How Google and Coursera may upend the traditional college degree

Recently, the online education firm Coursera announced a new arrangement with Google, Instagram and other tech firms to launch what some are calling “microdegrees” – a set of online courses plus a hands-on capstone project designed in conjunction with top universities and leading high-tech firms. Coursera is one of America’s leading MOOC developers (Massive Open Online Courses).

Together with other developments, such as rival MOOC developer Udacity’s “nanodegree” program, the Coursera announcement could be an important step in a radical shakeup of higher education. That shakeup holds the prospect of far less expensive and more customized degrees that are more in tune with the recruiting needs of major employers.

Why does this announcement suggest such a shakeup is likely? Several reasons. Here are just four:

  • MOOCs are moving from novel sideshow to serious competition. Similar to other new ventures and technologies, MOOC developers have struggled with quality – such as high drop-out rates from huge class enrolments – in addition to developing a viable business model. But through partnerships with employers and sometimes with prestigious universities (e.g. Udacity’s $7,000 master’s program with Georgia Tech), MOOCs and other online education developers are on the verge of sustainable business models. That’s a real threat to traditional universities.
  • The partnership between online education and employers is likely a game-changer. MOOCs and other online education developers recognize that many college degrees are disconnected from the needs of employers, reducing the value of those traditional degrees. By forming partnerships and designing programs in conjunction with employers, ventures with new business models are offering their students programs and degrees that will make them more attractive job candidates. It’s not just MOOCs like Coursera. New entrants like College for America, which now offers a $10,000 bachelor’s degree, are also teaming up with major employers such as Anthem Blue Cross, Gulf Oil, and McDonalds to offer customized degrees.
  • Accreditation as a restriction on competition is eroding. The cumbersome and expensive accreditation process has served as an obstacle to new business models, protecting existing colleges and universities. There have been moves to streamline or reform the accreditation process, including experiments with competency based certificates. But partnerships like Coursera’s include employers actually certifying groups of courses as meeting industry’s standards for skills and knowledge – essentially an end-run around traditional accreditation as a measure of quality.
  • Microdegrees are likely the pathway to customized degree programs. Specialized microdegrees are certainly of interest to both undergraduates and graduates looking for enhanced and marketable qualifications at an affordable price. But with the emergence of employer-credentialed multiple-course programs, it is only a matter of time before enterprising colleges or other entrepreneurs start assembling comprehensive degree programs consisting of microdegrees supplemented by other experiences, such as a semester abroad and time at a small liberal arts college. I describe this as the “general contractor” model of college education.

There are still some university administrators who believe that innovations in online education and new college business models are a passing fad, or that they can just add some new technology features to their business model and continue more-or-less as usual. Coursera’s announcement is just one more indication that they will soon be proved wrong.