Providing courses to companies, and adults not enrolled in a full-time degree program, has long been a way for universities to extend their reach (and pockets) beyond the physical lecture hall. In 2013, MIT began offering online programs for working professionals to meet learners across the globe.
Until lately, those online MIT courses have somewhat resembled so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, says Clara Piloto, director of global programs at MIT Professional Education. Now, as MOOCs have evolved to court professional audiences, so too have MIT’s efforts to harness companies and organizations. Most recently, that’s taken the form of certificate-based Digital Plus Programs.
“We have always worked with corporations and companies, it’s part of the DNA here at MIT in terms of our research and innovation,” says Piloto. “But [Digital Plus] is an evolution of our existing digital programs.”
There are few key differences between MIT Professional Education’s new and existing online offerings. For starters, Digital Plus will not be “open enrollment,” meaning the courses will only be available to paying companies or organizations. Piloto says that’s meant to enable each course to be capped at 50 students—a sharp scale back from the more MOOC-like courses, which can enroll as many as 1,500 students at a time.
Capping each class allows Digital Plus courses to provide a tighter, more focused learning experience, Piloto says. Digital Plus courses—which are taught by MIT lecturers—will focus on project- and team-based exercises, along with a combination of videos, reading materials, and group work. Those elements of the curriculum may take place online, in-person via video, physically on the MIT campus, or at a company site.
By taking four Digital Plus courses, which last six to 10 weeks, students can also obtain a MIT-stamped professional certificate. That process takes about two years, estimates Piloto, but a certificate of completion is also awarded at the end of each individual course. The first two certificate programs include Strategic Leadership and Innovation and Leading in the Transformative Era, which “focuses on the business impact of key trends in the fourth industrial revolution,” the program website reads.
“Not everyone can come to MIT, and taking a course on the ground is a lot more expensive than taking an online course,” says Piloto. “We see it as a way to make our courses available to people who might never be able to come to MIT.”
The birthplace for MOOC platform edX, MIT is no stranger to experimental credentials and online programs. Piloto says digital programs began offering certificates around two years ago before launching Digital Plus. But the university is not alone. Tracy Petrillo, a principal consultant at higher education firm Entangled Solutions, points out that many professional associations, universities and edtech platforms are thinking about if stand-alone MOOCs are fitting company needs—or if packaging them might lend better returns.
“Now you have higher ed figuring out… how they can build an audience,” says Petrillo. MOOCs were wildly popular in 2012, but Petrillo says the model of continued enrollment, which removes the cap of participants in a course, “wasn’t always what people wanted.”
She points to other trends in traditional higher-ed spaces as a possible driver of why MIT’s Digital Plus and other professional education programs might be exploring credential- and cohort-based models. “Enrollment is down in degree programs and student debt is up…it will be interesting to watch if higher ed goes after more micro-learning certificates and credentials.”
At MIT, Piloto says Digital Plus is intended to both meet new markets outside of the Cambridge, bubble, as well as answer some of the needs they have been hearing from the program’s existing company clients. “I have spoken to a few of our current clients and potential clients, and when I mention blended or online learning, they are like ‘Yes!’” says Piloto. “They get excited and tell me more we need that.”
Petrillo, who was previously the chief learning officer at EDUCAUSE, is more reserved. “What is most effective to [professional] learning is application to the job. Courses are wonderful, but if the content and the engagement doesn’t lead back to your job or business model, it’s not the best way for an employer to spend their money.”
In addition, Petrillo underlines a vast amount of competition in online (and often free) courses, many of which already offer sections on leadership and innovation. She references programs like Degreed or LinkedIn Learning as examples of other efforts to tap into adult and professional learners, and says “they’re creating opportunities for employers to empower learning, and there is a lot of competition out there beyond higher education.”
She thinks along with MIT brand recognition, the ability for a company to customize their course to match their business needs could be a leg up for the program. “The ideal learning environment allows you to customize the learning within your work,” says Petrillo.
Although Digital Plus is still in the pilot phase, MIT is already planning for ways to do that. Companies can either enroll students in a course “off the shelf,” says Piloto, or MIT can adjust the course in a way that’s more relevant for a business. “They also might have something unique they want to work on, and need a course designed for them,” she says. “We have done a lot, too.”