Less Filling, Tastes Great

The problem with on-demand, reusable content provided without an instructor

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Short, career-oriented credentials have been much in the news lately. There is a lot of interest in them, both as a potential new source of revenue for colleges and universities and as a way to get students job-ready credentials without burdening them with a lot of student debt. Despite this interest, adoption of these non-degree credentials is growing slowly, and higher education is finding them difficult to scale.

There are many reasons for this, but a recent article by Anne Kim in the Washington Monthly provides a case study that highlights some of the dynamics at play. In particular, the article raises a real issue with the content often used in these types of learning experiences - namely on-demand, reusable content provided without an instructor. All of these problems will need to be addressed if short-term, career -oriented credentials are to grow and become an enduring part of the higher education landscape.

Google’s participation trophies

Anne Kim signed up to take one of Google’s online professional certificate courses, in her case on analytics, offered by Coursera. She doesn’t tell us how much she learned about analytics, but it likely wasn’t a lot.

My certificate took me just two and a half weeks to get, mainly because I learned to game the system. (I watched videos at double speed and passed quizzes by trial and error.)

Kim then tried to parlay her new credential into a job. The utility of these certificates in getting a start in a well-paid job is explicitly made both by Google and Coursera. Google encourages learners to “earn a credential that can lead to jobs in high-growth fields.” They describe the certificates as “a path to in-demand” jobs” and promise salaries of $76,000 and more. Coursera describes the certificates as a way to “gain the job-ready skills you need to launch or advance your career.”

But this was not the reality that Anne Kim experienced. In looking for jobs in DC and Silicon Valley, she found the certificate did not give her entrée to many jobs, most of which required a degree, extensive work experience, or both. Most telling was her experience in applying for a job at Google itself.

My job search at Google was perhaps the most deflating. Despite Google’s promise to treat its own career certificates as “equivalent of a four-year degree,” Google’s hiring platform, which allows applicants to sort job openings by the degree required, does not list “certificate” among the filter options. In a forthcoming book, the author and higher education expert Ben Wildavsky quotes a Google executive admitting that the company-sponsored certificates “aren’t intended to prepare people to work at Google itself.” Google employees, the executive explained, “need deeper learning abilities than short-term programs typically provide.”

This is ironic given that the purported reason behind the creation of the certificates was that Google was struggling to find enough IT hires and was seeking to diversify its work force.

Why this is important

I love a good exposé but would like to explore an important point that Kim makes - these certificates are often not designed in a way to foster real learning and don’t deliver on their promise of getting successful completers a foot in the door for a well-paying job. As part of their Grow with Google program, Google has an initiative to bring their certificates directly to higher education institutions. The company offers the certificates free to every community college and career and technical high school in the United States.

Google encourages universities and colleges to add Google certificates to course catalogs as either credit or non-credit options by integrating them into a faculty led course or offering them as a stand-alone option. Google promotes many of the certificates as being recommended for up to 15 college credits by the American Council on Education (ACE).

Since introducing the certificates in 2020, many community colleges and some universities like Northeastern, Arizona State and the University of Texas System have signed up to offer the certificates to students. Thus far, more than 150,000 people have completed Google Career Certificate programs in the US

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