The popularity of massive online open courses — MOOCs — is such that their future is on the agenda for a non-profit group that represents many of the country's college and university presidents. The American Council on Education is preparing on weigh in on MOOCs, something that could see the format adopted more widely and would also bolster the movement to allow students to earn college credit for taking free open courses online.
The main issue before ACE membership is whether the quality of MOOCs measures up to the level of instruction offered in traditional college courses. If ACE agrees that it is, that would go a long way to legitimize MOOCs in the eyes of both higher education institutions and students.
Even though the massive free courses have been around for less than two years, some of the biggest brands in education have begun offering them. From Coursera, whose founders hail from Stanford University, to the edX Consortium, which was originally the brainchild of educators from Harvard and MIT, MOOCs boast some glittering pedigrees. Yet, despite speeches talking up their potential, MOOCs are not at the moment widely viewed to be a legitimate way to earn a higher education diploma. However, if ACE gives their approval, it's possible that might change.
"MOOCs are an intriguing, innovative new approach that holds much promise for engaging students across the country and around the world, as well as for helping colleges and universities broaden their reach," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the council. "But as with any new approach, there are many questions about long-term potential, and ACE is eager to help answer them."
According to the plan announced earlier this week, starting next year the council will engage teams of faculty from around the country to assess the content and academic rigor of the most popular courses available through MOOC providers. Those that meet the standards set out by ACE CREDIT, a group that is charged with determining if college credits should be granted for courses and exams taken outside traditional university programs, will be recommended for college credit once the analysis is complete.
Although the decision of the council carries a great deal of weight, it is not binding for the schools under its purview — the best ACE can do is make a recommendation. It is up to the individual colleges and universities to decide whether to accept it or not.
The initiative, to be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also will involve research on the impact of MOOCs. A task force of top administrators will convene to discuss the potential for MOOCs to improve student learning and boost college attainment levels. A pilot project involving a small number of colleges and universities aims to explore whether MOOCs are successful in engaging adult learners.
"We are eager to learn from and share the data that will be generated," says Dan Greenstein, of the Gates foundation.