The Wall Street Journal. Mar 4, 2014.
As rapid developments in online learning shake up higher education, students face a dizzying array of course, degree and certification options with little sense of which path will lead to a job.
Now, efforts are under way to fill that void and offer some structure to an otherwise difficult-to-navigate and fast-growing market. Apollo Education Group Inc.,APOL +0.83% best known for its University of Phoenix for-profit college, is expected to launch an "online marketplace" dubbed Balloon on Tuesday. It will start with a catalogue of nearly 15,000 technology classes from big-name course providers including MicrosoftCorp. MSFT +1.67% , Adobe Systems Inc., ADBE +1.09% Coursera and Udacity, and explicitly link them to job opportunities.
"We are associating two groups of data that typically don't meet," said Rob Wrubel, Balloon's founder and president of Apollo's innovation arm, Apollo Lightspeed LLC. Apollo declined to say how much money it has invested in the initiative.
Users, who can access the platform for free, will be able to search for skills that are coveted by employers, what courses teach those lessons and who is actually hiring, according to Mr. Wrubel. Course providers don't pay to be included on the site, but benefit from the broad exposure to prospective students, he says.
Apollo has been looking for new revenue streams to minimize its reliance on its University of Phoenix operation, which has struggled with weak enrollments amid regulatory scrutiny and student concerns about debt and job prospects.
Supporters see Balloon as a much-needed aggregator of online courses, akin to Amazon.com or iTunes. Other competitors are vying for the same space, so the pressure is on to provide the clearest connections between skills, instruction and employment.
"The demand [for skilled workers] is not being met," said Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive of Lumina Foundation, a private foundation focused on postsecondary education, with no relationship to Balloon. "This aims to make a better connection in terms of content and delivery in the learning side and what those tech-sector players are saying they need."
There are a growing number of related ventures that present users with more choice in the market for online learning. Degreed, which launched in January 2013, aims to track and measure all types of learning, such as degrees, conferences and magazine subscriptions, and create one score, similar to a credit score.
"We want to measure everything you learn, not just your formal schooling," said David Blake, Degreed's cofounder and chief executive. The free service aims to ultimately link with employers looking for viable staff and help companies ascertain their employees' skills sets, he said.
Another service, called Accredible, allows users to post examples of their skills in one central database—so employers can hear a person speaking Spanish, for instance, or see an example of a person's work even if they don't have a degree in that subject. It plans to earn revenue from companies seeking qualified new hires and through advertising course listings.
"We will find ways to make it easier so that people besides those in good economic situations can create [the needed] skillsets" for successful employment, said Mark Protus, the director of learning platforms at Microsoft, which has partnered with both Balloon and Degreed by linking their own course offerings with the new platforms.
Traditional schools say they will continue to play an important role in preparing students for careers, even as online efforts to provide training and certify skills take off.
Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education, a nonprofit higher education association, said these innovations are a healthy addition to the industry, but she doesn't view them as substitutes to degrees. "It's happening a little bit separately from higher education, and right now it's more focused on the employment side," she said.
Jon Santangelo, a 28-year-old corporate recruiter and consultant in Beijing, majored in marketing in college but said he has already seen his skills grow stale. He said that when he went online to find an inexpensive, convenient option to brush up on social networks and search-engine optimization, he found plenty of prospects—too many.
"There's so many courses," he said, adding that he didn't know how to determine which classes were of high quality or relevant to the fast-changing sector.
Mr. Santangelo turned to SkilledUp.com, a website that aggregates more than 112,000 skills-based courses from upwards of 340 providers, to zero in on free or low-cost classes taught by current practitioners. "If the learning is coming from people who are currently in the field, I feel like I'm getting every penny of my money's worth," he said. He is currently assessing a few finalists and plans to pick a class soon.
Balloon said it is limiting itself to jobs in technology to start, but plans to expand later into subjects like energy, health care and manufacturing. Like other ventures in the field, Balloon caters mostly to working adults.
At first, a pool of experts from partner companies will update the system with fresh information about in-demand expertise. Over time, Mr. Wrubel envisions users rating the courses themselves, something akin to restaurant ratings online.
"No one knows how to distinguish any of it," he said, referring to the current glut of online course offerings. Balloon found 50,000 options just for tech skills, ranging from hours to months, and while many are free, some boot camps top $10,000.
Though Balloon isn't promising employment, Mr. Wrubel said it makes "tacit connections" between individual classes and jobs. He expects that once the site is up and running, employers would be willing to pay for leads on successful students who could fill job openings. In the most in-demand sectors, companies regularly pay tens of thousands of dollars to recruiters for each hire, and he said Balloon would charge less.
Data-storage provider EMC Corp. EMC +2.71% helped Balloon's creators define curriculum paths and job descriptions, and posted 10 of its own courses—ranging from free one-day exercises to week-long, $5,000 training— on the platform.
EMC can reach a broader audience with Balloon than if it just stuck to pitching courses to customer companies, said Tom Clancy, vice president of EMC Education Services.
Though Balloon could offer new leads for prospective hires, he said that EMC likely won't extend job offers to students just because they completed a recommended course sequence. "We value a degree," he said.