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The education industry is not known for being on the cutting edge of innovation, but this June a milestone was reached in an innovative online program that opens new avenues to professional education. 

Called MITx MicroMasters, the program is part of a broader movement to redefine the way professional education is structured and delivered in response to the changing demand for talent.

The MITx MicroMasters credential was introduced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October 2015, to open new pathways to online education and professional master’s degrees. MIT chose the top-ranked Supply Chain Management program (SCM) run out of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics to trail blaze the new credential. 

The program is accessible to anyone on the planet who wants to learn about supply chain management – regardless of their current level of academic achievement. It consists of five online courses and a final capstone exam. 

Learners can choose to complete all or any part of the program. They can use it to acquire a deeper knowledge of the growing field of supply chain management, or to gain and demonstrate expertise in the discipline through an educational certification program. Individuals who want to go further can earn the MITx MicroMaster’s Credential and apply the credits towards a Master’s Degree at MIT through a special, Blended Supply Chain Management Program.

This is key – MITx MicroMasters not only creates opportunities for a much wider population of learners to gain professional knowledge, it effectively bridges online and campus-based education. Learners that complete all five courses and pass a proctored exam, can apply for a master’s degree at MIT. If accepted, they can complete the degree in a single semester on campus. In fact, for those who apply to join the blended program, a large part of the criteria for admission is based on their performance in the MicroMaster courses.

In addition to experiencing the academic rigor of campus life, these students will gain skills that are impossible to learn in an online environment – yet are increasingly important in the real world of work. These are so-called “soft” skills such as leadership and communications, and working in teams on case studies and other projects. The blended program is designed to provide these opportunities, and round out the skill sets of students. 

But make no mistake, it takes grit and determination to stay the course and achieve a MicroMasters passing grade. The program represents the equivalent of one semester’s worth of coursework at MIT, and individuals must have the self-discipline to complete each virtual class. 

However, judging by the number of people who signed up for and completed the inaugural MicroMasters, there is a huge demand for this type of education across the globe.

The program has drawn more than 190,000 learners of all ages from around the world. The first-ever cohort — consisting of more than 1,100 learners who completed all five of the online courses —  received its final MicroMasters certificates and were honored at an online ceremony on June 20th, 2017. More than 750 learners chose the extra step of taking the in-person final exam, of which 622 achieved passing grades, automatically earning a chance to apply for a full master’s degree.

These numbers are incredible. I estimate that it would take roughly 350-580 years of teaching traditional MIT classes in supply chain management to teach a comparable number of students as were reached through the MicroMasters program. 

Moreover, the participants span a wide range of nationalities, ages, and backgrounds. They range from supply chain professionals with decades of experience who wanted to expand their skills, to young learners with no supply chain experience. Those teaching the classes were surprised by the number and diversity of the participants.

I have no doubt that the program will continue to grow. There are currently more than 5,000 additional learners in the supply chain management MicroMasters pipeline who have successfully completed at least one of the five required courses. And the blended “follow on” program is offered by other institutions who recognize the MicroMaster credential. The “hybrid” master’s program available at MIT is also available at the University of Queensland, in Australia; Curtin University, in Australia; Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York; and the Zaragoza Logistics Center, in Spain. There are plans to add more partners.

Importantly, this inaugural program has paved the way for similar programs in other subject areas. Last December, MITx launched a second MicroMasters program in data, economics, and development policy, and others are under consideration. Additionally, more than 10 other universities now offer MicroMasters certificates through the edX online platform, which was co-developed five years ago by MIT and Harvard University.

Educators understand traditional education models cannot meet the future demand for talent, and many industries – including supply chain management – are already hamstrung by shortages of critical skills. 

MicroMasters is not a panacea, but it offers one solution to the urgent need for wider and much more accessible channels to professional education. 

This article was written by Yossi Sheffi, Director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT. Access more information on the MicroMasters program here.

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