Coursera Launches An Online Vocational Mini-Credential Taught By Top Colleges

Online education juggernaut Coursera has unveiled its own version of a college credential. And, unlike traditional college, Coursera’s “Specialization” program track is less than $500, vocationally oriented, taught by faculty from top universities, and takes less than six months to finish. From mobile application development to music, Coursera aims to create a new type of verified training program for continuing learners.

“It’s a new form of credential,” says Coursera co-founder, Daphne Koller. Their new program is “much easier to fit into one’s lifestyle. There’s a whole bunch of working adults out there who will not go back to school to get another, because it’s just not in the cards for us.”

Coursera’s initial partners include Vanderbilt, Duke, and Maryland, all offering program tracks on a wide variety of topics, including teacher education, music, general critical thinking, cybersecurity, and data analysis. All the of the program tracks follow the massively open online course (MOOC) model of being completely free to hundreds of thousands of students at a time, but includes a premium version for enhanced support and a certification of completion.

For instance, University of Maryland’s Cybersecurity program is a 4-course system of building secure computer systems. The premium Specialization version amends a “capstone” final exam project where teams of students will collectively tasked with designing and destroying each others programs.

“Many students around the world aren’t in a position to attend residential universities and take courses face-to-face,” writes Vanderbilt Computer Science Professor Douglas Schmidt to me in an email. Schmidt helped design Coursera’s mobile application track.”But MOOC specializations are helping to change all that by enabling students to master the knowledge and practices needed to create innovative and useful mobile cloud computing applications, which are skills that are in great demand around the world.”

Schmidt, and the other professor we spoke with, Adam Porter of the University of Maryland, don’t see Coursera as a threat to the higher education establishment. “The hype behind MOOCs is ridiculous, but the eulogies are also premature. I don’t think that MOOCs threaten Universities so much at they push them to up their game,” writes Porter. “MOOCs aren’t really competing with traditional Universities for students.¬†MOOC students now are largely older adults who have degrees and want to stay current on new topics.”

I tend to agree with the sentiment. I’m taking Coursera’s Data Analysis course right now to bone up on my stat skills, and there’s no chance I’d ever have paid John’s Hopkins a dime to teach me this otherwise. In the long-term, I do believe MOOCs are a serious threat to 2nd and 3rd-rate schools, who can be replaced by automated-large scale teaching.

But, for now, Coursera’s specialization track is a nice addition to recession-ravaged adults looking to boost their resume. Koller does not have any data on whether their ongoing experiment with individual course certification has yielded employment gains for the clients–only individual anecdotes of users getting hired. Like all MOOCs, the new Specialization track is an experiment. Check out the program here.

[Image Credit: Flickr User CarbonNYC]