Reality Check – MOOCs for Credit

The loud debate over what would happen to traditional universities once students were able to receive actual college credit for completing a MOOC seems to presume that:

(1)    MOOC classes provided (and could measure) the same amount of learning as their brick-and-mortar equivalents

(2)    Presuming (1) was correct, mechanisms could be put in place to allow students to obtain such college credit; and

(3)    Students would take advantage of these mechanisms in order to save money, accelerate or even completely replace a traditional (and far more expensive) degree program

This Degree of Freedom project was launched in order to provide input to that first point by communicating student-centric perspectives on what it’s like to take a degree’s worth of courses based only on MOOCs and other forms of free learning.  And during the course of this project, I’ve outlined different strategies for measuring learning and different mechanisms by which students could achieve some form of credit for MOOCs.

But as this recent story indicates, even with some of these mechanisms already in place, there don’t seem to be many (or any) student takers for MOOCs for credit, even though the economics driving those offerings ($89 for a credit for >$1000) seems sound.

Some earlier professional experience left me completely unsurprised by this low level of interest.  For years ago, some partners and I put a program we had developed to teach and certify digital literacy skills through the same American Council on Education (ACE) credit equivalency process many MOOCs are currently going through.

This process created a pathway whereby students who had passed our certification could have their results registered on an official ACE transcript which could then be brought to an institution of higher education that had the option of accepting the ACE recommendation and adding credit to a student’s actual college transcript.

This would give students the chance to obtain credit for cheap and/or opt out of mandatory technology courses covering material they already could prove they understood through our exam.  And unlike some MOOC courses which seem to threaten existing programs, our certification was being introduced into school situations where there were not enough slots for teaching this subject matter (meaning educators looked favorably on third-party alternatives to close the gap between mandatory computer literacy requirements and limited resources to teach the subject).

But despite how much sense this all made, our ACE program (like the recent Colorado State University MOOCs-for-credit project linked above) was greeted by chirping crickets.

For as it turned out, the steps needed to get from A (taking our exam – which was not free) to Z (getting a college to give you credit for the experience) was non-trivial.  Getting your ACE transcript was a highly manual process (with a dollar figure associated with it).  And once you had this transcript, getting a college to understand what it was (much less accept it) often involved work by students to sell their institution on both on ACE accreditation generally, and the worth of our program specifically.  And students could expect more fees from their institution, which meant “free credit” was already climbing into the hundreds of dollars (less than thousands, but still significant – especially when you add the additional logistics involved with making this all happen).

Over time, we put in place services that could help students jump through these various hoops.  But the long-term benefit of the whole experience (for us anyway) was the prestige associated with having a program that had gone through a rigorous ACE review vs. an actual army of students who had used our program as a form of alternative credit.

I mention this to explain why the highly limited uptake on offers now in place to allow students to use MOOCs to cut down their tuition bills seem to be triggering student indifference vs. widespread institutional disruption.

Now it may be that this lack of interest is just a result of MOOCs being so new, and the programs needed to turn them into credit still few, far between and largely unknown.  Or perhaps hostility towards MOOCs is being played out behind the scenes by institutions and faculty interested in protecting their most valuable asset (control over how one obtains a degree).

But I also suspect that many people are only looking at the most obvious economic arguments supporting MOOCs for credit (that they allow you to get something worth more than a thousand bucks for less than a hundred), and ignoring the other fees, steps and ambiguities that add significant friction to the market for any alternatives for obtaining college credit.

This type of economic dynamic is nothing new.  In fact, most technological innovation required time and mediation between producers and consumers before they could “go mainstream.”

And it’s to this subject of mediation that I will turn tomorrow.


2 Responses to Reality Check – MOOCs for Credit

  1. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN July 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    There is someting wrong here.
    ACE is too complicated for students .

    Is same true for Colorado State .?

  2. Bruce Gumbert July 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    I am retired from the US Navy and found the ACE guide useful in letting employers know just exactly what all the training I completed in the Navy was as college level course work. I never bothered with a formal transcript since most of my training was vocational technical training in nature. I had obtained a BS in Business through a non traditional college in New York that works with a lot of military people who have taken a lot of college courses and received technical training to get a degree. Some of the classes I completed where though Regents exams which a traditional brick and mortar college would not accept so I wound up taking some courses that I actually had completed.

    The college I received my non traditional degree is now called Excelsior college and they are still part of the University of New York college system. When I completed my degree they were called Regents College of SUNY Albany which is what is on my diploma.

    Coursera is in the starting phase of working for accreditation so be patient they will work things out it just take time. I am sure part of the problem is traditional colleges are scared of what may happen if they become legitimate college credit. The administration of these colleges want their over inflated salaries and the perks they have.

    Being in my mid 50’s I have witnessed the downgrading of a college degree over time. Like who needs a BS degree to be a secretary or as they call it now Administrative Assistant. I could do that job being drunk all the time it just does not require a college education but the Colleges are in the Business of making Money and have to justify that what they teach actually is necessary.

    Most MBA students do not even have to write a thesis or God forbid have to defend an original piece of academic material. If you really do an analysis of the modern MBA it is a BS in General Business with no general education requirements and only have the course hours in finance and accounting. Unless you take courses in strategic management or operations management you will not learn anything new in a graduate level management course any more that upper level courses in management in an undergraduate degree. I make that statement based on my own experience in taking a lot of business management degrees.

    I never learned anything new in management courses after I took my first one. Just rehashing of the same material over and over. What is really scary in my opinion is that Taylor’s “Scientific Management” book which is considered the grandfather of all management theory is based on the premise of early 1900’s that your worker is stupid and has to be micromanaged. Just read the book and you will understand why I say that taken from a 21st century perspective and the fact that I have also spent a lot of time dealing with quality management as a academic discipline and practitioner.

    A few years back I found a sixth grade final exam from the late 1800’s. I know I would not have been able to pass it and doubt that most people with masters or doctoral degree could pass it either. Education is what you make it and you can get a very good education with out ever getting a piece of paper. I am starting a blog about that but am still working on consolidating some resources for it.

    MOOC’s are really great if like a traditional course the instructor puts the effort into class. Some of them could use some work just like a regular college class where the professor is more interested in doing research and look at teaching a class as a necessary evil of being at a college. I flunked Calculus the first time I took it because the professor had that attitude.

    So much for my take on this. I am just going to continue taking courses the interest me because learning is fun.

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