MOOCs and “Prior Learning Assessment”

More in the series of “the summer of MOOCs” articles and posts here:  Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article, “Making It Count.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are not credit-bearing. But a pathway to college credit for the courses already exists — one that experts say many students may soon take.

That scenario combines the courses with prior learning assessment — a less-hyped potential “disruption” to traditional higher education — which is the granting of credit for college-level learning gained outside the traditional academic setting.

Here’s how the process could work: A student successfully completes a MOOC, like Coursera’s Social Network Analysis, which will be taught this fall by Lada Adamic, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. The student then describes what he or she learned in that course, backing it up with proof, in a portfolio developed with the help of or another service, perhaps offered by a college.

There’s also this handy flow-chart:

This isn’t a bad idea in theory and maybe even in practice.  It kind of reminds me of the old days when future lawyers went and studied to take the Bar Exam without needing to go through that pesky law school business.  I believe this is how Lincoln became a lawyer.

But it doesn’t take much to spot some potential problems, too:

  • “Credit for prior experience” is essentially the formula used by diploma mills to justify their fake degrees– the “PhD in life,” so to speak.  So until that well-deserved bias is overcome, getting actual college credit from an actual college will be tricky.
  • The problem with prior experience is you have to actually have prior experience.  I of course do encounter students at EMU who come into classes I teach with a lot of worthy prior experience.  Just the other day, a new grad student asked me if she could get college credit for her prior experience as a teacher (the answer was no).  But for the most part, the reason why students come to college in the first place is they don’t have prior experience.  So while some combination of MOOC/prior experience thing might be useful for adults returning to college after years in the workplace, it isn’t going to be too useful for most of our students.  And by the way, it’s the younger, more traditional college students who are going deepest into student loan debt.
  • What exactly would this credit “count” for, anyway?  Take the example of the course mentioned in the introduction:  that Social Network Analysis course looks like it might be pretty cool, but what exactly would we count that as at a place like EMU?  It probably wouldn’t correspond to anything in the Written Communication major, and I don’t think it would count here as a gen ed class.  So at best, someone could transfer this class as just “credit,” and any transfer student can tell you that that’s not very useful.
  • Even this article says that the process someone would have to go through to make MOOC credit count might not be worth it, “that students might decide it’s easier to retake an equivalent course at a traditional college than to seek prior-learning credit for a MOOC.”

8 thoughts on “MOOCs and “Prior Learning Assessment””

  1. Larger questions linger in the background of some of your potential problems.
    1.Do the current degree requirements adequately address the skills/ideas that students need to meet employer expectations?
    2.Do students really come to learn or come to get credentialed?
    3.Is the course hoop easier because it is charted? Or easier because their less effort in learning?
    Thanks for your post. I like the questions it raises.

    1. 1) That of course depends a lot on the degree program. I like to think that the program I teach in at Eastern Michigan, Written Communication, does because our students (at least the best and brightest of them) tell us so and because they go on to get jobs.

      2) Students come for both. No student anywhere is going to pay a significant amount of money in tuition simply for the warm and fuzzy feeling they get from learning something. Conversely, most student I think want to get something out of the experience and not just the “seal of approval” credential. Though I have to say I have had students tell me point-blank “I’m just here because I have to have a degree,” whereas I can’t think of any example where a student said to me “I’m just here because I want to learn.”

      3) I’m not sure what you mean by the last question though….

      1. I think your answer to 2 answers question 3. I guess what I’m getting at is the type of people who pursue a MOOC seem to be interested in learning for learning’s sake (willing to be corrected on that point), whereas students who attend a college to seek out a degree are more interested in what the degree will do for them. The learning seems like just a necessity of the end goal.

        1. That’s probably true right now, and if the discussion threads on the MOOC are any indication, it sure seems like a significant number of people posting are themselves educators. If all the secondary school teachers, college professors/adjuncts/graduate assistants, and people who work in the online education business in some regard were to stop posting in the class I’m in right now, the discussion forums would become very quiet indeed.

          But that’s the situation right now. If Coursera et al figure out how to make this count for credit that can be applied toward some degree and/or if the certificates/badges/whatever that are awarded here actually mean something, then I think you would see lots and lots of students coming to these classes to just get the credit.

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