MOOCs for College Credit? ACE Says Yes to Five Courses

As Massive Open Online Course programs develop longer lists of offerings, traditional colleges and universities are not sure how their programs and the new structure can fit together. The Chronicle of Higher Education's Steve Kolowich reports that the American Council on Education has taken a risky step in declaring five specific MOOC courses appropriate for colleges to consider for credit. Now it's up to their member schools to decide what to do with that recommendation.

The ACE is a professional organization for college presidents and acts as a lobbying organization for the interests of higher education. But it also helps colleges and universities by keeping track of continuing education options.

The council, an association that advises college presidents, operates a credit-recommendation service that evaluates individual courses. If a course passes muster, ACE advises its 1,800 member colleges that they can be comfortable conferring credit on students who have passed that course.

The five courses are all from the same MOOC provider, and they cover technical material that should be possible to evaluate with traditional testing, even online. Three of them are math courses that cover algebra, pre-calculus and single-variable calculus. These courses are taught by faculty from the University of Pennsylvania and UC-Irvine. Duke University is offering introductions to genetics and bioelectricity.

Although the courses are taught by accredited and respected faculty, the format of an open, online course makes it much more difficult to ascertain whether a particular student completed and mastered the material presented. The universities who partner with Coursera do not always accept their own offerings for credit. Some, says Coursera founder Andrew Ng, are even reluctant to submit their courses to the ACE for evaluation for credit.

Kolowich quotes the president of Albany-based Excelsior College saying that, although his school grants credit for passing exams rather than for time spent in the classroom, he would not feel comfortable granting credit for a MOOC. John Ebersole pointed to the loose standards used by Coursera and others:

"We would hope that ACE would support a more rigorous process, as is the case with other forms of noncredit instruction, whereby those seeking credit would complete a psychometrically valid assessment in a secure testing facility," Mr. Ebersole said.

Whether colleges soon accept ACE's recommendation, the inquiry has begun their engagement with a long-term problem. Technology opinion leaders say that online learning can't be fenced out; it will only continue to grow, and some way must be found to integrate it with our existing system. The Gates Foundation has been particularly interested in the potential of online learning to help students who cannot afford a university education. Its involvement with the ACE evaluation of Coursera is the beginning of the process.

ACE has positioned itself to lead the inquiry into what MOOCs will mean to higher education. The council has gotten funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study how the courses could be used to improve access and college completion, and it is currently reviewing courses from Udacity, another MOOC provider, for possible credit recommendations.

Advocates of online learning like to say that it is student-driven and cannot be planned in a top-down way. Still, until the working world accepts alternative qualifications, students are taking a risk to invest too much of their energy in MOOCs that may not add to their academic credit. The risk will start to drop if a few colleges choose to take the ACE's word for it and begin granting credit for these five classes.

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