Thursday, February 7, 2013

Big MOOC Coursera Moves Closer to Academic Acceptance

Online-education provider Coursera is one step closer to academic acceptance, saying Thursday that the American Council on Education would recommend colleges grant credit for the successful completion of some of its free classes.
ACE, a higher-education industry group, has a network of about 2,000 schools that consider granting credit for nonclassroom programs, such as military or corporate training, based on its recommendations. Those schools "may be interested" in offering credit for the handful of MOOCs, "but we don't know," said Cathy A. Sandeen, an ACE vice president.Whether schools follow that suggestion remains unclear. Even the three institutions whose instructors teach those online courses—Duke University, University of Pennsylvania and University of California, Irvine—so far don't plan to award credit to students who complete the massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.
Coursera, which has amassed more than 2.5 million registered users across 217 classes, had asked the council in November to assess five of its offerings, in hopes that an ACE seal of approval would lead schools to further embrace MOOCs as legitimate vehicles for learning. (One Coursera class, not reviewed by ACE, was called off earlier this week due to technical problems.)
Udacity, another major MOOC provider, announced last month that it, too, is seeking ACE recommendations for four of its courses.
A handful of institutions already grant students credit for completing certain MOOCs, generally with additional coursework or assessments. Last month, San Jose State University teamed up with Udacity to award credit, for a fee, to students enrolled in three Udacity classes whether or not they were registered students at the California university.
But the idea of students cobbling together an entire degree from free Web courses, a prospect touted by some online-education evangelists, remains "kind of a silly nightmare," said Edward Rock, director of open course initiatives at University of Pennsylvania.
That school likens its single-variable calculus MOOC to an Advanced Placement course for high-school students. Enrolled Penn students who complete the online option can take a departmental exam to prove their knowledge and pass into higher-level math classes, just as they can after finishing an AP class.
Duke Provost Peter Lange said his school won't award credit to its own students or to others who enroll in its Bioelectricity and Genetics classes online, two of the Coursera options that ACE has recommended for credit. Though the classes are led by Duke professors, he said, "they're not taught the way we teach Duke courses" because they don't have a set meeting time, nor do they involve face-to-face instruction.
Duke isn't opposed to all online education. The school has teamed up with a handful of other colleges to launch credit-bearing courses on 2U Inc., another online-course platform. Students at the schools can receive credit from any of the participating classes.
Some college administrators say it's difficult to verify that students learned anything in MOOCs—few students even complete them—but Coursera and rivals Udacity and edX are rolling out proctored exams and web-based authentication tools to assess student performance.
But money may be the real deciding factor. Elite universities offering MOOCs have a major financial incentive to limit academic credit only to registered, paying students—and not those following along free online. Undergraduate tuition and required fees at Duke and Penn top $40,000 this school year, while out-of-state students pay nearly $37,000 at Irvine.
Write to Melissa Korn at

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