Vanderbilit and University of maryland will be offering a MOOC specialization in designing  Android apps
Vanderbilit and University of Maryland will be offering a MOOC specialization in designing Android apps

Academic Partnerships (2014) Academic Partnerships Launches New Online Global Specializations Credential Dallas, January 21

Gannes, L. (2104) Coursera Offers the Equivalent of a MOOC Major: Specialization Certificates Re/Code, January 21

It must be more than a co-incidence that these two completely separate organizations announced new ‘specialization’ certificates on the same day. First, a little background.

Coursera certificates

Coursera is planning to offer certificates for students who take a set combination of MOOCs and pass the assessment. The minimum number of MOOCs would be three, with other certificates requiring up to eight MOOCs. The certificates will be awarded by ‘leading universities.’ One of the first specializations open for enrollment is from Vanderbilt and the University of Maryland on making Android apps.  A Coursera specialization certificate will require students to verify their identity and pay on a per-course basis, usually $49 per course.

Academic Partnerships

Most people will know about Coursera, but Academic Partnerships may be less well known, but is still a significant player in the higher education world of the USA. Its is a private company that ‘assists universities in converting their traditional degree programs and certificates into an online format, recruits qualified students, and supports enrolled students through graduation’. It works particularly with prestigious U.S. institutions that often were slow into credit-based online learning, or those that wish to keep the online learning activity at somewhat arms-length from their campus activities, but usually to increase enrollments and/or revenues.

Academic Partnership’s new initiative is on the global marketing of specialization certificates from prestigious U.S. universities, ‘to help partner universities capitalize on the globalization of higher education….Specializations consist of three progressive certificates that are offered in multiple languages and can be earned in nine months….AP’s partner universities outside of the United States, meanwhile, will serve as host universities for the Specializations….We believe that our Specializations initiative, which we originated and are launching with partner universities, will significantly increase post-secondary enrollment around the world, resulting in untold benefits for citizens everywhere, while simultaneously addressing the financial challenges faced by U.S. universities.’


These seem like sensible moves, moving MOOCs and other ‘open’ online courses much more clearly into the continuing education niche, and internationalizing them. The idea of opening up online courses to international markets of course is not new. The University of British Columbia launched an ‘open’ (but not free) online certificate program on distributed learning as early as 1996, which developed into an international Master in Educational Technology in 2003 (which is still very successful). The first enrollments for UBC’s certificate program came from over 30 different countries. There is clearly a large international market for online courses and programs from prestigious North American institutions, and Australia universities for many years have had a highly profitable international online learning presence.

Questions still remain though. One obvious one is about the transferability of credit from specializations: will students obtaining certificates be able to transfer these into regular credit programs, online or on campus, at North American or local universities? Will students, especially those overseas, be told this when they enroll?

The second challenge is the business model, at least for the MOOC initiative. It is not so much the MOOCs or courses themselves – they may be offered free by the institutions. But how will this impact on their Continuing Education divisions, who often exist now mainly to bring in extra revenues for the university? Many universities – at least here in Canada – have extensive online certificate programs which bring in a large profit for the university. One wonders why institutions would ‘give away’ this highly lucrative market in order to provide free, open courses. Or maybe MOOCs will destroy the current continuing education model for online courses, which will send a chill through many universities’ CE divisions.

For the Academic Partnership model, the success will depend on the added value that Academic Partnerships can bring to the university in international marketing and recruitment. It will be interesting to see how they price these certificates in the different international markets. There is also a strong Hawthorne effect here. As institutions in other countries begin to build their own MOOCs and online credit programs, the market starts to drop for programs from other countries, so timing is everything.

One thing that both initiatives though should be aware of – and this is free advice – from my experience in internationalizing online courses is that one needs to be aware of this from the beginning, ensuring the materials are appropriate for multicultural use (which goes way beyond direct translation), and above all, that there is 24×7 online learner support available in some form or other that extends beyond answering simple technical or administrative questions. In particular, international students will want to know what they can do with these specialization certificates and which employers are likely to recognize them. Since this will vary greatly from country to country, this is no simple or low-cost task. This is the major challenge in internationalizing MOOCs, and will require a very strong business model and excellent partners in the other countries for the Academic Partnership’s initiative to succeed.

Lastly, if I was a Director of Continuing Education or International Education, I would not be sitting back waiting for these initiatives to happen, but would be developing a business plan to go out and compete directly for international students and lifelong learners through online learning.



  1. In addition to single university offerings which Coursera is doing, we create cross-university programs by bundling the best MOOCs into a “skillcamp” focused on a specific skillset needed in the job market. Think MBA, Big Data, Marketing, Social Media, and much more.

    You can check it out: skillacademy[dot]com


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