What’s special about specialisations?

Coursera has launched its ‘specialisations‘ program. These are groups of existing courses in the same subject area with signature track options, followed by a two-week ‘capstone exam’ that reviews and then assesses the course materials. All the courses within a specialisation currently come from a single institution. The specialisation certificate does show the institution’s name, but also mentions that the program is non-credit bearing. They could also involve a significant investment in time. The largest specialisation is the data science specialisation, consisting of ten courses (including the capstone exam), each around three to five hours work a week (assuming their estimates are correct) and running in blocks of three.

So my first question is why? What problem is this initiative attempting to solve? Suppose I enrolled as a student. I do the courses, take the capstone exam and get my certificate. Now what?

Educational accreditations can function as a token, as a medium of information exchange. For example, a degree could be thought of as a ‘token’, because institutions, graduates and employers all understand the meaning and intrinsic value of it. Tokens don’t have to be qualifications. Martin Hall describes how silicon valley prefers participation in forums in programming and developer communities online in preference to formal computer science qualifications, and that’s fine. You could argue that someone’s behaviour, code and problem solving in those forums gives a better indication of their potential as an developer than a degree transcript. The community engagement functions as an unconventional token, but its transparent because all sides can see what it represents.

Which brings me back to my fictional specialisations certificate. I can’t see what it offers me other than an extra summative assessment and my results on a single certificate. How would an employer know what that represents? They may be able to see a syllabus on a course information page, but they’re unlikely to be able to see any detail of what the course entails or how rigorous the assessment is. True, they can’t do that with a conventional degree, but they don’t need to, because they have that shared meaning of what the degree, the ‘token’ represents from the systems (such as quality assurance) already in place. That’s all missing with MOOCs.

I like the idea of showing potential students a pathway, a program that allows them to develop their knowledge and skills in an area. I’m just not sure I’d be willing to pay for the privilege, especially when there’s little indication that my investment of time and money would hold value for anyone else.


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