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An online course provider will this spring introduce bundles of courses created by top-tier universities that can be completed for certificates. That description fits both Academic Partnerships and Coursera, and both programs are called “Specializations."

The similarities are more than mere coincidence, as​ the two companies have since last summer discussed a partnership proposed by Academic Partnerships for its platform to use Coursera's university course offerings. Yet Coursera's Specializations, announced Tuesday morning, took Academic Partnerships CEO Randy Best by surprise. When the parties spoke last week, Best said Coursera “expressed that they were going to defer for now the idea of Specializations."

Academic Partnerships, which helps institutions take their degree programs online, had intended to announce its own Specializations after the Globalization of Higher Education conference in March, after spending 18 months and $20 million to lay the groundwork. Instead, Best learned of Coursera's announcement from a source at 1:50 a.m. Tuesday morning. The news spurred Academic Partnerships to issue a news release Tuesday afternoon, unveiling its Specializations two months earlier than planned.

Coursera's co-founder, Daphne Koller, on Tuesday confirmed that the talks with Academic Partnerships took place.

“We had exploratory conversations with AP about a possible collaboration, as we do with many other organizations,” Koller said in a statement. “We decided that, for various reasons, the timing wasn't right for this project and hence the conversation is on hold for now.”

While the partnership has stalled, each company will proceed with its own version of Specializations. For Coursera, that means continuing education, aimed at English speakers, that awards certificates meant to complement postsecondary degrees; for Academic Partnerships, a chance for universities to translate their content for students who don't speak English and reach a global market of students.

Coursera will launch 10 Specializations this spring with new content created by the Berklee College of Music, the Commonwealth Education Trust, Duke University, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Johns Hopkins University, Leiden University, Rice University, the University of California at Irvine, the University of Geneva, the University of Maryland at College Park and Vanderbilt University.

Andrew Ng, also a Coursera co-founder, said most Specializations will consist of 20 or more weeks of coursework followed by a practical capstone project that students can include in their professional portfolios. The Specializations are split into individual courses lasting from a few weeks to a few months, and students pay by the course to earn certificates upon completion. That brings the total cost in the $200 to $500 range.

"We hear a lot from students about a desire for a cohesive program of study,” Ng said in an interview. “One of the challenges of the certificate is that courses vary in length and vary in workload, and so it has been challenging for employers to know how to interpret the completion of a particular course. By launching the Specializations program, we hope that this will create a high-level certificate that might become easier for employers to interpret.”

Coursera's Specializations, in other words, resemble XSeries, course sequences announced by fellow MOOC provider edX last September.

Johns Hopkins University is finishing its Specialization on data science, a bundle of nine courses that will be offered in April. Roger D. Peng, associate professor of biostatistics, said the courses target students who need an introduction to the topic, and are therefore not served by the university’s master’s-degree programs.

“We were really interested in making it available to a large audience of people -- and particularly people who would not be able to come here,” Peng said.

'A Global Credential'

In Academic Partnerships' idea of Specializations, students can earn a Specialization over nine months by collecting three certificates, each of which is awarded to the student for taking three one-month courses. Those courses are further broken down into four weeklong modules. The company did not provide a pricing structure.

"What we want to do is provide a new, global credential that efficiently uses time of the students and addresses the affordability issue for all global citizens, and we believe that it can become the common currency across borders in postsecondary education,” Best said. “Where the U.S. has an affordability problem, the rest of the world has an accessibility problem -- especially the developing world. We have strived over the last two years to create a product that would address those two concerns. It would be the gold standard, and it would be same price for anyone anywhere.”

Academic Partnerships is developing an international network of government agencies and universities across five different continents in anticipation of the launch. Best estimated the company will focus on more than 50 countries in 2014, including most of Latin America and Asia as well as large parts of Africa and the Middle East. The first Specializations will be offered in Arabic, English, French, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese, and revenue will be split evenly between Academic Partnerships and its partner universities, Best said.

“America has imported students, charged them extraordinarily high prices, but they have never exported their remarkable products,” Best said. Specializations, he added, may help universities “develop a vast, global student body and alumni base around the world.”

Best also confirmed that Specializations is Academic Partnerships’ bid to attract more prestigious universities as customers. Although he said the company is speaking to a number of top institutions, he declined to get more specific.

“Brand has a lot to do with global awareness and interest -- in fact, we know that brand is more important in the developing world than it is in the developed world,” he said, adding that the company is researching which universities’ brands and programs poll the highest around the world. “We have devoted years of work to this, enormous resources, and we believe it will have an impact on the future.”

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