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EdX is creating a new pathway to undergraduate online degrees -- the MicroBachelors.

Much like MicroMasters, which edX launched in 2015, MicroBachelors are programs offered by universities through the edX platform that can be taken as a stand-alone credential or counted toward a full degree. Unlike the MicroMasters programs, the MicroBachelors programs target the 36 million Americans with some college but no degree. The first MicroBachelors programs are focused in computing and are less substantive than the MicroMasters programs -- some of which can account for up to one-third of a full master's degree.

These stackable credentials are part of a larger trend of universities breaking their degrees down into shorter, less expensive and faster-to-attain qualifications that give people more pathways into the workforce. Colleges in the University System of Georgia, for example, will soon introduce "nexus degrees" that combine a flexible curriculum with internship experience. The University of Pittsburgh is also offering college credit for $400 general education courses offered by start-up

Two institutions began MicroBachelors programs this week: an Information Technology Career Framework offered by Western Governors University and a Computer Science Fundamentals program offered by New York University.

Learners who successfully complete the WGU program will be awarded 10 Competency Units of credit at the institution if they pursue a full bachelor's degree, which will require a total of 120 credits to graduate. New York University is not yet offering credit for its program, but the edX website says students will be able to get credit recognition from Thomas Edison State University, a predominantly online public degree-completion institution in New Jersey, once the institution completes its review of the program.

Adam Medros, president and co-CEO of the nonprofit edX, said he expects many more institutions to award credit for these programs. Eventually the company plans to launch a fully online undergraduate degree made up of MicroBachelors programs taught by different institutions.

Jeffrey Harmon, assistant provost for learning outcomes at Thomas Edison State University, said his institution plans to offer a bachelor’s degree in computer science through edX in the near future. What exactly this will look like will depend on the institutional partners involved and how their programs align with the degree, he said.

To earn a Thomas Edison degree, students will need to complete some capstone courses from the institution. The university plans to offer these courses online through the edX platform.

“One of the pieces that was missing from the edX platform was the ability to accumulate college-level learning from a variety of sources and transfer that into a degree,” said Harmon. “Our institution has been helping students who have amassed credit from a variety of sources for years -- we began life as a degree aggregator,” he said.

At around $166 per credit, this salad bar-style degree, with programs taught by multiple institutions, could potentially be a cost-effective option for students. But they won’t be restricted to getting their degrees from Thomas Edison. The institution plans to award students transcripts so they can transfer their credit to other institutions if they choose to, said Harmon.

The MicroBachelors programs are not just a pathway to undergraduate degrees, but a way of reskilling the American workforce, said Medros. Not every worker needs to be a data scientist, but they do need basic computer skills, he said.

Large companies such as Boeing, Walmart and SunTrust influenced the design of the programs, but none have committed to hiring the graduates. Unlike the Google IT support certificate, developed by Google and hosted on the online learning platform Coursera, the edX IT programs do not appear to be tailored to a specific job role.

Though edX has largely focused on graduate-level education, it has previously dipped its toes in the undergraduate degree space. The Global Freshman Academy is a partnership with Arizona State University that offers freshman-level courses online from the university for credit. The partnership had limited success, with thousands of students enrolling in the free online courses, but few opting to pay to receive college credit.

Gates Bryant, partner at Tyton Partners, an investment banking and strategic consulting firm focused on education, noted that the number of Americans with some college credit but no degree is increasing. While there is a potentially huge market for undergraduate education, Bryant questioned whether edX’s typical user would be interested in the programs, though he suggested they may appeal to international users looking to signal to employers that they have U.S. credentials.

“I think it’s really interesting that WGU is one of the initial partners for this program. They already offer low-cost undergraduate education online -- to me their involvement is an endorsement of their faith in edX as a lead-generation partner,” said Bryant. “It’s also a powerful signal of some of the challenges they may be facing.” Undergraduate enrollment is relatively flat, and inquiries in fall 2019 were down, he said.

Phil Hill, a partner at MindWires Consulting and publisher of the blog Phil on Ed Tech, said it appears that edX has learned some lessons from its Global Freshman Academy program. With the MicroBachelors programs, students pay up front for their college credit, so they have “skin in the game.” The programs are also more aligned to a career path and workforce needs. But Hill is also skeptical that edX’s pool of 25 million users, many of whom already have degrees, will be interested in the programs.

“This definitely has a whiff of throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks,” said Hill. “There are lots of interesting ideas -- credit transferability, stackable credentials, low-cost undergraduate online education, partnering with Boeing and NYU and WGU. But there doesn’t seem to be a coherent plan.”

If a company such as Boeing had actually committed to using the programs to retrain their workforce, the announcement would be much more compelling, said Hill. “It’ll be interesting to watch, but I don’t think it will have much traction,” he said.

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