One of things that motivated me to blog about this subject was a recognition that that the conversation about the MOOC phenomenon seemed to be getting ahead of itself, with too much discussion of how MOOCs might replace traditional college informed by too little end-user experience regarding the actual level of learning associated with taking these new types of classes.
But as the experience of taking multiple courses from multiple sources continues, it’s clear that for a dedicated learner these experiences do add up to something. Which returns us to the question of what type of credit is available for someone who wants more out of their free education experience than just the joy of learning.
Courses provided by traditional MOOC enablers (such as edX, Coursera and Udacity) provide certificates of achievement at the end of a class, and several courses assign different levels to these certificates, such as my Coursera argumentation course which graduated some students with distinction (vs. simple completion) based on quiz scores.
But if I were enrolled in a college and asked the Chair of the philosophy department to count this course towards graduation, I might very well be greeted by a blank stare (or at least some serious questioning over the rigor of the online course I was requesting count as much as a class taught within the department).
The issue this scenario brings up is not a new one. For students have sought to transfer credits from diverse learning experiences into their institutional degree program for years. AP credits from courses taken in high school, for instance, are accepted by many universities (at least for placement purposes). And students enrolled in summer school, continuing education, online learning and even life experience programs have long sought ways to make those experiences count towards the degree they might be working on within a traditional two- or four-year college.
The challenge (especially as opportunities to learn outside the buildings making up the college or university a student is enrolled in multiply) is how to demonstrate to a school that the class one took outside of their walls meets standards the school sets for their own courses.
ACE is a non-profit association representing the leaders of US accredited degree-granting two- and four-year colleges and universities that advocates for continuing government support of higher education.
Their CREDIT program (begun in 1974) is designed to assess the rigor of individual classes and examination programs (including online education) in order to provide guidance to schools considering giving credit for such courses as to their level of rigor, as well as their equivalency (in terms of credit hours) to traditional college classes on the same subject.
I actually put a program through the ACE process many years ago (a Digital Literacy program associated with a certification exam and educational curriculum) and can attest to the demanding nature of their reviews.
Getting our program accredited by ACE required us to fill out extensive documentation regarding how the program was developed. And because our educational project centered on a validated, certification-grade exam, we also had to document the entire exam development and validation process (including providing access to the statistics supporting our claims of validity).
This documentation process was followed up by a three-day visit by a team of educators (ACE maintains a large stable of such reviewers) who sat with our curriculum and exam developers for hours upon hours in order to ascertain just how much our program resembled the college courses we were claiming it could serve as a substitute for.
While open minded to new methods of learning (including, in our case, claims that passing a new certification was the same as passing a college-level course), the team was very conservative and thorough which helps explain why ACE accreditation is respected by so many institutions.
If you follow MOOC press release, you know that five Coursera courses have already been through the ACE CREDIT process, and four Udacity courses are currently under review. No doubt others will follow, making an ACE transcript one of the few “official” means of turning one of these new learning experiences into actual college credit.
Now I do recall that once a program was accredited, it was the student’s responsibility to obtain a transcript from ACE and then provide that transcript to their institution. And back when I first worked with ACE, I recall that this process was somewhat manual and that the ACE credit transfer was not always top of mind at many colleges and universities. Which meant that it still required and enterprising student to go through the steps necessary to turn a class they took outside their institution into actual institutional credit.
But even if a student needs to jump through a few hoops, a pathway exists to get actual college credit for taking a MOOC, just as it exists to obtain credit for the hundreds of other learning experiences that have been accredited by ACE over the years.
As I described above, the project we had accredited was a certification rather than a traditional course. And credit by examination is the next avenue for turning online courses into college credit which we’ll explore tomorrow.