Online ‘Micro-Master’s’ Programs Extend Their Reach

September 20, 2016

The "micro-master’s" online degree is gaining momentum, and the biggest challenge to colleges in running the programs may be preventing cheating and fraud.

More than a dozen colleges announced plans on Tuesday to offer an alternative credential by that name — roughly equivalent to between a quarter and a half of the course material from a typical master's degree — that students can finish by taking a series of short online courses without first going through any admissions process. Among them are Columbia University, offering a microcredential in artificial intelligence, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which unveiled micro-master’s degrees in user experience research design, leading educational innovation and improvement, and social work: practice, policy and research.

The colleges are all part of the edX consortium, started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, which helps colleges deliver the free online courses known as MOOCs.

The term MOOC spiked in popularity a couple years ago, and many people now see it as synonymous with "that trend that was going to kill colleges but didn’t." But many selective colleges have been refining their MOOC efforts and now see short-form credentials as a way to use large-scale online courses for marketing and new revenue.

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MIT piloted its first micro-master’s in supply-chain management last fall. Students who complete five online courses — and pay about $1,000 in fees for proctored exams for the courses — earn the credential. Those students are also eligible to get the credit transferred to MIT toward a full master’s degree if they win acceptance to that in-person program. To get a sense of the odds, though, consider that MIT admits about 40 students a year to its supply-chain management master’s program, while 3,500 people paid to take courses in the online micro-master’s series in the past year, according to Anant Agarwal, head of edX, in an interview on Monday.

Mr. Agarwal said the colleges offering the new micro-masters programs worked hard to make the courses harder to game than their free courses that promise no pathway to credit. Many of the courses include randomized problem banks or avoid multiple choice by using "richer problem types" that require, say, filling in text on images or completing a simulation to show mastery, says Mr. Agarwal. As more colleges offer courses online for credit, cheaters have become more sophisticated as well.

James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation at the University of Michigan, says that colleges are simply building "better assessments" now that they’ve had a few years’ worth of experience with large-scale online courses.

Michigan now offers more than 100 MOOCs, which have drawn more than five-million enrollments, he says. Among the university’s other experiments are series of MOOCs called specializations, offered in partnership with the for-profit provider Coursera. But in most cases those course series cannot presently be converted to traditional course credit.

"We’ve been looking for ways to understand the possibilities of a hybrid learning environment," Mr. DeVaney says. As the university unveils its first micro-master’s degrees, he added, officials are considering how they will weight performance in the online courses in their admissions decisions.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page,; or try him by email at

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Clarification (10/18/2016, 2:17 p.m.): This article originally implied that all MOOC series called specializations cannot be converted to traditional course credit. But in some cases at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and perhaps elsewhere, such specializations are convertible to course credit. The article has been updated accordingly.