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Where Are Degrees Headed?

This is a guest post from Mathieu Nebra. Mathieu is co-founder of the largest vocational EdTech platform in Europe, OpenClassrooms.

No matter how far I look back, I’ve always seen diplomas and degrees as the bridge between education and work. It’s what I’ve been taught: you learn when you’re young, then you get a degree, and then you apply it at work for the rest of your life.

It’s as if learning could only happen when we’re young; it’s as if working isn’t about learning, too. And it’s sad.

But things are changing fast these days. One of the merits of the whole “MOOC-hype” we’ve been seeing is that everyone has started to take online learning seriously. You can even get an online Stanford certificate when you’ve finished a MOOC.

However, what does a certificate really mean? How does it compare to a degree? Is it possible to deliver online degree? And what will be the meaning of our degrees tomorrow, as the skills required for work continue to change more quickly over time?

Degrees are a big thing. In the workplace they can bring confidence to an employer, suggesting that “our school/university has validated this student, you can go ahead.”

Brands carry most of the value here. Do you have a Stanford or a Harvard degree? Good for you! Recruiters will love you. Do you come from school XYZ? Well, you’ll have to work a bit harder to prove your value. Also, you will probably start at a lower wage.

Recruiters tend to put more or less emphasis on degrees depending on the country in which they operate and the local culture there. In France, you’d better have a degree for everything. In the UK, it’s good to have one, but you can still prove your value through practical experience. 

Recruiters tend to put more or less emphasis on degrees depending on the country in which they operate and the local culture there. In France, you’d better have a degree for everything. In the UK, it’s good to have one, but you can still prove your value through practical experience.

To make the matter even more complex, it also depends on the corporate culture. Is it a big company? If it is, despite some high-profile examples in Europe from the likes of Ernst & Young and Penguin Random House, you’re more likely to need a degree. Is it a startup? If it is, they probably won’t care that much.

MOOCs offered certificates at the course level when they first started. These certificates only told the world that you’ve followed the course — not that you’ve understood it, gained some knowledge that’s useful to a potential employer, or even succeeded in it.

However, certificates caught students’ attention, because most of the perceived value of a degree is in the brand. Suddenly, you could get a Stanford certificate for a few dollars. Was it a Stanford degree? Not at all. But did it provide some stamp of authority? Sure!

This was a good start, but it raised concerns. Weren’t universities devaluing their own degree? They probably were a bit, but there was significant pressure for higher education institutions to be online. This fueled the growth of the online learning space, with Coursera and edX being two of the major players in the space.

Most platforms now advertise their paths first  

Fast-forward to today. The hype has passed, but online learning still remains strong. According to data collected by BestCerts, student enrollments in MOOCs doubled in 2015 to more than 35 million. The main difference is that the focus has shifted from courses to learning paths. Most platforms now advertise their paths first (just look at the front page of Udacity or Coursera), because they feel that this is the place from which value for learners is going to come.

This is not only a US matter. We’ve seen the same response from the European market at OpenClassrooms. Why?

In many ways, a path is like a curriculum. You follow a series of courses and projects and, in the end, receive some validation. It’s getting closer to what we’ve been used to for years in the physical world, albeit online paths are usually shorter (~6 months’ worth of work), can start whenever you want, and can be followed at your own pace.

When we unveiled the first State-recognized online degree here in France, the reaction from the students was loud and clear: “Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for!” We’ve seen some impressive growth since we’ve been able to deliver a well-known degree for just a fraction of its price online — we’re talking about a price that’s 80% cheaper, and for the exact same degree as what’s offered by the school in its “physical” or real world classes.

The irony here is that degrees are going to be seriously challenged by the market. Don’t get me wrong: strong brands like Berkeley have the capacity to remain strong. However, smaller universities will see their degree challenged, because technology is evolving faster and faster, and the skills we may have learned at school are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate.

A 2015 Australian study found that more than half of students today are chasing careers that will be made obsolete by advances in technology and automation over the next 10–15 years. This trend shows no sign of slowing down.

What’s a degree worth if it’s obsolete in just a few years? There are two scenarios that players in the education space should consider.

  • Put the emphasis on the learning process itself. At school, you should learn how to learn. That’s a valuable skill: if you’re able to learn fast and every day, then you know how to obtain the skills you need and at the moment you need them. A degree that assesses this ability could resist the inevitable future changes in skills demanded by employers.
  • Create shorter curriculum, like the six month learning paths that are emerging online. Those can give you a new set of skills quickly. You’d be able to learn at your own pace, and throughout your life. These wouldn’t be degrees, but maybe we could call them mini-degrees. In fact, we already talk about specializations (Coursera) or Nanodegrees (Udacity).

These scenarios aren’t antagonistic to one another. We could combine them: get a degree at school that assesses your ability to learn, and then get mini-degree every few years in your life to keep up with the skills required in the workplace.

Looking further ahead, most of our value will probably reside in portfolios. They will contain the proof that we have the necessary skills, by showing our skills through the projects we have achieved whilst on a learning path and throughout our careers.

But, for years to come, degrees are still going to be a thing. In the meantime, mini-degrees will help to bridge the gap between the monolithic nature of degree and the more fragmented, agile, and open nature of portfolios.

This is a guest post from Mathieu Nebra. Mathieu is co-founder of the largest vocational EdTech platform in Europe, OpenClassrooms. The platform specializes in online learning for the digital sector that helps people to become and remain employable, and it was the first to introduce mentor-led learning. As well as writing and producing his own courses, Mathieu is trying to shape the future of online learning by experimenting with different teaching methods.