Online college courses to grant credentials, for a fee

Providers of free online college courses are experimenting with academic security measures that will enable students who successfully complete the courses to obtain credentials, for a small fee, that convey some of the cachet of a premier university.

The credentials, or certificates, won’t translate into course credit toward a degree — at least not at big-name schools — because questions persist about how much those schools are willing to grant students who don’t pay tuition, as well as about the potential for cheating online.

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But the new certificates reflect a craving for academic legitimacy among legions of learners worldwide who in the past year have begun participating in the emerging market of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs. As major universities across the country dive into free online education, it is unclear how they, or the Web platforms that host the MOOCs, are going to reap revenue.

Offering such credentials might be an answer.

For less than $100, a student who takes a class in genetics and evolution from Duke University on a MOOC platform called Coursera — and agrees to submit to identity-verification screening — could earn a “verified certificate” for passing the course, under an initiative to be announced Wednesday.

For $95, a student in an online circuits and electronics class affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the MOOC platform edX will be able to take a proctored exam this month at one of thousands of test sites around the world and earn a certificate. Proctored exams are also being given for users of a MOOC platform called Udacity.

The security measures suggest that people sometimes cheat in MOOCs, even when there are no course credits or money at stake.

Despite the new optional fees, the providers say they will preserve the core principle that the courses are open to anyone, free of charge. The lure of no-cost education from elite universities has drawn hundreds of thousands of users to each site since last spring. But some users apparently want more from MOOCs than knowledge for its own sake.

Until now, Coursera has offered students only a simple “statement of completion” when they pass a class. But starting with the Duke course, two classes on nutrition and clinical problem-solving from the University of California at San Francisco, and two others from Georgia Tech and the University of Illinois, students will be able to pursue a verified certificate that carries the university’s logo.

Daphne Koller, a Stanford University computer scientist and a co-founder of Coursera, called it a “much more meaningful and valuable credential that they can use in their professional life or for their own personal reward.”

To qualify for a certificate, Koller said, a student would pay a fee expected to range from $30 to $100. The student would submit, via Webcam, a picture of herself and her photo identification. During the course, samples of the student’s keystrokes would be checked as assignments are filed and tests taken. Koller said the patterns of those keystrokes amount to a biometric identifier — akin to a handwriting sample — enabling Coursera to verify the user.

But experts noted potential holes in such a system. “Just having the correct person typing doesn’t ensure that the information is coming from that person,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, based at Clemson University.

Koller said the keystroke monitoring was meant only to help verify identity, not to prevent cheating. In the future, she said, Coursera plans more rigorous proctoring for certain courses that could be deemed credit-worthy. She said the identity-verification system would be tried on a few courses to “get the kinks worked out.”

Duke biologist Mohamed Noor, who teaches the online course on genetics and evolution, said he has more than 23,000 registered students for a 10-week course that began Friday.

If past results are a guide, no more than a few thousand will finish. Noor said the new Coursera identity checks will merely show that “we have somewhat more confidence that the person associated with an e-mail address is actually that person.” He said he trusts that potential employers and others who are shown a verified certificate from his course will give it proper weight.

“I figure that anybody with half a brain will know how to evaluate this,” Noor said. “It’s probably worth a very small amount of money.”

Coursera, a for-profit company based in California, hosts MOOCs from 33 schools, including Johns Hopkins University and the universities of Maryland and Virginia.

EdX, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts, is led by MIT and Harvard University and has partnerships with the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas system, Georgetown University and Wellesley College.

Both platforms are exploring various ways to generate revenue.

EdX President Anant Agarwal, who teaches the circuits and electronics course from MIT, said recent class participants will be eligible this month to take a two-hour proctored exam, for a $95 fee, at one of many testing centers worldwide operated by a unit of the education company Pearson. Those who pass, he said, will get a certificate from MITx — the MOOC arm of MIT — that notes the exam was supervised.

“A number of students are using this on their resumes,” Agarwal said. “Our expectation is that the proctored certificate will certainly have more value because the exam was taken in a setting where it was the student’s own work that was counted.”

 
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