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Who cares if stodgy old companies think you're legit when you've got Google and Instagram on your side?

That's the attitude Coursera, one of the nation's largest providers of free online courses, is adopting.

On Wednesday, the MOOC - massive open online course - provider announced that tech giants Google and Instagram will help develop its capstone projects, the final task students face before they're given a quasi-diploma.

While Coursera's courses are free and many students take them ad hoc, the MOOC provider also works with more than a dozen colleges to offer formalized "specializations" that involve a series of MOOCs and a final capstone.

If they successfully complete a capstone, students can get a certificate verifying that they've mastered a particular course series for a nominal fee.


But then what? Many companies are still adamant that they want employees with a traditional college diploma. That’s bad news for Coursera, which needs credibility to attract new students.

So Coursera turned to top Silicon Valley companies like Google, Instagram and Shazam for help designing capstones, and more importantly, for their endorsement. If you hold credentials that Google helped create and considers hireable, does it matter if you have a bachelor's degree from a school that U.S. News and World ranks highly?

For a growing number of students, the answer appears to be no. Coursera's "specializations" track began just a year ago, but hundreds of thousands of learners have enrolled. And as the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, other MOOC providers like Udacity and edX are taking similar approaches - working with tech companies to develop certificate programs.


There's been some resistance in the academic world to the idea of corporations dictating higher education standards, an idea that is anathema to the liberal arts theory that higher education should be a broad exercise in critical thinking.

"The corporatization of higher education represents a dramatic shift toward seeing higher education as vocational training, an educational experience geared to credentialing, in which the value of courses and programs are defined narrowly in terms of their practical vocational utility," wrote Paul Jay, a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, recently.

But with the cost of college rising, the job market for young people still tough, and student debt soaring, more students are actively looking for courses with "practical vocational utility."


While some traditional universities appear to be struggling with the idea, Coursera heard them loud and clear.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.