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College Credit, Credentials, and Degrees

This article is just one in our 2016 MOOC Roundup Series. Find the whole series of articles here, and discover everything MOOCs in 2016 — from the most popular classes, to overviews on developments in MOOC platforms, to looking at the MOOC-future.

This isn’t a trend particular to 2016, but some of the newer MOOC providers have caught up and launched their own credentials and degree programs this year. Most recently FutureLearn announced six postgraduate degrees from Deakin University, and Kadenze launched its own credential.

I am referring to ”credentials” here as MOOC-based certificate programs that require students to complete a sequence of courses in a particular subject area, like Coursera’s Specializations, Udacity’s Nanodegrees, or edX’s XSeries. Degree programs are accredited college/university diplomas, and credit refers to college credit that can be utilized to progress towards a degree.

By comparing the formal recognition they offer, we can flesh out the approaches of the major MOOC providers:

This grid reveals quite a bit about the strategic focus of each provider. For example, we see that edX chose not to pursue degrees (yet), as it has pursued another approach that we will discuss later. Udacity has chosen to sidestep the issue of credit for most of its courses as it has focused on building up its own credentials that have more industry input. And Kadenze is still newer in its path and may not yet want to tackle degrees.

Read on to discover BestCerts’s complete roundup of MOOC credentials. I’ll also highlight some of the new developments that happened in 2016 across different providers; I’ll go on to share stats (where available) from some of these efforts, like Udacity’s OMSCS.

Lastly, I will also explore the question of whether learners are really interested in gaining formal recognition or credit from MOOCs.


Currently there are over 250+ MOOC-based credentials available. These new credentials allow learners to demonstrate (to themselves, peers, current or future employers), that they have attained some level of competence in specific skill areas.

This year we saw FutureLearn and Kadenze launch their own MOOC-based credentials.

EdX expanded their MicroMasters credential, which they piloted with MIT in October 2015. The MicroMasters credential was adopted by fourteen universities located in eight different countries: India, Spain, Belgium, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States. Currently twenty such MicroMasters have been announced.

EdX already had its  XSeries programs, which was a non-credit based credential based on a sequence of courses. The difference between XSeries and MicroMasters is that if the learner who earned the credential is accepted into the on-campus program, the latter grants credit which counts towards a full Masters degree. Currently edX lists 45 XSeries programs, 26 of which were added in 2016.

Coursera continued to add to its already large list of Specializations this year, taking the total number of Specializations to 160.

And finally Udacity has twelve active Nanodegrees with 13,000 students who are currently enrolled in these Nanodegrees. So far 3,000 students have graduated with the Nanodegree credential and over 900 students are reported to have gotten jobs related to their Nanodegree program. More details can be found in our article examining Udacity’s 2016: Year in Review.

Some providers like edX and Udacity have trademarked their credentials, likely in the hope of establishing the recognition and credibility of their credentials. EdSurge’s Jeff Young has explored this topic further.

College Credits and Degrees

MOOC-based college credits can be divided into three levels: single course credit, credit for a sequence of courses, and fully fledged online degrees.

Note: for a more comprehensive list, check out our MOOCs for Credit page.

Single Course Credit

The two providers who offer credit for individual courses are edX and Kadenze.

Last year, edX announced the Global Freshman Academy with ASU, which is producing a series of Freshman level MOOCs. Learners who pass a course can apply for and obtain college credit from ASU, and they pay discounted tuition rates. Currently, edX has thirteen courses eligible for credit and it costs $600 for a three-credit course.

Kadenze, an arts focused MOOC platform, had credit-eligible courses available right from the beginning. Currently there are 13 courses that can be taken for credit, usually for around $300 per credit.

Credit for Course Sequences

A number of the other credentials mentioned above are also eligible for credit — for example, a few FutureLearn Programs and Kadenze Programs are eligible for credit.

All of edX’s MicroMasters count towards a Masters degree, if the learner who earned the credential is accepted into the on-campus program.

Specializations that are part of Coursera and UIUC’s online MBA program can be taken for credits without enrolling for the full degree program. According to Inside Higher Ed, up to 80 students are taking these Specializations for credit at a price of $1,000 per course.

Formal Degrees

The first MOOC-based degree course that was ever launched was the Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) from Georgia Tech and Udacity, which was launched back in 2013. The entire degree was going to cost less than $7,000.

So far only 111 students have graduated. But the OMSCS is gaining momentum. There were almost 4,000 students (3,944) enrolled in the fall 2016 semester, and 200+ are expected to graduate in December 2016.

Coursera jumped into the degree game last year when it partnered with the University of Illinois to offer its first online MBA — “iMBA.” According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, the response to the iMBA has exceeded the university’s expectations, with 270 degree-seeking students. This year Coursera announced their second Masters program with the University of Illinois, a Masters of Computer Science in Data Science (MCS-DS), which like the iMBA will also cost around $20,000.

Two more players that newly announced degrees this year are FutureLearn and OpenLearning.

FutureLearn announced six post graduate degrees from Deakin University, while OpenLearning launched to offer vocational training courses.

AFQ Levels

Both these initiatives operate under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF).  FutureLearn offers one Level 8 and five Level 9 degrees, while OpenLearning offers two Level 4 — Certificate IV — degrees. You can find more about AQF levels  here.

Most courses in FutureLearn degrees will not be free. Each degree will consist of 80 two week courses, out of which up to 16 will be free.

All the courses in the other degrees mentioned above are free (at least for now).

Demand for MOOC-Based College Credit?

The degree programs from Coursera and Udacity in partnership with top tier universities seem to be doing pretty well, but are there any takers for non-degree related credits?

Let’s take a look at numbers for edX and Global Freshman Academy (GFA). Last December, Insider Higher Ed reported that less than 1% of the 34,086 learners enrolled in GFA were eligible for credit. This number has now ballooned to 5,000. This means is that 5,000 learners have paid for a verified certificate and received a grade of C or better, but the number of learners who got any college credit at all is unknown.

The big question about accreditation is whether other universities will accept the credits. It’s great if you are going to ASU and you get ASU credits via GFA. You will be able to save time and money. But if you want these credits transferred to other universities, it remains to be seen whether they will accept these credits earned from a MOOC (assuming this can be seen in the transcripts).

The lack of standards or precedent to enable credit mobility might be one of the biggest factors in why MOOC-based credit hasn’t really been adopted by students. The concept is great, but the uncertainty and logistics of actually obtaining the credit hamper its adoption.

Some may ask: If the goal of college credit is to demonstrate mastery of a particular topic, wouldn’t a verified certificate just do the job?

That is why professional credentials like Coursera Specializations, MicroMasters, Kadenze Programs, and FutureLearn Programs might gain better adoption rates among learners. Some of these credentials also offer a credit in addition to a verified certificate.

The credit itself might never be called into use, but universities offering credit in the first place adds a lot of integrity to these credentials. By creating a tangible real world outcome, it also makes it easier for a jobseeker to communicate that the credential has a certain level of rigor attached.