What My Free MOOC BA Might Mean for Tomorrow’s College Kids (and Their Parents)


The site seems to be drawing more readers whose interest in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other forms of free learning is based around one of the questions I’ve been trying to answer over the last year: what do these new, no-cost resources mean for students (and their parents) contemplating their options in a changing market for higher education?

As a backdrop for new readers, I spent last year attempting to see if one could learn the equivalent of what a student would get out of four-years of study at a liberal arts college.  But, unlike traditional degree programs, my MOOC BA would be accomplished in just twelve months and not cost a dime

Now I should say at the outset that I did not actually earn a formal degree, or even formal college credit for the courses I took.  But having spent a year not just studying but researching and writing about all aspects of the emerging market for free learning (which included a look at how to turn independent study programs into credit) I’ve come up with a list of thoughts for parents who (like me) will be staring down huge tuition bills in the near future:

(1)    Having gone to a traditional residential college earlier in life, I can confirm that many (albeit not all) MOOCs are equivalent to semester-long courses with regard to rigor, level of demand and sophistication (not a huge surprise since many are taught by passionate and skilled professors from some of the world’s best colleges and universities).

(2)    Not all MOOCs are created to mimic the experience of full-semester classes.  For instance, many of these free courses last only 6-8 weeks long and are taught by professors eager to teach just a subset of the material they might normally include alongside other material in a course that goes for a full semester.

(3)    In additional to challenges calibrating courses of different length, demand and content coverage, other hurdles that need to be overcome before students can be awarded formal credit for MOOCs include security questions (how do you know who is taking tests and writing papers, or whether or not they are cheating or plagiarizing?) and the understandable concern of educators over new and untested teaching and learning technologies.

(4)    All that said, there are mechanisms (such as college equivalency accreditation and credit-by-exam programs) that allow students to turn non-traditional learning experience into formal college credit.  Some students are taking advantage of these opportunities today to shave one or more semesters off their overall college bill.  But taking these steps requires a level of commitment and educational entrepreneurship that many families would rather put into finding the scholarship money needed to pay for a traditional two- or four-year college degree program.

(5)    There is already precedent for earning college credit for doing things other than taking classes in the school in which a student is enrolled.  Advanced Placement, transfer credit and college exchange programs are all popular means whereby students earn credit for study completed outside their college or university, although these mechanisms are often used to help students place out of 101-level courses so they can get the most out of their college experience (rather than trying to shorten that experience to save money).

(6)    There are early murmurs of educational reform that might involve letting students earn a BA after paying a college for just three years vs. four, with credit for that fourth year coming from some of the educational alternatives already mentioned in this piece.  Now we’re a long way off from seeing such reform implemented, and even if it does come to pass it will likely only be an option that attracts a subset of students.  But, unlike wholesale disruption of higher education, this type of reform has the advantage of being revenue neutral for the institutions that would have to embrace it.

(7)    I’ve assumed up until now that parents and students are primarily interested in earning a college diploma (with all the employment and social benefits such a document provides).  But as I demonstrated last year, if your goal is learning rather than credentialization, the ability to put together your own college-level learning experience for free is here today.

And for the following seven Mondays, I will look at each of the seven points mentioned above in more detail.

One Response to What My Free MOOC BA Might Mean for Tomorrow’s College Kids (and Their Parents)

  1. Paul Morris April 4, 2014 at 7:48 pm #

    One fairly recent announcement that seems to have gone virtually unremarked is the tie up between Thomas Edison State College and Saylor.org (or the Saylor Academy as we are now supposed to call it). Basically it is now possible to earn a full (accredited) two year degree in Business Studies (Associate in Sciences – AS) using only Saylor courses with additional proctored exams or portfolios. While it is not exactly free, costing about $5000 for students outside New Jersey (about $3500 for NJ residents), it is a lot cheaper than other routes.

    Now, based on the take up of other credit bearing options, I don’t imagine Thomas Edison will be swamped but, for me, the real significance is the explicit recognition of the academic worth of Saylor’s courses. The debate about ‘equivalence’ and ‘comparative value’ is pretty much over–if you can earn a recognised degree, albeit with more secure assessment, then the courses clearly meet the required standard.

    This isn’t the only route that Saylor are exploring. They have for a long time had NCCRS and CLEP accredited courses as well as links with Excelsior College as well as Thomas Edison. Also running now as a pilot with Empire State College (SUNY) is an accreditation of any Saylor university level course on the basis of an ePortfolio prepared under guidance on their system. During the trial the first 100 students to apply will get one course assessment worth up to 4 credits absolutely free. amazingly, this is still open and under-subscribed. The students will be considered as non-matriculated but the credits will appear on their Empire State transcript.

    So lots going on at Saylor–although their publicity machine seems sadly lacking! Needless to say, I have registered for the SUNY pilot. Although I’ve absolutely no use for college credits it we be interesting to see how the portfolio works and what support they actually offer–and I suppose there must be some kudos in having US college credits? I have yet to persuade my wife of the need to spend $5,000 on another degree but maybe…

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