edX, MOOCs and the Reinvention of Online Education

Online education man using laptop in library

Microsoft has been hosting its Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto this week. A surprising number of announcements from that venue have focused on online education. More specifically, they've been aimed at edX, which is a free, open source online learning environment that provides the platform on which many MOOCs rest.


A MOOC, of course, is a "massively open online course," so-called because MOOCs can simultaneously enroll many thousands of students from around the world. What makes MOOCs special is that enrollment is open and free, so that anyone can register and take such courses without incurring tuition costs to do so.


The learning is free, though students wishing to earn college credit for such courses — usually delivered in the form of a certificate of completion — typically have to pony up anywhere from $50 to $600 per course.


The latest issue of Certification Watch (Vol. 19, No. 28) leads off with an item about the new "Microsoft Professional Degree" (MPD), an edX-based endeavor, which offers Data Science as its initial "major." For about $50 per course, students can thread their way through a complete 10-item curriculum on Data Science.


The program includes one course in each of nine topic areas, plus a concluding capstone project designed to tie the entire experience together. Individual courses run over a six-week period, as does the concluding project work.


The day before the MPD announcement appeared on Microsoft's Born to Learn blog, a different post based on Worldwide Partner Conference activity also touched on edX — namely, Microsoft's intention to offer something called Open edX on Azure. This sounds like just another Azure environment, but it is actually intended to permit Microsoft Partners to provide "Learning as a Service" capabilities to their customers.


This will involve assembling custom bundles or packages of Microsoft Learning and other related content, with partners reselling access to that content with 24/7/365 on-demand access to learning materials, environments, and hands-on lab capabilities.


It's possible to see the MPD as one manifestation of what this capability means. It's also possible to envision focused bundles of Microsoft training and certification materials targeted for specific business needs resold by partners. That way, database-heavy companies can focus on Windows Server, Virtualization, and SQL Server to get their staff trained up, and to provide ready onboarding for new hires.


Likewise, organizations with heavy SharePoint or Business Intelligence needs could easily assemble learning environments to meet those needs. Given that many Microsoft volume purchase agreements include an education component, this approach makes it much easier for partners to put useful training offerings together for their customers, and for those customers to take advantage of them.


Online education concept key with grad cap

Beyond a merely Microsoft focus, this approach is already reshaping higher education, especially at the college level. edX founding sponsor organizations MIT and Harvard have already invested substantially in MOOCs on many subjects, and many other colleges and universities have also gotten involved.


That includes participation from other Ivy League schools such as Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton and Penn, along with numerous other universities including Berkeley, the UT system, Georgetown, Arizona State, Caltech, Columbia, and many others.


It's not at all difficult to see this platform moving down-market, eventually encompassing both Advanced Placement (AP) courses and general curriculum at the high school level. There's also room for lateral growth into professional education of all kinds (much like the Microsoft Professional Degree).


That's why I see this new approach to designing and delivering coursework and projects as truly reinventing education as we know it. By moving the whole shebang online, platforms like edX enable educators to reach a much broader audience, and to make learning available at low cost (or no cost) to anyone, anywhere, any time.


I think we've just begun to explore the benefits and reach that this approach provides. I'm convinced these developments, and others that follow, will change our world in general, and IT in particular, in the years and decades ahead.


It's probably the most interesting thing to happen to training and certification since Novell introduced the Certified NetWare Engineer in the context of a fully-fledged training program in the late 1980s. I can't wait to see how this will unfold, and the kinds of changes it will bring.


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About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.