A Few Thoughts on MOOC Credit (and “Life” credit)

The March of the MOOCs continues as the American Council on Education has approved Coursera MOOC courses as being worth of actual credit– or, more accurately perhaps, “ACE CREDIT,” as the Coursera announcement puts it. The Chronicle of Higher Education article on this is pretty straight-forward, while the Inside Higher Ed piece is a little more critical (though not much).  Some “fun facts” I gleaned from both pieces:

  • The American Council on Education’s project is being heavily subsidized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though Bill has said a lot of really ill-informed things about education in different forums. Just because you have a lot of money and are well-intentioned doesn’t mean that you know what you’re talking about.
  • I’d never heard of ACE Credit before, but according to IHE, “ACE Credit has long used teams of faculty experts to review educational experiences — often on-the-job training and experience offered by the military and other government agencies, professional associations, labor unions and companies like Starbucks or McDonald’s. It has a network of nearly 2,000 colleges and universities who agree to consider the group’s credit recommendations, but decisions on accepting credits are made on a case-by-case basis.” Thus the “credit for life” element here.
  • To get the credit, you have to go through Coursera’s “Signature Track,” which as far as I can tell is Coursera’s security system (this is where the typing patterns and webcam photos/ID documents come into play) along with “a proctored online exam” after the course is over. All for $190.
  • As the IHE article makes clear at the end, these courses from Duke, UPenn and UC Irvine will not count as credit at their institutions.  “[Duke Provost Peter] Lange said Duke offers its students ‘an entirely different kind of educational experience’ than the one it is making available through its massive open courses, involving ‘substantial interactions between students and the faculty member.'” Well, alright then.

Interestingly enough, I took (and dropped out of) one of the courses on this list,  “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” taught by Mohamed Noor. I blogged about it a bit back here. I couldn’t stick it out because I was getting too busy with my own teaching, but I thought it was about as well-done as one could expect for a MOOC, but I also didn’t think it was so much a class as it was a textbook. I’ve written about this many times already, but the point is MOOCs are about providing content (and/or “learning opportunities”) and not about teaching.  Noor is a good enough as a pre-recorded lecturer, but that’s obviously not the same thing.

Three other quick thoughts on all this.

First, it seems a little shady to me that places like Duke are perfectly happy to offer their MOOC courses for credit at other institutions but not at Duke. Think about that for a second: is there any other course taught by someone at Duke and (presumably) approved by Duke where that is the case? I seriously doubt it. And exactly how much “interaction” is happening at Duke between Noor and his students? I would guess that when Noor teaches a gen-ed version of his class at Duke the amount of “interaction” he has with his meatspace students is about the same as he has with his MOOC students.

No, this is just academic snobbery: “this course that we’re sponsoring isn’t good enough for our students, but the ‘little people’ at that state school or community college down the road might find it useful. Better to have a video-version of our great minds than to have nothing at all.” And it is a good example of how these elite institutions granting “access” to their “great minds” rarifies their own standing in the academic hierarchy.  It’s like the difference between seeing Beyonce (or whoever– pick your favorite big star performer) on television versus seeing them live. No one would pay for the television appearance, but people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for the “real thing.”

Second, as I also have blogged about here before, getting credit from “prior life experience” is tricky and is often the approach taken by diploma mills and other sketchy kinds of schools. At schools like EMU, this stuff only kind of counts. I will often see transcripts for students who were in the military who have all of these credits (maybe ACE CREDITS?) for doing “military things” and training, but that credit inevitably counts as electives and doesn’t do them a whole lot of good toward completing their degrees.

Should this sort of life credit/experience count more than it does? Maybe. Maybe this is an alternative sort of educational experience for that student who is really just trying to apply for the manager/supervisor job where there is no real reason for a college degree other than a college degree is a convient way for employers to establish a baseline qualification. I’ve had plenty of returning students– folks in their 30s and 40s and older– who told me the only reason they were in college was because they had reached a point in their workplace where the only way they could advance or keep their current job was to get a college degree in anything. Well, maybe those kinds of students ought to have some kind of different certification process.  MOOCs and “ACE CREDIT” and the like might be a part of that.

Third, I’m not sure I’m understanding the “market share” for this kind of equivalency credit. Because even though they might say stuff like “Coursera is committed to seeing that our courses meet our students’ educational goals, from simply experiencing the joy of learning something new, to seeking improved employment opportunities, to working towards a degree” (that’s an actual quote, btw), we have to always remember that Coursera (and Udacity and others) are not charities. They have attracted millions of dollars in venture capital not simply because they intend to spread joy. 

But I am not sure I understand the potential market here. CLEP tests, the equivalent of AP tests, ACE CREDIT, “life credit,” etc., etc.: if you added that all up, would it even be a 500,000 people worldwide? That’s great I guess, but that isn’t exactly the Thomas Friedman-esque transformation of higher education as we know it, is it?

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