It's hard to believe that Coursera has been in business for only a year, as very few companies can match it for the amount of news and hype its product has received. As a platform for massive online open courses, Coursera – and its sparkling Google and Stanford University pedigree – is now talked about as a possible future for higher education in America and the world.
Now the company – along with other MOOC providers like Udacity and edX – are taking the next step on that path by piloting efforts that would allow students who take MOOCs to earn college credit. Students can sign up and for a small fee take a proctored exam in a nearby testing center, giving colleges an opportunity to evaluate what they have learned.
This has led many to ask if the next logical step for Coursera and others is to go straight to offering full college degrees. The question was verbalized by The New York Times education reported Laura Pappano during a panel at Austin's SXSWedu, which was addressed to the Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng. When answering, Ng denied that this was the company's ultimate destination – saying that Coursera is an education platform, not a university.
To which Anant Agarwal, president of the nonprofit EdX, quipped: "a very politically correct answer" (drawing a round of laughter from the audience). Ng's response was hardly surprising given Coursera's reliance on university partners, including Princeton, Brown and 60 other institutions, to populate its site with courses. The startup wouldn't be much of a partner if it planned to take on academia with a degree of its own. But just because Coursera says it doesn't intend to issue degrees or their equivalent, it doesn't mean that others don't eventually plan to do just that.
Others besides Agarwal expressed skepticism, with some saying that there doesn't appear to be many reasons why the company wouldn't take this fairly logical leap. In the words of the Twitter account of ed startup Degreed, ignoring the possibility could be seen as lack of imagination.
Building on the rise of nonaccredited courses from sources like the MOOC providers and iTunesU, Degreed's premise is that as people build skills through informal education providers, they will need an alternative to the traditional degree. Although they don't share Degreed's ambitions for "jailbreaking" the college degree, startups LearningJar and Smarterer similarly aim to assess informal education. After the onstage conversation, Agarwal told me on the sidelines that he believes that pure MOOC degrees are on their way.