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Behind the Scenes: Building a Path to In-Demand Skills and College Credit

Launched at the start of 2020, edX MicroBachelors® programs were designed for adult learners with some or no college experience whose jobs are most at risk to be displaced by automation and other changes to the workplace. As a result of the economic impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, access to quality education, particularly for this population, has never been more important.

Alongside this week’s announcement of three new MicroBachelors programs, we’re going behind the scenes to share more about how these programs were designed, and how that design translates to value for people looking for job-ready skills today and a path to a full degree. Read on for a conversation with two of the architects of MicroBachelors programs, edX Vice President of Learning Nina Huntemann and Product Marketing Manager Ben Sheldon, who discuss:

  • The value of gaining career-relevant skills now, while also opening the option to pursue a full bachelor’s degree
  • Why our program offerings include a mix of topics like computer science and professional writing
  • How MicroBachelors programs support the ability to market yourself, especially in a crowded job market
  • And more

Who are MicroBachelors Programs for? What problems was this type of program built to solve?

Nina: MicroBachelors programs were created for a population of learners who do not have a bachelor’s degree, but are looking for meaningful and sustainable work. In the United States alone, there are millions of people who never go to college and a significant number who attempt to go to college, but don’t complete. Going to college traditionally has been a four-year or more, full-time investment and tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. But many people can’t wait that long to start a career and cannot financially afford that traditional education model. The problem is that, without a college degree, it’s really difficult to signal to employers you have the skills needed to build a career that can sustain yourself and your family. That’s the problem we set out to solve: Design an alternative path to knowledge, skills, and careers that is actually do-able, valuable, and works for most, not the few.

“That’s the problem we set out to solve: Design an alternative path to knowledge, skills, and careers that is actually do-able, valuable, and works for most, not the few.”

Nina: We set out to create an education and career pathway that will help those locked out of the traditional path. MicroBachelors programs create that way in, finally. These programs are meant to put career-relevant skills in the hands of learners and also give them the option to pursue a full bachelor’s degree in the form of real college credit.

How are these programs designed to deliver both the in-demand skills people need right away and a pathway to a bachelor’s degree?

Ben: This program is designed to get the skills you want today to help your career, and leave the opportunity open to get college credit while you’re learning. You don’t have to make that decision now or worry about ‘am I going back to school or not?’ You earn college credit regardless, and then down the line if you decide a degree is something you want to pursue, you’ve been picking up credit along the way. So it’s not an either or. It’s not, do I have to go back to school right now or not? Even going to school part-time can be daunting—to apply to a school, to get in and figure out when you’re going to study. Instead, start down that pathway as you’re building these skills and keep your options open in the future.

“Down the line if you decide a degree is something you want to pursue, you’ve been picking up credit along the way. It’s not an either or. It’s not ‘do I have to go back to school right now or not?’”

Nina: The curriculum in many bachelor’s degrees is designed to give students breadth in the early years of their education so that they can explore interests and get foundational skills. The traditional student who is 18 to 22 years old, who really isn’t the majority student anymore, is still exploring their career interests and has the privilege to take that time to explore. But the learner that we’re focused on has perhaps already engaged with the traditional college model and may have found it unaffordable, inflexible, and irrelevant. They’re trying to make the connection between the time and the money they’re spending on this education and the career outcome that they need.

Nina: In many ways, we’re flipping the script. Instead of waiting until later on in college to get those directly workforce-relevant skills, we’re putting that up front. You can take a program and walk away with skills or you can continue on that educational path and take another program to further build your skills. At the same time, we are providing foundational skills as well. The MicroBachelors® program in Professional Writing from Arizona State University is a good example. There is absolutely the need to build foundational skills that are traditionally part of the first two or three years of a college degree for anybody who is going to be in the world of work.

“In many ways, we’re flipping the script. Instead of waiting until later on in college to get those directly workforce-relevant skills, we’re putting that up front.”

Why did you choose the mix of programs and subject areas available?

Nina: The programs we have available now and those coming soon are driven by the demand we see in the labor market, where jobs are growing. Our programs are in computer science, information technology, data science, and business, generally speaking. What’s really important about those areas that I don’t think a lot of people realize is that a significant number of jobs in these fields don’t require a full degree. But oftentimes the skills you would learn in data analytics for example are only being taught as part of a four-year college program, even if it’s not necessary to have a degree to be successful in data analytics. These are the skills that are so in demand in the workforce that jobs can’t be filled because there just aren’t enough qualified people. What we’re doing is pulling some of those key skills out of the container of a full college degree. Let’s make that education and skills attainment accessible to people outside of the traditional college pathway.

How do you see MicroBachelors programs fitting into the current economic landscape, drastically shifted by COVID-19?

Nina: What MicroBachelors programs were designed to solve is a problem that’s even greater today. Unfortunately the traditional model for obtaining a college education is fraught with inequities, all of which are being underscored right now. Many of the jobs that didn’t require a college or even a high school degree, such as in the service industries, aren’t going to come back. The “future of work” often discussed, which requires far more middle- and higher-skilled people, is no longer in the future. The global pandemic has considerably accelerated those changes in the workplace. In many ways, our vision of the learner who needs access to durable and employable skills, that population has just tripled because of the circumstances of COVID-19.

“Our vision of the learner who needs access to durable and employable skills, that population has just tripled because of the circumstances of COVID-19.”

Ben: I’m also really worried about jobs that are not coming back. So you need to retrain and develop new skills because you’re going to have to get a new kind of job. But when we think of the economy coming back—this will turn around and people will get jobs again—a job where maybe there were 20 applicants before is now going to have 100. People can’t wait years to develop skills that they’re going to need to be applying for new jobs hopefully this fall or whenever that is. What can you do in a few months of time? You need to develop skills, but also have something that you can communicate on a resume. That ability to market yourself when you go and apply for jobs is going to be more important than ever. So with MicroBachelors programs we’re looking at how we can package something that you can communicate to others, which is why each program results in a certificate that acts as an indicator to employers that you have taken action towards your personal growth, persisted through a rigorous educational experience, and have learned skills that many top corporations value. The fact that the learning bears college credit is also an important signal of value.

“That ability to market yourself when you go and apply for jobs is going to be more important than ever. ”

How do MicroBachelors programs support those other areas such as resume help and interview skills that on-campus resources typically provide?

Ben: We recognize that learners may have questions or concerns that would typically be addressed by on-campus service providers like academic advisors and career center staff. We want MicroBachelors learners to feel well supported to help them persist and continue on their educational journey, and offer a coaching service to help learners better understand the MicroBachelors Program structure and provide advice and resources across topics like strategizing a job search, interviewing, and even managing finances.

Ben: These coaches can talk to you about your current experience, where you want to go, and highlight areas where jobs are opening up. How can you get there? What are some different paths? Which program do you start with? They’ll help you answer those types of questions and help you with your resume, your LinkedIn profile, preparing for an interview. That’s something that’s rare. A lot of online learning opportunities might have a good course, but to have the additional benefits of how do I then market this? That’s invaluable.

“A lot of online learning opportunities might have a good course, but to have the additional benefits of how do I then market this? That’s invaluable.”

What are you proud of with MicroBachelors programs so far?

Nina: Since we just launched in January, I’m proud of seeing the early outcomes that our learners are getting from their programs. As a former teacher, I get really excited thinking about how this can change people’s lives. And it’s really a silver lining that we launched it when we did. Another thing I’m really proud of is that edX recognized the need and responded with something that is going to be actually helpful for people unable to attend college. A lot of other online learning providers have left these learners behind. There’s not a lot of alternatives. And finally, I’m incredibly proud of our university and corporate partners who are stepping up and saying, ‘we want to be part of this.’

Ben: I’m proud of our partners and their recognition of trying to create something new, not just taking existing courses and throwing them online. We’re really working together to come up with something that’s relevant and impactful for this learner. I’m most proud that what we’re seeing so far, when we look at the people that are really engaging with it, they are skewing older. We are reaching folks in their thirties and forties who are looking to continue to learn. They’re trying, and they’re succeeding.

Choose Your MicroBachelors Program and Start Today

Created by top universities and influenced by Fortune 1000 companies, edX’s MicroBachelors programs are the only path to a bachelor’s degree that make you job-ready today and credentialed along the way.

Learn more about how you can get started in MicroBachelors programs in computer science, marketing, data science, and more.