Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Job-Oriented Online Programs (JOOPs) -- Part 1

Last update: Sunday 8/7/17
This note provides an introduction to packages of online courses for professionals who want to acquire new job-related skills that will enable them to change their career paths. Part 1 presents concepts and background information; Part 2 presents detailed profiles of the programs offered by a few of the major providers of these courses plus some conclusions.

These professionals are not seeking knowledge for its own sake or looking for credit towards degrees from accredited institutions. They are lifelong learners who know know that state-of-the-art skills earn larger paychecks, whereas obsolete skills risk pay cuts and/or unemployment. As part-time students, they also want to manage their study time efficiently. 

I recently retired from a 40 year career as a tenured member of the faculty of a prominent university and as a member of its senior administrative staff. In order to prepare for a new (final?) career as a part-time consultant, I have been taking job-oriented online courses.  My participation in these courses enables me to bring a participant-observer's perspective to this discussion that I have rarely encountered in my continuous reading of a wide range of higher ed publications. I have become a student again, but one who has the benefit of a former insider's understanding of what really goes into the political sausages commonly known as "higher ed policies" ... :-)

I think it's unlikely that useful skills can be learned from a single short course (4 to 6 weeks). Ambitious professionals could design their own package of courses by picking a good MOOC here, followed by a second from over there, then a third from out yonder, etc, etc, etc. But this would be an inefficient use of their study time if only because they probably don't know enough about the new material (new to them) to be able to determine the most appropriate sequence of courses or to judge which MOOCs provided the best coverage of the material. Cherry-picking MOOCs is also inefficient because MOOCs developed by different subject matter experts who were not in communication with each other during the development of their MOOCs will probably use inconsistent terminologies that will confuse new students (at first). 

So it's probably best to choose packages of MOOCs, i.e., MOOC programs, the same way that full-time students choose degree programs ==> by focusing on the reputations of the providers of the programs, the reputations of their instructors, their fees and time requirements, and the mentoring, job placement, and other support services offered by the providers of the programs.

I. From MOOCs to JOOPs

The original "MOOCs" (massive open online courses) enrolled thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of students; hence they were "massive" when compared to traditional enrollments. MOOCs were open to anyone who wanted to enroll, and MOOCs were online. The number of MOOCs is still increasing from one year to the next, but a substantial subset has evolved into JOOPs (job-oriented online programs).
  • Enrollments in JOOP courses are not massive; indeed their enrollments are closer to enrollments in large traditional courses.
  • Whereas most MOOCs were offered as free-standing courses; JOOPs are typically offered in packages of carefully sequenced MOOCs. Students must pass all of the courses in the package to earn the program's certificate. Successful completion of a program means that students have acquired a very specific set of job-related skills.
  • Some JOOPs are not open, i.e., students who do not have appropriate prerequisites are discouraged from enrolling or not permitted to enroll in the courses.
  • MOOCs were usually too large for their instructors to answer all of the questions posed by their students. So most MOOCs implemented some kind of discussion forum wherein students could help each other gain a better understanding of the course materials. MOOCs were also too large for their instructors to evaluate all of the open-ended homeworks and projects submitted by their students. Some used peer evaluations wherein students evaluated the submissions of other students by applying detailed rubrics provided by the course instructors. By contrast, some JOOPs have addressed both of these issues by hiring experts who answer students' questions and evaluate students' projects and other submissions according current best practices in the field.
  • It was never clear how MOOCs would recoup their sponsors' expensive development costs, much less become profitable. By contrast, some JOOPs have already become highly profitable operations by charging substantial tuition and fees for their certificates.  
Full disclosure #1 ... 
  • "JOOP" is not a widely accepted name for job-oriented online programs. I made it up. I made it up because it seems to me that this particular subset of MOOC programs is evolving in predictable directions that other kinds of MOOC programs are unlikely to follow. If someone comes up with a better name for these programs, I will use that name. 
  • My hope is that a distinct name will encourage prospective career changers to switch their focus from individual MOOCS to the kinds of packages of MOOCs plus support services that will enable them to change their career paths and then charge their employers or clients the going market rates for their services. 

II. Job-Oriented Courseloads

What should career changers look for when selecting JOOPs? I ask my readers' indulgence to allow me to consider this question in the context of an imaginary conversation that I might have had with an imaginary former student in my old office were I still a member of the faculty. In the dialog below, I refer to myself as "Dr. B" and my hypothetical student as "Robert". The dialog assumes that Robert is one of my former students who earned a masters degree from my university.

Robert: Good morning, Dr. B. Thanks for seeing me on such short notice. I've been wrestling with a career decision for the last few weeks and making no progress. So I'm hoping you can help me clarify my thinking.

Dr. B: Good morning, Robert. Great to see you again and yes, I will be glad to help you if I can. What's your issue?

Robert: I'm thinking of changing jobs. I still like what I'm doing, but as you had warned us in every one of your classes, information technology will disrupt all professions, some sooner than others. I can see this disruption coming to my field within the next two or three years, so I want to get ahead of the wave in order to ride the wave instead of being crushed by it.

Dr. B: Are you thinking of going back to school full-time to earn another masters degree?

Robert: No. I can't afford to become a full time student, nor do I think I have to. I don't want to change fields; I just want to move forward in a different direction. So I just want to add a few important new skills that will enable me to change direction.

Dr. B: How much time can you invest in part-time study every week?

Robert: Around 10 to 15 hours, but 20 plus hours during peak study periods.

Dr. B: OK. I think it might be useful to frame your issues using the old notion of credit hours. I usually subscribe to the newer thinking about competencies, rather than credit hours. But in this case I think credit hours will help us frame your challenge more efficiently, provided we don't take our conclusions too literally.

Robert: Sounds good to me. If I understand what you're suggesting, my decision not to pursue a masters degree could be restated as my thinking that I don't need to take as many courses as would be required for a masters.  A masters would allow me to jump from here to somewhere over there, but I don't want to jump; I just want to "pivot". 

Dr. B: Right. Given that you have limited study time each week, let's hope that you can find a suitable online program because an online program wouldn't require your spending any of that limited time commuting to and from campus for classes. So let's assume that a full-time masters degree would take two years wherein you were enrolled in four 3-credit courses per semester. This means 12 credits a semester; two semesters per year means 24 credits per year; and two years means a grand total of 48 credits.

Robert: In other words if I wanted to change fields, I would take 48 credits; but a pivot should require a lot less, say only two or three 3-credit courses = 6 or 9 credits. 

Dr. B: Yes. 

Robert: As I recall, students taking a one credit face-to-face course were expected to study two hours outside of class each week. So a three credit course met three hours each week and required 6 hour of study at home.

Dr. B: Yes, that was the old thinking. Of course there are no class sessions in an online course, so a three credit online course would require the full 9 hours of study each week. 

Robert:  In the last few weeks when searching for online programs, I've noticed that most of the job-oriented programs offer courses that are much shorter than a 14 or 15 week semester. Furthermore, most of these courses estimate that the required study time is only 5 to 10 hours per week. So I'm looking for a job-oriented program whose many short courses would add up to roughly the same content presented in four 3-credit courses. 

Dr. B: Yes, you need to convert the total number of hours in these short courses to the time to earn credit-hours. Semesters vary from one university to the next, but let's assume that there are 15 weeks in a semester. A 1-credit face-to-face course would require one hour of lecture ... plus two hours of additional study per week = 3 hours per week ... times 15 weeks = 45 hours per semester. A 2 credit hour course = 90 hours of online study, and a 3 credit hour course = 135 hours. These numbers should not be taken literally, but provide useful guides when comparing a series of packages of short online courses to on-campus face-to-face courses.

Robert: OK. To help me understand this conversion process, let's suppose an online package only contained two short courses. Suppose the first course lasted 4 weeks with an estimated 9 hours of study per week. This would mean 36 of hours of study for that course. Suppose the second course lasted 9 weeks with an estimated 6 hours of study each week. This would mean 54 hours of study for that course. Adding 36 + 54= 90 hours for the two courses. Now dividing by 45 hours per credit-hour = 90/45 = 2. All other things being equal, as economists are fond of saying, this means that I would learn about the same from these two short courses as I would from a 2 credit hour face-to-face course on campus.

Dr. B: Yes, but you should also note that most short online courses are self-paced. The total time to complete your two hypothetical courses would have been 4 + 9 = 13 weeks. But if you always studied 12 to 15 hours per week, you could finish these short courses in less than 13 weeks ... yet you would still only learn about 2 credit hours worth of new knowledge from the two courses in the package. 

Robert: OK, these credit hour conversions are tedious, but straight-forward. So here's my next question: How do I estimate the number of 3 credit courses that I would need to complete my pivot?

Dr. B: Here's two pieces of advice. First, I would examine university online catalogs. Look for courses that cover the subjects you think you need to learn for your pivot. There won't be much variation from one university to the next. So I anticipate that you will find the same number of 3 credit courses, more or less, wherever you look. 

Second, I think you should assume that things may take a bit more time and effort than you anticipate. Universities provide an array of support services for students in their on-campus courses. For example, you can ask professors questions in class. Professors (or their teaching assistants) grade each student's assignments, providing corrective comments tailored to each student's submissions. And professors have office hours during which students can obtain tutorials about topics they don't understand. When universities offer online programs, they try to provide equivalent support services via chatrooms, videoconferences, email, even telephone calls. If your non-degree short courses don't provide these supports, then "all other things" are not equal. So it might actually take more hours of study in your short courses to learn the same material.

Now stepping back from the pivot that you are currently considering, I would suggest that most professionals should expect that information technology will disrupt their careers more than once. Some will drastically alter their career paths by acquiring new degrees. Others who do not want to acquire new degrees will have to pivot their way through these disruptions again and again and again. The necessity for new degrees or pivots reflects a fundamental change in our society. It's no longer enough to be a lifelong learner; most professionals will have to become lifelong formal learners, by which I mean that they will have to enroll in formal programs of study from time to time throughout their careers. 

III. Providers of JOOPs

This note is merely an "introduction" so the following list does not include all of the important providers of JOOPs.  It only includes the four providers of courses that I myself completed or explored within the last three years.

A. Udacity

A for-profit company, Udacity was founded by Sebastian Thrun in 2012, the year of the "Big Bang" that produced the three brightest galaxies in the new universe of MOOCs: Udacity, edX, and Coursera. 

Udacity partners with some of the biggest technology companies in the world -- Facebook, Google, Amazon, AT&T, Nvidia, IBM, GitHub, and Didi -- to develop JOOPs that teach students the specific skills their corporate partners look for when hiring technical staff.  Udacity calls its job-oriented online programs "nanodegrees" which it describes as follows:

  • "Get Job Ready … Master in-demand skills. Build and design amazing projects. Earn a valued credential. Launch your career in Data Science, Machine Learning, Android, iOS, and more. Be in demand."
Udacity has been a pioneer in the development of JOOPs and associated support services. In my opinion, its current position with regards to JOOPs is comparable to Apple's position with regards to smartphones. For the first couple of years after Apple produced its first iPhone, the iPhone's features defined smartphones. It took a few years for other smartphone producers playing "catch up" to develop competitive products, and a few more years before they developed new features that Apple itself had to emulate in order to maintain its dominant position. At this point Udacity is the clear leader in JOOPs; other providers are playing "catch up" ... or not.

Thrun, a former tenured professor at Stanford University, offered the world's first MOOC in 2011 while he was a high level member of Google's technical staff. His course in artificial intelligence enrolled 160,000 students. When Thrun left Google to found Udacity, he partnered with some leading U.S. universities to produce MOOCs. Disappointed by the results of his partnerships with universities, Thrun made a famous "pivot" in 2014 in which he abandoned his academic partners (except Georgia Tech) and established new partnerships with leading corporations in order to produce nanodegrees. The names of the partners who were involved are identified on the Web pages of each nanodegree.  

B. DataCamp 
Founded in 2013 by Jonathan Cornelissen, DataCamp has headquarters in Belgium and Cambridge, MA. Its initial focus is "Data Science", so its JOOPs train "Data Scientists". However DataCamp is prepared to broaden its scope to include other fields at some point in the future. It calls its JOOPs "career tracks", described on its Website as follows:
  • "Our career tracks are hand-picked by industry experts. You will learn all you need to start a new career in the data science field."
The courses in its career tracks are based on the two most popular languages in the data science community: Python and R. 

Like Udacity, DataCamp works with partners in the corporate world in the development of its career tracks. But whereas Udacity calls the attention of prospective students to the eminence of its industry partners, DataCamp emphasizes the eminence of its instructors who are highly respected data scientists, e.g., Hadley Wickham -- whom some have hailed as a software "rock star". Full disclosure requires that I admit to being dazzled by Wickham's capacity to add such an impressive array of powerful tools to the R language that enable a R developers to create elegant applications whose output is readily understood by their clients. Wickham's involvement as a DataCamp instructor persuaded me to explore their courses. Unfortunately, DataCamp does not offer the kinds of support services provided by Udacity ... yet. 

  • Additional information about DataCamp can be found on its website, especially from the articles linked to its press page.
C. edX 
One of the Big Three providers of MOOCs, edX was founded in 2012 by M.I.T. and Harvard University. The edX consortium is a non-profit operation that currently includes 51 of the world's leading universities. Its courses are usually developed and taught by faculty from one of the consortium's member institutions.

edX currently offers JOOPs that it calls "Professional Certificate Programs" described on the programs' Web page as follows:

  • "Professional Certificate programs are series of courses designed by industry leaders and top universities to build and enhance critical professional skills needed to succeed in today's most in-demand fields. Find the program that meets your specific needs. Stand out and succeed at work."
This description suggests that edX academic members developed these programs in partnership with eminent corporate partners. Like DataCamp, edX does not offer an array of support services for its students ... yet. 

D. Coursera 
Like Udacity, Coursera is a for-profit organization that was founded by Stanford faculty in 2012. Like edX, Coursera's 2,209 courses are developed and taught by faculty from its 150 academic partners, all of whom are leading universities and other educational institutions. 

Coursera offers "specializations", i.e. programs that are typically composed of three to five MOOCs. But unlike edX, Coursera has not designated a subgroup of its programs as "job-oriented". Are all of its specializations job-oriented? No. Are any of its specializations job-oriented? Definitely, but I have difficulty identifying which ones are and which ones aren't -- with one exception:

  • Coursera's "Data Science" specialization is definitely a JOOP. How do I know? Because I myself completed the ten courses in this program, including its capstone project. 
  • Data Science is described on Coursera's Web pages as follows: "Launch Your Career in Data Science ... This Specialization covers the concepts and tools you'll need throughout the entire data science pipeline, from asking the right kinds of questions to making inferences and publishing results. In the final Capstone Project, you’ll apply the skills learned by building a data product using real-world data. At completion, students will have a portfolio demonstrating their mastery of the material." ==> This is the same kind of descriptive language used by Udacity, DataCamp, and edX for their JOOPs.
  • The Web page for this specialization also lists two industry partners -- Yelp and SwiftKey.
Part 2 <== click to continue reading