Online education provider EdX is taking a big step into the undergraduate market by launching two programs called MicroBachelors that students can complete on its platform and earn credits toward a bachelor's degree.
Students can earn credits in an information technology program offered by Western Governors University. A computer science program from New York University is pending approval for credit from Thomas Edison State University. The credits can also transfer to another institution that accepts them.
The fully online programs consist of three courses each, cost between $500 and $1,500 total, and take roughly six months to complete.
With MicroBachelors, EdX is targeting adults who don't have the time or funds for a traditional undergraduate education.
"This could be transformative in the undergraduate space, particularly for learners that are in the workforce and are looking to get additional skills," said Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of EdX, in an interview with Education Dive.
Major employers, including Boeing and Walmart, helped develop the MicroBachelors programs. An advisory council composed of corporations, foundations and higher ed institutions will help determine which skills they need to teach. MicroBachelors programs focused on data science and health care are also in the works.
Agarwal says companies could use the MicroBachelors programs to retrain their employees.
"Every employer we've talked to has been very interested in these programs, particularly those that have frontline employees that are at risk of being automated away with the future of work," he said.
The news comes as more companies signal interest in providing their workers with either low-cost or free postsecondary education in order to improve retention and expand their talent pipelines.
The MicroBachelors also mark a continued shift for EdX, which made its name as one of the first MOOC providers, to a wider variety of educational offerings.
In 2018, EdX announced several online master's degrees with selective universities, including the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Texas at Austin.
Two years prior, it rolled out MicroMasters programs. Students can complete the series of graduate-level courses as a standalone credential or roll them into one of EdX's master's degrees.
That stackability was something EdX wanted to carry over into the MicroBachelors programs, Agarwal said. One key difference, however, is that the undergraduate programs will have an advising component, which the master's programs do not.
Other companies are attempting to bring economies of scale to undergraduate programs to lower costs for students and institutions.
The University of Pittsburgh has agreed to award credit to students who complete general education courses offered online through Outlier.org, a New York-based startup. Outlier.org announced Tuesday it is extending the pilot program and will be working with the university to develop more courses.
And MOOC provider Coursera announced last year that it was piloting a project in which colleges can use its courses in their own academic programs. The company told Education Dive that it expects larger institutions will use the platform to supplement their core curriculum, while smaller colleges are more likely to use it to develop for-credit courses in emerging fields.
However, some efforts to open access to online undergraduate education haven't achieved the desired results.
In 2015, Arizona State University raised eyebrows when it announced its Global Freshman Academy, which would award students credit for online classes completed through EdX's platform.
However, three years in, just 2% of the some 373,000 students who enrolled in the courses earned a C or higher, and even fewer received credit from Arizona State, EducationNext reported.
And in 2014, online program manager 2U shut down its Semester Online program, which was pitched as a way for selective universities to share online courses, after classes had low enrollment and some participating colleges dropped out.