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Certificates, Certifications, Badges, “Mini” Degrees, and MOOCs

"Mini" Degrees, and MOOCs


A certificate typically provides content material to help fill a specific skills gap or competency (e.g., Python Programming). Certificates may be taught in-person but are increasingly delivered online and asynchronously (pre-recorded) — which makes them inexpensive to offer. Assessment is minimal - few people will ever “fail” a certificate. Most universities, particularly larger research universities, offer certificates in a wide range of topics through their continuing education units. Currently, analytics and data science certificates are big revenue generators for universities and are offered by most large universities across the country. Certificates (almost) never generate academic credit towards a degree program and are not generally covered by tuition reimbursement. They are not standardized - meaning that the quality and content of “certificates in analytics” will vary greatly. Caveat Emptor.

In the education arena, certificates are kind of like participation trophies - you will earn the certificate if you pay the fee and complete the material.

We caution individuals who think that a certificate program (particularly one online) offered by a highly ranked university will help them transition their career. Certificates are big revenue generators for universities and almost never include material developed or delivered by the academic faculty who teach in the traditional degree programs. Certificates are accessible options for people to “sharpen the saw” and engage in lifelong learning but will likely have limited impact. In addition, they should be less expensive than other continuing education options (since they cost little to offer) and should be viewed as a less rigorous option of continuous learning.

Digital Badges/Micro-Credentials

In the 2019, Forbes article “Education Micro-Credentials 101: Why Do We Need Badges”5, author and educator Peter Greene, explains that the concept of digital badging and micro-credentialing evolved from video games,

For most of the major games, there is an accompanying set of achievements, or badges. Every time a player achieves a particular task (e.g, kill 50 zombies without reloading, drive over every tree in the enchanted forest, smash every Lego fire hydrant, etc.) they get a small digital badge on their big page of achievements. Micro-credentials take a similar approach to education.

The concept here is that the education provider will award the participant with a small achievement for each progressive accomplishment, with “digital badges” contributing (or “stacking”) to a micro-credential. Think about a digital badge as a traditional “credit hour” and a micro-credential as a traditional “minor” or concentration. Several organizations have emerged as “credentialing” bodies for badging. Examples include Acclaim and Digital Promise. There is an evolving body of universities which offer badges and micro-credits in analytics and data science - both as “for credit” (contributing to a degree) and “not for credit”. One university example which offers micro-credentials in analytics is the University of Dallas6. From their website

Microcredentials are cost-effective, skill-based qualifications designed to provide you with knowledge, skills and abilities that can be immediately applied in a specific area...Upon successful completion of a microcredential, students receive a verified graduate credential and a digital badge from the University of Dallas .... If you decide to pursue a master’s degree, UD’s microcredentials can also be used as credit toward your degree.

Unlike certificates, the material content in badges and micro-credentials offered by universities are more commonly taught by the same professors in the traditional classroom.

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)

As the title suggests, these are free online courses offered by universities as well as by organizations like IBM and Microsoft in which anyone can enroll (i.e., there are limited or no admissions criteria). They may be synchronous (live) or asynchronous. Platforms like, edX, and Coursera provide individuals with dozens of analytics and data science courses that can be “stacked” to contribute to a microcredential. Several universities have developed 100% online master’s degrees that exclusively use MOOCs. For example, the MS in Data Science from the University of Texas at Austin requires enrollees to complete 10 MOOCs - students never actually have to set foot in Austin or meet with a faculty member face-to-face. As an analytics manager considering these types of degree options for your employees, determine the extent to which the students are actually engaging with faculty. One highly ranked university with a very popular MOOC in data science, actually uses natural language processing software for student engagement - online students may believe they are talking with a teaching faculty member, when it is really an artificial intelligence chat bot.

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