Navigating Online Education — Degrees, Credentials, Certificates

Nanodegrees, Specializations, Professional Certificate, MicroMasters, XSeries…what should you take, what’s the benefit, where to start?

If you’ve read/watched/heard my thoughts around online education — you know I believe it’s the future.

It’s the future of higher education.
It’s the future of professional development.
It’s the future of re-training, career transitions, and empowering people to do the work they love.

And the future is sooner than we think. I’d argue we’re in it.

That said…the sea of online credentials is getting robust, a bit confusing, and ever more difficult to navigate.

What platform, what credential, what’s it worth?

For sanity sake, let’s review the 3 biggest “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Course) providers:

  1. Coursera
  2. edX
  3. Udacity

There are many other great learning platforms including platforms like Udemy, FutureLearn, NovoEd, Alison, Skillshare, Canvas, Lynda, Pluralsight, CreativeLive, MasterClass, Codecademy, Khan Academy, and freecodecamp.

Some of these have certificates, some don’t.

Some are University led, some are expert taught.

Some have quality assurance, some don’t.

This is why I think the creating of clearly defined “credentials” — such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity have done — is vital and is why I want to focus on these 3 here.

I’ll be reviewing all these in time, so if you are interested just tap that “follow” button at the top.


If you don’t know what Coursera is, or have questions about their pricing/plans that I don’t answer here…I reviewed Coursera in depth here.

Verified Certificate

Courera started with the ability to take a free online course from a University. It then started offering the ability to pay for a verified certificate. As you’ll see below, they’ve expanded their offerings quite a bit, but the you can still purchase a verified certificate upon completing a course.

A certificate acknowledges that you completed the course to a certain proficiency and you can upload these to LinkedIn or CredEd to display your achievement.

Some courses have free access to all the material (Coursera’s original offering) with the option to purchase a certificate; however, they have moved more courses to a 7 day trial after which it costs $x/month to continue taking the course. Most courses are $49/month. So the faster you complete the course, the less expensive it is.

*If you finish the course during the 7 day trial and want a certificate, you still have to pay for the certificate.

A single certificate is for people who want to learn the basics of a new topic or brush up on a specific skill. I usually recommend these courses to people who want to explore new interests and get a broad overview before diving in deeper with a more in depth and expensive course/credential.


Specializations are a bundle of courses, generally 4–9 where you have hands-on projects to “master high-value career skills.”

These courses are subscription-based (generally $49–79/month), and culminate in a “Specialization Certificate”

I generally recommend specializations for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive and gain a stronger expertise in an area.

Although not “mainstream” yet, I think credentials like the “Specialization” offered by Coursera are going to be ever-increasingly recognized by employers.

IMHO Tangent…

As this trend continues, I see high school students completing these and gaining internships/jobs in and after high school as well as being a means to demonstrate exceptional skill and knowledge for University admissions (if they so choose).

In these internships and jobs, these students will get real life work experience and practical application of this education. Students will turn to these “alternative credentials” to forego student loan debt (i.e. University enrollment), and dive right into the “real world.”

This is going to require a large cultural paradigm shift…though I think the higher education bubble is going to force this paradigm shift faster than we think.

Not only will credentials like the “Specialization” or the “Nanodegree” (see below) give access to high level education for a relatively low cost while facilitating job placement, it will also give 18 year olds the ability to explore their interests, passions, and potential careers before getting buried in debt which makes career transitions extremely difficult if not impossible.

Enough of the tangent :) On to Coursera’s latest credential:

Professional Certificate (Brand New!)

This latest option — the professional certificate — is for you if you want to earn an official, for-credit university credential that’s comparable to those awarded to on-campus students.

These courses are quite a bit more expensive. They consist of a bundle of courses, take several months to complete, and cost several thousand dollars.

Professional Project Management — Example

I don’t see this higher cost option being widely adopted by individuals just because of the potential for “university credit.”

For reasons mentioned in the tangent above — when employers don’t care if your education is transferred to “University Credit,” the alternative credentials that are much less expensive (like the Specializations/Nanodegrees/etc…) and have just as high level of rigor, will be the ones students enroll.

I do think companies will pay for these for their employees until the point they realize that there are just as good, lower cost alternatives.

Master Degrees

Coursera also offers Masters Degrees from a couple accredited Universities. Just like the professional certificate, I’m not sure people are going to pay so much money for education just because it has a University’s name in front of it.

But for now, you can get an MBA on Coursera from the University of Illinois at the great price of $22,000 ;)

*Side note: I took an online MBA Course (non-accredited) for $20…the days of paying for the “logo” are probably numbered (…again IMHO)



Let’s switch platforms to edX.

Like Coursera, you can take a single course, generally for around $49-$69. Unlike Coursera, these courses come with a free version and access to all the content, and then you can decide to purchase the certificate or not.

Professional Certificate

edX, just like Coursera’s new offering, have a credential call a “Professional Certificate.” These can be a single course, but are more frequently a bundle of courses. Pricing varies quite widely on these certificates starting at $99+

These courses are designed by industry leaders and top universities with the aim to enhance professional skills.

The claim is that “Professional Certificates develop the proficiency and expertise that employers are looking for with specialized training and professional education.”

  • Designed for Working Professionals
  • Earn Continuing Education Credits
  • Many edX Professional Ed courses offer CEUs required for certifications and licensures

I think the “Professional Certificate” may find a niche (the same one that Coursera’s Professional Certificate is aiming for) where employers pay for these courses for employees’ professional development.

XSeries Certificate

The XSeries Certificates are a bundle of Courses ($99+) and are created and designed by top experts and universities.

XSeries are designed to “provide a deep understanding of key subjects through a series of courses.”

I think of the XSeries as the parallel to Coursera’s Specializations…a deeper, advanced dive, for moderate investment.

What’s the difference between an XSeries Certificate and a Professional Certificate?

Great question.

After much investigation, the basic difference appears to be that a Professional Certificate is geared at employment and training specifically, whereas XSeries are for anyone and everyone.

Ok. Whatever that means.

The way I understand it, a Professional Certificate is a subset of the XSeries, and a way to “button up” the credential.

MicroMasters Certificate

So Coursera has their “Degree” partnerships, and edX has their MicroMasters, which is a series of Master’s-level courses ($1000+) designed “to advance your career, created by top universities and recognized by companies.”

MicroMasters Programs are credit-eligible and may be applied to accelerate a Master’s Degree.

Example: Cybersecurity

Quick Review and Comparison

I’m not saying they are copying each other — but both edX and Coursera have 4 “levels” of credentials that are very similar:

  1. edX and Coursera single course = Certificates

2. edX and Coursera bundles = XSeries and Specializations (respectively)

3. edX and Coursera for professionals = Professional Certificates (edX does not appear to transfer for University credit, whereas Coursera’s may…)

4. edX and Coursera for Master’s credit = MicroMasters and Master’s Degree (respectively)


Udacity is a bit more differentiated than Coursera and edX. First they have focused on partnerships with corporations instead of Universities, and as a byproduct have created courses that are in direct alignment with in-demand skills. Perhaps also a byproduct of this is that nearly all their courses are focused in the “tech” field, whereas Coursera and edX have a more broad selection.

Udacity, moreso than any other platform currently, is aimed at getting you job ready.

Udacity has 2 main course options:

  1. Free Courses
  2. Nanodegree

Free Courses

Udacity has maintained their free course option, which gives access to a range of courses from beginner to advanced.

I frequently recommend people to these courses who wonder if they should enroll in a more expensive nanodegree program. Most free courses have a natural lead in to a nanodegree (which is not only a great marketing/business model for Udacity, it is also a good way to self-evaluate your skill/knowledge level and if the larger investment in a nanodegree is right for you).


The nanodegree is Udacity’s signature credential. These typically take several months and are several hundred dollars, but in my opinion are some of the best technical courses available, taught by industry experts that are directly relevant and mostly in high demand.

The nanodegrees are (kind of secretly) tiered with 3 different “levels” or options.

Nanodegree Foundations

Nanodegree foundations are the broad introduction to a topic. They usually require minimal experience and are designed to launch you into a particular field.


The standard nanodegree is similar to the “Specialization” by Coursera and the “XSeries” by edX.

Nanodegrees are a one-time payment (not a subscription) and they don’t see the need to break it into a “bundle” of courses, rather just one long, thorough course.

Nanodegree Plus

Nanodegree plus is a special nanodegree where Udacity guarantees job placement in 6 months or your “tuition” is reimbursed.

Udacity partners with corporatations to help them fill skill gaps, and this program is one that funnels into these companies.

Udacity Connect

Udacity has innovated faster than about any platform to date, as evidenced by “Udacity Connect” which takes a “blended” approach to learning — combining online and in-person education.

Udacity Connect is quite pricey at $1000+ but sites the benefits associated with in-person learning such as accountability and hands-on help that improves outcomes and efficiency.


I think a version of the “nanodegree plus” is the future of higher education, professional development and advancement, and re-skilling/re-training/career transitions.

I think we will see more and more companies hiring from certain online credentials (whether it be a nanodegree, specialization, xseries, or whatever comes next that doesn’t even exist yet).

I think we will see more and more companies creating and sponsoring course creation on these platforms (yes on Coursera, edX, Udacity, but probably on many that don’t even exist yet) from which they can fill skill gaps both by up-skilling their current internal workforce as well as hiring people externally to the company who have completed these courses.

I think we will see high school students taking these both in high school and immediately after high school for internship and job placement.

I think we will see employers reimbursing employees for taking these courses, and play a central roll in professional development and advancement through organizations.

I think we will see career transitions facilitated via this online learning — specifically via alternative credentials that filter into job placement.

Every other headline is talking about AI, automation, robots, and technology displacing countless jobs. A tremendous amount of people will need to be re-trained and nothing makes more sense than doing so through affordable online programs that deliver a credential in a high demand area from which companies hire.

Yes, CredEd is doing its part to make this a reality sooner rather than later, and as the pace of change continues to accelerate and as tuition and student loan debt continue to soar I think this future is sooner than we expect.

If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading! Hopefully the 3 biggest platforms and their credentials and opportunities are a bit clearer. Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of alternative credentials, employment, and education (please comment below :)

Thanks again and hope this was semi-helpful!


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Kevin Stock is the CEO at CredEd, inventor of the NED (sleep apnea and snoring device), and author of Yourdrum (←read this. just do it.)