Workforce training is unbundling the traditional degree

IBM and Northeastern university have announced a new partnership where Northeastern will accredit courses on IBM’s cognitive.ai platform. Initially only courses associated with 3 professional masters programs; Data analytics, Project Management and Portfolio Management, will be eligible but the aim is to expand it to 51 degrees and 17 certificate programs. Cognitive courses and subsequently their accreditation are open to IBM staff and the public.

The immediate benefits are obvious; for Northeastern it provides lead generation to their masters and access to IBM’s workforce for training programs which they already provide. For IBM it increases the credibility of their course offering among staff and consumers as well as an incentive among staff to take on more training with the reward of a degree or certificate.

The deal mirrors Purdue’s recent deal to train Infosys. Purdue’s deal involved providing facilities, materials and instructors as well as course creation and latterly research. At the time it was speculated this could be part of a more serious strategy by universities to go become workforce training providers, Northeastern’s deal with IBM seems to confirm this.

This is more than just a new business venture (no pun intended) for universities. It creates a new type of degree both in content and structure. In content it’s formally recognising and integrating company training into traditional academic curriculums which is a possible breakthrough in the ongoing ‘employability’ critique of Universities in the US and the UK. In structure it is creating a new type of ‘on the job degree’ rather than study around work the two will be integrated formally.

British readers will be very familiar with this, these are degree apprenticeships which the government has made a push to introduce as an alternative to the degree. In degree apprenticeships, those not wishing to go to university can go straight into a job, their workplace training is combined with academic content which can add up to a degree. In the UK, this is funded by larger corporations whose payroll is taxed 0.5% to fund apprenticeships nationally. The US doesn’t have this coordination which may limit it to the larger firms such as Starbucks and Amazon who can use it for employee recruitment and retention.

The IBM deal has another notable feature — modularisation. Cognitiveclasses.ai courses are all small modules that with Northeastern can now be stacked into a wider degree program. Open, stackable degrees have been talked about, particular by MOOC platforms for a while but deals such as this — which create the formal structure for it — and noises from legislators such as in California (see this edition’s newsletter) suggest we may be witnessing some of the unbundling of the degree that was promised when MOOCs first appeared.

These are early days but were these trends to continue it could begin to create different types of degrees — the traditional research oriented one that is the norm today alongside a more ‘on the job’ technical degree rather than universities contorting themselves to deliver both outcomes.