Francis, Taylor [Browse]
Senior thesis
145 pages


Shapiro, Harold [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year
Restrictions note
Walk-in Access. This thesis can only be viewed on computer terminals at the Mudd Manuscript Library.
Summary note
Recent educational innovations have sought to bring innovative “disruption” to higher education. This thesis considers two classes of such innovations: massive open online courses (MOOC’s) that enable millions of students to take online courses from leading professors, and intensive occupational “bootcamps” that develop skills useful for software engineers. Both models can be understood as “disruptive” to the traditional college degree, according to Clayton Christensen’s innovation theory: they offer a stripped-down educational product (unbundling the linked elements of a traditional college education to focus only on lecture or vocational learning) at lower cost to “over-served” customers. While many have focused on these programs’ modes of instruction, they are also innovative in their credentials: they culminate in unaccredited certificates that attest to more modular units of learning, and do not work towards a formal degree. Some thinkers have argued that the wider adoption of such credentials could offer students greater affordability and flexibility, while signaling more narrowly defined information to employers. This study tests that vision by examining the current role and value of these credentials for students, employers, and policy-makers: how are students using them? How are employers valuing them in potential employees? And how should policy-makers at all levels respond? To answer these questions, this thesis focuses on the Internet and software industry as a case study, and assesses several new sources of data: a survey conducted by Coursera of students enrolled in its Signature Track certificate program; statistics on applicants to Dev Bootcamp, a leading software bootcamp; job placement records for another New York bootcamp; and interviews about hiring practices with twenty employers in the Internet and software industry. These tested the initial hypothesis that the innovative, modular credentials would currently be used as a supplement to a traditional college education, and would be most valued as signaling specific, tangible skills valued by employers. The data both confirms and conflicts with this hypothesis. Students are indeed earning MOOC and bootcamp credentials to supplement college degrees in hopes that they will improve or accelerate their career. But employers in the Internet and software industry are mixed in their assessments of these credentials. They value MOOC certificates as signals of certain traits (such as curiosity and initiative) but not of learning or skills. And they are sharply divided on software engineering bootcamps: some see them as providing valuable, practical training (supported by job placement data indicating that most bootcamp graduates earn high-paying jobs), while many dismissed their lack of an intellectual foundation in computer science. These interviews suggested that, while these innovations seek to unbundle education, employers deeply value the bundled degree, with its combination of selectivity, on-campus learning, and a broad foundation of knowledge. However, these programs are novel, and there are signs they may gain value in the future: the employers interviewed saw them as stepping stones for students to demonstrate competence in other ways, and employers may become more receptive as they become more familiar with them. These findings have important implications for higher education policy. They suggest the existence of a “trust gap” for these credentials: employers are skeptical of the learning outcomes for students from these programs, despite evidence of their efficacy and the existence of mechanisms to verify student achievement. Accommodating these credentials within the accreditation system – which serves as a guarantor of educational quality and a gatekeeper for federal and state financial aid – could help to correct this gap. Actions by university leaders, accreditation agencies, employers, and government agencies will define the potential impact of these programs and credentials in the future.

Supplementary Information