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What is the difference between courses (such as diploma, certificate) and degrees?

Members of certain professions, such as IT, have long participated in online certification programs comprised of individual courses or sets of courses, with the passing of high-stakes exams the prime marker of success — as well as a ticket to a higher-paying job.

The territory between courses and degrees also includes ongoing professional-development programs in fields like education and accounting, where professionals must participate in ongoing training to receive and maintain certification. And, as with other formal but non-degree bearing learning, professional development credit programs are increasingly moving online.

The availability of paying customers in this segment of the market has led to a number of new programs with innovative business models emerging in fields where something short of a full degree has demonstrated market value.

Harvard University — an institution that has made huge investments in free online learning through their commitment to the edX Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) consortium — has also been at the forefront of paid, certificate-based non-degree education.

For example, the Harvard Extension School, which allows students to take individual courses or earn an undergraduate or graduate degree, also offers a series of Professional Graduate Certificates in areas such as Business Communications, Natural Resource Management and Sustainable Ecosystems, Data Science, and Museum Studies. Earning an Extension School certificate involves taking 3-5 courses in the specific area of study, with most Extension School courses offered on the Harvard’s campus at a price of approximately $2500 per course.

New certificate programs like those described above, it’s an open question whether something more than a course but less than a degree might become a new and accepted unit of learning, one with a price tag people will willingly pay for the benefit it confers.

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