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This month, the London School of Economics expanded its degree partnership with 2U to launch a series of edX microcredentials that provide learners with a flexible, stackable pathway towards pursuing a fully online undergraduate education. Wim Van der Stede, LSE’s newWim Van der Stede, a white man with gray hair and glasses. academic dean for extended ducation, graciously agreed to answer my questions about these new programs.

Q: LSE, with University of London, has been leading the charge in terms of online undergraduate degrees for quite some time with 2U. What was the drive behind expanding on that offering with this new partnership with edX? Why now and why this route?

A: I fondly recall a student who studied on one of the University of London Economics, Management, Finance and Social Science (EMFSS) online programs with academic direction from LSE. They successfully completed their degree entirely from their home country (in this student’s case, India), while balancing a number of other responsibilities. This particular student went on to be accepted into a postgraduate degree in accounting and finance on campus at LSE and subsequently started as a business analyst with a global asset management company. Without the flexibility and access these undergraduate programs provide, and the grit and determination the student demonstrated, this might not have been possible.

This is just one of many students we have seen shape their future by accessing distance or flexible learning opportunities. We expanded on our ability to offer these opportunities to students around the globe by launching online programs—starting in 2017 with online certificate courses and subsequently offering an online version of our full undergraduate degrees with the University of London. In that time, we’ve seen the power that online learning has to meet learners' needs at every stage of their lives and careers.

Our portfolio of online programs, which now includes MicroBachelors programs on edX, make LSE’s world-leading research and expertise accessible to those who otherwise might not have been able to study with us on campus. This is especially important at a time when the value and demand for lifelong learning has never been greater, not just because of the pandemic, but due to technological, economic, societal, and geopolitical changes.

The MicroBachelors programs widen participation and access for a global and diverse community of learners. We see these programs forming an important part of a growing portfolio of lifelong learning opportunities envisaged by LSE’s 2030 strategy. That is, to provide opportunities for professionals and students to adapt their knowledge and skills as needed in this continually changing environment and to allow our community to keep returning to LSE throughout their lives.

Q: Why do you think microcredentials are gaining traction with both learners and universities? Are economic forces at play? Is this a case of market demand?

A: There is general acceptance now from learners, employers and institutions that flexibility and accessibility in learning have to be a key focus. Of course, the pandemic has made it clear that people have competing demands, and flexibility is increasingly expected and necessary. But it goes beyond this. The world around us is changing, rapidly, and we need to support professionals, alumni and students in refreshing and adapting their knowledge and skills, as and when they need, through evolving lives and careers. This is at the heart of LSE’s mission as a global social science hub of research and education, and plays a key role in achieving our mission to educate for impact by empowering students to develop the skills to solve society’s most pressing issues in an ever-changing world.

Ultimately, learners need something that’s going to deliver the skills, knowledge and value to make a real impact in their lives, but also something that can fit around their other commitments, whether that be personal or professional. Flexible, stackable learning opportunities, such as these MicroBachelors programs, enable students and professionals to build a learning journey that not only suits their goals, but also fits their lives.

We also see more professionals returning to learning later in their lives, and it’s essential they have a way to refresh their knowledge and build confidence to progress onto further study, or to build skills for application in the workplace. Microcredentials and stackable programs allow them to do this without relocating, or sacrificing other goals, as one might have had to do in the past with more traditional learning formats.

Q:  Talk to me about the subject matter at hand here—math (or maths, for our U.K. readers)—why is this important/valuable?

A: The MicroBachelors programs in Statistics Fundamentals and Mathematics and Statistics Fundamentals allow learners to build their confidence and experience studying degree-level quantitative subjects. Mathematics and statistics are core subjects for a range of undergraduate programs and building competencies in these areas is key to pursuing further study, especially on the University of London EMFSS programs with academic direction from LSE. Our aim is to reduce key barriers students experience to successfully prepare for, enter and undertake these undergraduate programs.

In addition to the introduction of the MicroBachelors programs, and in a further bid to enhance the accessibility of our online degree programs with UoL, we are also offering An Introduction to Pre-University Mathematics on the edX platform, which is free to try, and introduces basic mathematical concepts to maximize learners’ chances of success in undergraduate-level quantitative subjects.

This course introduces some of the foundational ideas and methods of mathematics with an emphasis on their application. It works at an elementary level with the aim of developing sophisticated mathematical skills and bridging the gap between school leavers and undergraduate study. The introduction of the course is in response to the recognition that students often struggle with first-year quantitative courses, especially in the case of returning or mature students who left traditional schooling longer ago. We see this with on-campus and distance learning students alike, and it’s our hope that programs such as this one will serve to enhance students’ ability to be successful in their studies and really engage with rigorous programs like those offered with LSE.

Introduction to Pre-University Mathematics on the edX platform provides those students without A-level mathematics, or the equivalent, to obtain a certificate which can be used to meet the degree program entrance requirements for the University of London EMFSS programs, with academic direction from LSE. But it can also be used by students who want to enhance their quantitative skills in preparation for other undergraduate study.

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