MOOCs take a step toward college credit

February 7, 2013

A major provider of free online courses from elite colleges plans to announce Thursday that students in a handful of classes who pay a modest fee to have their work verified will be eligible for an official recommendation to help them obtain credit toward a degree.

The announcement from Coursera marks another step in the evolution of an experiment known as “massive, open online courses,” or MOOCs. Five courses offered via the California-based company were evaluated recently for creditworthiness by the American Council on Education.

ACE, which represents university presidents, agreed to recommend four courses for college credit provided that the student work is verified through proctoring. The courses are pre-calculus from the University of California at Irvine; introduction to genetics and evolution from Duke University; bioelectricity: a quantitative approach from Duke; and single-variable calculus from the University of Pennsylvania. ACE also recommended, for vocational credit, algebra from UC-Irvine.

This new path to college credit, of potential appeal to students seeking to lower tuition bills, will not be automatic.

Students must pay fees to Coursera in the range of $30 to $99 for screening to authenticate their identities and an additional $60 to $90 to take online proctored exams. Those who pass a course would then pay a small fee, estimated at about $20, to obtain a transcript from ACE. Then a student could use the ACE transcript to apply for credit from a higher-education institution of their choice. The decision to grant credit, in the end, is up to those institutions.

“A rigorous evaluation of these courses showed that they meet ACE’s standards for college credit recommendations,” ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said in a statement. “This is an important first step in ACE’s work to examine the long-term potential of MOOCs and whether this innovative new approach can engage students across the country and worldwide while helping raise degree completion, increasing learning productivity and deepening college curricula.”

Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, said: “The possibilities that will come from allowing our students to receive transferable college credit are great, and we look forward to expanding this option to more courses and subjects in the coming months.”

For decades, ACE has given recommendations to help students obtain credit for nontraditional learning experiences, such as specialized military training or corporate professional development. ACE is also evaluating MOOCs from an online provider based in California called Udacity.

Students already get college credit through many online venues. Numerous colleges specialize in online degrees. In addition, a company called StraighterLine offers low-price online classes in undergraduate subjects; students can then obtain credit for that work by transferring to a degree-granting institution.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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