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Giving MOOCs Some Credit


Kathryn Masterson

MOOCs are inexpensive and widely accessible, but will they help adult students earn desperately needed degrees?

Last fall, at the urging of his academic mentor at Empire State College (NY), Aaron Stern, a professional drummer and student at Empire State, took part in one of the newest, most discussed experiments in higher education: the massive open online course (MOOC). The MOOC, Creativity and Multicultural Communication, allowed the 29-year-old musician to connect with and learn from fellow students through social media as his rock band toured overseas.

That kind of learn-anywhere convenience, plus the involvement of well-known institutions and low or even nonexistent tuition prices, have made MOOCs very popular, with millions of students now taking classes. But only a tiny fraction of those students can earn recognized credit through a MOOC toward a marketable credential.

That’s no small detail: As President Obama, prominent foundations, the American Council on Education (ACE), and other thought-leaders have pointed out with increasing alarm, there is a huge gap between the number of jobs that require some kind of postsecondary credential and the number of Americans who currently have one.

According to data from the Georgetown University Center on Education in the Workforce and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Educational Attainment in the United States, the United States will need up to 10 million more postsecondary credential holders in just five years.

As a matter of demographic necessity—nearly 40 percent of all undergraduate students are over 25, and the National Center for Education Statistics projects that that proportion will continue to grow—adult students such as Stern will be needed en masse to fill that gap with degrees and sub-baccalaureate credentials. And at a time when many institutions are facing sharply diminished revenue flow from public funding and heightened public scrutiny of rising tuition, the low-cost, high-accessibility MOOC model seems well positioned to help these students accomplish that goal. 

Where’s the Credit?

But will MOOCs ever offer credit on a basis commensurate with their enormous enrollments? Experts say the answer depends on several other unresolved questions, including these: Are these open courses—taught by professors from top universities but in a new format that can include peer grading—actually worth college credit? And if they are, how does one reliably assess students to tell if they have learned enough from the course to deserve that credit?


A small but growing number of institutions are working to answer those questions, trying out pilot programs or different ways to assess MOOCs and measure their outcomes. Some, like San José State University (CA), are partnering with a MOOC provider (in that case, Udacity) to offer for-credit MOOCs to their students. Others, like Empire State, are working with foundations to establish and test MOOC assessments. ACE is already evaluating MOOCs, and has approved five for its credit recommendations—an option that leaves individual institutions the choice of whether to grant it. And a bill in California could create a list of approved MOOCs for basic college courses that public colleges might be required to accept for credit.

"Everyone’s trying out the new shoes they’re going to wear,” said Holly Zanville, strategy director at Lumina Foundation. Looking at MOOCs and other new learning methods is part of their push to increase the number of Americans with college credentials. “It’s just so new—a new way of looking at things.” Figuring out the important assessment piece—who will assess the MOOCS and what the students learn, and whether that will count at all institutions—is going to take a while, she said.

If the process for pursuing credit for MOOCs is unclear or extremely involved, or if the credit ends up not counting at some institutions, some students could actually end up losing time as they work toward their degree, Zanville said.

She imagines the next step being a small network of 10 to 15 colleges that have figured out how to assess the courses and offer credit for them. Empire State, which already has extensive experience in evaluating prior learning experiences for adult students, might become one of the schools in such a network—Lumina is funding a two-year project there to develop a common framework for what constitutes college learning and then apply it to assessing five massive open online courses. Stern’s MOOC— Creativity and Multicultural Communication—is already earning him credit toward his self-designed degree.

‘Not the Salvation of Education’

“It fits within who we are as an institution and we’re building on that,” said Robert Clougherty, acting vice provost for research, innovation, and open education at Empire State. His campus is working with the Saylor Foundation, a nonaccredited institution that offers free courses, on the assessment project.

Empire State sees MOOCs as one piece of a more comprehensive open education system—one that the college has already been using to serve its mostly adult learners. “MOOCs are not the salvation of education,” Clougherty said. “They’re another means.”

Empire State is part of The State University of New York (SUNY) system, and in late March, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher announced that the system would bring all its online classes under one umbrella to encourage degree completion and student success. Empire State’s prior learning assessment will also be adopted at other SUNY institutions, and more support will be given to faculty to develop MOOCs. 

Developing MOOCs in-house is one way to ensure quality control—a key criterion in evaluating whether such courses should bear credit. But what would that do to affordability, one of the other primary appeals of MOOCs? For Stern, the adult student, the Empire State-taught MOOC he took cost the same as a regular online class, and Mohammad H. Qayoumi, president of San José State University, fears that if every university developed MOOCs, their economy of scale would be diminished, along with the mobility of such credits.

“I hope to see the day we are accepting courses from other universities and other universities are accepting courses from us,” Qayoumi said.

San José State is currently running a pilot with Udacity to offer three math MOOCS for credit, charging credit-seeking students $150. Others taking the course but not seeking credit can still take it for free. The university will share its results, so others can learn from the experiment as they search for more ways to make MOOCs part of earning a college degree.

Qayoumi believes the future of higher education will most likely be a blended model, with MOOC and other online classes keeping down the overall cost of in-person classes and internships. “I think the blended model is going to become the model more and more,” he said. “At the end of the day, what the student learns is the most important element,” not how they learned it.

Georgia State University President Mark P. Becker is also thinking ahead to the practical considerations of deploying MOOCs as regular course offerings. At the moment, for example, professors generally create and teach MOOCs as a service or an experiment, and a very labor-intensive one. Considering the amount of work involved, will these classes be offered on a regular basis so that students can count on them as an educational option?

As part of that preparation, Becker asked the faculty senate for their input on a policy to cover the day when a student comes to the university looking for credit for a MOOC. In January, the faculty senate approved a policy encouraging departments to develop means of granting credit for MOOCs taken elsewhere, reviewing what the student learned and treating it much like they would a regular course taken at an institution Georgia State is not familiar with. “There’s very clearly a tsunami of technological change coming and we need to get out in front of it,” Becker said. If this option becomes popular with the institution’s 24,000 undergraduates, the university will then need to figure out how it will pay for and charge for assessments.

“We haven’t addressed that yet,” Becker said. “We haven’t seen the scale yet.” One option may involve identifying MOOCs that the university pre-approves as credit-worthy.

“I do see the day when we will need to have a variety of alternatives,” Becker said.

What, Not How

Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University (CT), who is currently teaching a MOOC, doesn’t see why MOOCs wouldn’t be considered for college credit.

After seeing the kind of learning exchanges that have gone on in his MOOC, he doesn’t see any reason to exclude this format from credit, any more than a college would exclude a large lecture course.

"I just think it depends on what they learn, and there are ways of evaluating that,” Roth said. His 14-week MOOC, titled The Modern and the Postmodern, is similar to his conventional Wesleyan course, with papers and discussions. “I think absolutely it could be used for college credit,” he said. But that’s a faculty decision at Wesleyan, he added. Roth said he understands the skepticism around using these massive classes for credit: “I don’t blame people for being skeptical. I was skeptical.” When he investigated MOOCs before teaching one, he perceived them as boring and ill-conceived. But after seeing how his class is responding and the types and quality of discussion, he knows real learning is happening. He said his stereotypes were shattered when he started teaching his MOOC and saw the diversity of participants and their reasons for wanting to learn. The participants have many reasons for learning, and not everyone wants college credit. There are teenagers, home-bound adults caring for elderly parents, and dual-PhD couples all taking his class, he said, and course discussions have been surprising and energizing.

“I’m invigorated,” he said.

Wesleyan was the first liberal arts college to join Coursera. As with the nation-wide experiment with MOOCs so far, however, it’s unclear what that first step will mean over the long term. Wesleyan doesn’t offer credit to its Coursera students, for example, and Roth doesn’t think online classes will ever replace the hands-on residential model Wesleyan offers.

But he envisions a day when students could start coming to college already having taken MOOCs in high school, helping to reduce the cost of a degree if the institution accepts those courses as credit-worthy.

“I’ve told faculty it really is an experiment,” Roth said. “And that means we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”  

Kathryn Masterson, a former staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.



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