The MOOC Credit Paradox

This might need to be a short posting, given that I’m in the midst of that multi-tasking that I recommend students never do while working on something important.  But as I write this, one of the two suspects in last Monday’s Marathon bombing is at large, and last seen a couple of towns over tossing a bomb from a stolen car.  So apologies if I seem distracted.

But perhaps distraction is what is needed at a time such as this, and so onward to some concluding thoughts regarding getting credit for MOOC courses and other forms of free learning.

I’ve outlined several evolving pathways that will allow students to receive official college credit for taking some of the great courses that have come online over the last couple of years.  In fact, as I’ve been taking my Udacity statistics class, an offer has popped up that lets me get official credit for this course for $150.

Now that’s a fraction of the quotient you’d get if you divided a year of college tuition by eight courses, so if enough courses manage to fit into one of the transfer credit schemes I mentioned earlier this week (such as ACE accreditation or associated credit-by-exam programs), or employers begin to recognize the value of hiring independent learners to the point where independent learning portfolios have real value with regard to hiring, then MOOCs (and similar materials) will begin to have a monetary value to supplement their current personal worth as a means of driving independent learning.

MOOC credit could actually be a good thing with regard to pushing down the cost of higher education and providing those that develop massive courses a source of income that can fuel continued expansion of their offerings.  But credit might also come with an associated downside: the dilution of one of the current key virtues of self-motivated learning.

For right now (at least for the most part) MOOC courses have no external value, meaning there is not really a dollar figure you claim to earn or save by finish a MOOC class successfully.  Which means that their only rewards are internal, consisting of the value you assign the personal experience of learning something new.

But once an online course translates to hundreds or thousands of dollars in tuition cost savings, or become as valuable as actual college courses in the employment marketplace, there will suddenly be an incentive for cutting corners by skipping lectures, blowing off reading or even cheating in order to obtain that external dollar value out of a course without putting the appropriate amount of work into it.

One of the advantages of the current “worthlessness” of MOOCs (speaking only in financial terms) is that they can rely on trust and self-motivation, rather than policing, to ensure students are doing the work needed to complete the course.

After all, if the only real current reward for taking a MOOC is the learning that’s accomplished, what could be more idiotic than wasting opportunities to practice and confirm that learning (which is what quizzes and assignments allow you to do) or cutting other corners that limit how much you get out of the class?

I know that there have been instances of people plagiarizing in current MOOC courses, but the cost of such absurd behavior is born only by the student who has sunk hours into taking some parts of the course (by watching lecture videos, for example) who then put time into another activity (cheating) desired to ensure they will fail to achieve true understanding of the material.

Obviously some people don’t comprehend the ridiculousness of cheating on a course where the only victim is the cheater.  But my guess is that this small amount of irrational behavior will grow substantially once cheating becomes more “rational,” in that it provides an inexpensive route to achieve something of value (such as genuine college credit or a job).

I’m not sure what the ultimate solution is for this credit paradox.  Perhaps ongoing developments in test security and remote proctoring will give MOOC providers the means to establish a separate set of exams for a self-segregated subset of people who want to take a course for credit.  Or perhaps attitudes towards MOOCs will evolve to where they are considered to be their own unique thing, rather than being considered an absolute equivalent to the traditional classes they so closely resemble.

However this paradox is resolved (presuming it can be resolved), we need to continue to appreciate not just MOOCs but the wealth of free, high-quality learning resources flooding the marketplace for what they are right now: a boon to the independent student ready to take responsibility for their own learning – even if their only reward comes in something other than dollars.

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6 Responses to The MOOC Credit Paradox

  1. Emma April 19, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    I’ve been following your program for quite a while. One subject seems to be recurring here, getting official credits for MOOCs. This would certainly be very interesting. I follow about 2 classes besides my ‘regular’ college, while not getting any credits for it, and I’d rather have too much than too little (I’m not sure about the system in America, but here in the Netherlands, you don’t automatcally graduate after a certain amount of credits, though of course, there’s a minimun you need to have if you go for graduation). Don’t I have enough to do? Isn’t it a waste of time? No, definitely not!

    For one reason, one you’ve also mentioned, I learn stuff and that’s simply a lot of fun. You also say that the reward for these classes don’t lie in anything you can measure with money, but I beg to differ. The economy nowadays is far from perfect. Getting a job, as we all know, is very hard, but keeping a job is too. The knowledge you attain with MOOCs can give you just a tiny bit of advantage over your colleagues. Knowledge you need to advance in of even keep your job. This is, of course, especially true if you take mostly technical classes. However, even the social sciences and humanities can teach us valuabe things to broaden our mind.

    These are just my two cents. What do you think about taking a class to enhance your chances of keeping a certain job or advance through it?

  2. Robert McGuire April 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    As you pointed out, John, there’s no tangible reward to completing a MOOC right now, and to me that’s one of the most exciting things about them. I know I sound like a romantic when I say this, but they are the purest form of education I’ve seen. The students are there simply because they want to learn without any emphasis on credentials or grades or jobs. All the teachers complaining that MOOCs aren’t real should really get in there and witness it, because what’s happening probably more closely resembles the kind of engaged classrooms we were dreaming of when we decided to become teachers than the reality of our traditional classrooms.

  3. Smallbones April 19, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    One possible solution to the paradox would be to have potential employers or an employer-run service do the testing at the time of the job search. Say an employer needs somebody who knows multivariate calculus, organic chemistry, and basic English composition. They could require that the applicants be tested just in those subjects, perhaps within the last year.

    Only the applicants who actually learned and retained the material in those courses would be rewarded with a job. Applicants would not need to be assessed in College Algebra or Basic Chemistry, and the employers would benefit by knowing what the applicant knows now, not what they knew 5 years ago.

    Bringing the employer into the loop might seem tough and would create new problems, but they are one of the main beneficiaries of accurate assessments, and the main “cause of the paradox” since they offer the student the “prize at the end”, i.e. the job.

  4. Will April 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    Employers always say they can’t find skilled people (more correctly, for the low pay they want to provide). Nevertheless, they should be less interested in a formal degree and more interested in verifying the knowledge through testing. Certain tests could be in a local college or university for verification. I’d also like to see them put money into these sites to sponsor various courses that are in demand for jobs (computer programming, etc).

    They can also peruse the forums and find people like myself to get the assignments done quickly and help others in the forums, so it’s a win win for everyone involved.

    Or create projects that involve employers such as the computational investing course where students could work on practical problems that could lead to jobs.

  5. Jill Rooney, Ph.D. July 17, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

    I really object to your statement that the cost of online cheating “is born only by the student who has sunk hours into taking some parts of the course (by watching lecture videos, for example) who then put time into another activity (cheating) desired to ensure they will fail to achieve true understanding of the material” and ” the only victim is the cheater.” There are countless victims of online cheating, from the new graduates who did all their coursework but lose jobs to someone whose transcript says they completed a course but actually didn’t, to the other students in the course whose original work is compared for grading purposes (e.g. grading curves) to work that is plagiarized. Cheating is cheating, it’s always wrong, and it always hurts other people.

    • DegreeofFreedom July 17, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

      I think your point is absolutely correct with regard to cheating always being wrong.

      My point vis-à-vis cheating in MOOCs (vs. cheating in a class where you’re dishonestly is contaminating the work of others) is that within a MOOC environment there are no others (or, more specifically, there are so many others than what you do to obtain your grade does not have an effect on anyone else in a no-credit course with no external value).

      Under these circumstances, the notion that “the cheater is only cheating him or herself” – which is generally wrong in traditional learning situations – is actually correct which is why cutting corners in order to learn less is not just dishonest in a MOOC (as it is in any other educational situation) but also completely moronic.

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