX team was observing the same demand—clearly there was a need to reimagine how graduate education was accessed by learners looking to change their career. This was the moment to define a new process, which became modular, stackable credentials, starting with MicroMasters programs on edX.
“MIT’s greatest asset is human talent, and MicroMasters programs have become a great way to identify and celebrate human talent and bring it to our university,” Sanjay said. “It’s not only good for learners, it’s good for MIT, because our MicroMasters programs are rigorous and our studies show that students who complete them are at least as good and often better than the students we admit through regular means. So if a student decides to apply to a full degree after completing a MicroMasters program, at that point, we have a much better sense of how good they are.
There’s also a third beneficiary in this equation: companies. “Now they don’t have to lose their employees,” Sanjay said. “Their workers can upskill on a regular basis, equivalent to periodically ‘going to the gym’ to stay healthy.”
“Way Ahead of Its Time”
Until 2016, colleges and universities only offered degrees. There was no concept of a modular, stackable credential—let alone with “Master’s” in the name. But it wasn’t just up to MIT and edX to turn MicroMasters programs into a reality. As one of the primary commissions in the U.S. that accredits institutions of higher learning, NECHE played a substantial role in reviewing our proposal for MicroMasters programs to ensure it met the organization’s demanding standards for educational quality. The president of NECHE at the time, Barbara’s input and feedback was crucial to the approval process.
“Six years ago, the concept of a MicroMasters program was way ahead of its time,” Barbara said during the webinar. “But today, you can’t pick up any academic publication or go to any education conference where people aren’t talking about trends in microcredentials. The MicroMasters idea was a very important development and helped lead the way for even more innovation in our space.”
The conversations that transpired between Sanjay, Barbara, and I about MicroMasters programs were truly game-changing: They helped us get the clarity we needed on NECHE’s accreditation criteria. For example, we learned that a MicroMasters program could count for no more than 50% of a master’s degree, so we took that percentage to heart, and it became an intrinsic part of the offering. We also learned the program needed to be a “coherent body”—meaning, the credential must lead to a career-focused skill you can use, not a random collection of courses that leads to nothing at the end.
“Imagine drawing a circle around what a university does and including all of that within the scope of its accreditation,” Barbara explained. “If the institution wants to propose something that’s outside that circle, then by federal regulation, it must have the approval of the accreditor for what we call ‘substantive change.’ So in the case of MIT, NECHE’s commission staff made sure the MicroMasters concept was first approved by MIT’s own review process, which was important because MIT is a very fine institution. If it was approved, that would serve as a clear signal the program was well-thought-out and organized.”
This would not be the last time NECHE heard about the concept of stackable, modular credentials. “Working with MIT and edX on MicroMasters programs was actually quite interesting because they were such a new concept—and it’s clearly something that caught on in a hurry once NECHE approved it,” Barbara said.
“A Myriad of Possibilities”
Soon after our proposal was approved by NECHE, MIT launched its MicroMasters program in Supply Chain Management on the edX platform. Supply chain management is a field that’s become increasingly vital during the pandemic, and today, this MicroMasters program serves as a master’s degree credit pathway not just with MIT, but with dozens of institutions around the world.
One of the early institutions to join edX and MIT in this global partner network was Arizona State University (ASU), which collaborated with us to make the MicroMasters program in Supply Chain Management credit-bearing toward its online master’s program in the discipline, also on edX. The partnership was the first of its kind, enabling learners to build degree credit through a certificate from one university and then “plug and play” into a second university offering a full degree.
“Once we created this coherent ‘LEGO blocks approach’ to credentialed education, what that gave us was the ability to look for even more emergent learning possibilities,” said Sanjay. “MIT went on to create MicroMasters programs on edX in other areas like Finance, Manufacturing, and Data Science, with over two million enrollments to date. We also now have more than 100 partner universities on virtually every continent that will admit our MicroMasters students and give them credit. The partnership between MIT and ASU is just one example of the myriad of possibilities that will continue to emerge in this new world of stackability, because it leads to all sorts of new combinations.”
One of these exciting combinations was that 30 of the 60 students in MIT’s first hybrid master’s program in Supply Chain Management—which combined a year of its MicroMasters program with one semester on campus to earn a full MIT master’s degree—came from the MicroMasters program track. That meant half of those students completed the MicroMasters program certificate on edX prior to entering the full degree program. MIT has also seen many learners beginning to mix and match their own combinations.
“Many of our students stack MIT’s MicroMasters program in Supply Chain Management with our MicroMasters in Manufacturing, because that combination of knowledge and skills is what they need for their specific jobs,” Sanjay said. That’s just one instance of the ‘escape velocity’ needed to pull oneself from the orbit of traditional degrees, because MicroMasters programs are all viable credentials you can put on your LinkedIn page to become your new resume and transcript.”
Pathways to Opportunity for Learners of All Kinds
When MIT first piloted MicroMasters programs on edX, there was a fair amount of concern across the academic landscape about the credit-backed online credential. But once a few leading universities joined the fold, with encouraging early results from our experiment, many other institutions around the world eagerly began to adopt them. edX now offers over 50 MicroMasters programs from over 30 different university partners.
Non-degree credentials, like MicroMasters programs, are now a more widely accepted and sought-after way for learners to reach their educational and career goals—in fact, a 2021 Strada survey found that 68% of learners prefer non-degree programs. With demand clear, I’m eager to continue to work with MIT and other partners to create even more credit pathways accessible to learners of all kinds.
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