To start college, the typical student must meet admission requirements (if any), enroll and pay tuition. But what if anyone anywhere could try out a prominent university’s classes for a small fee and wait until the end to decide whether to pay tuition for credit toward a diploma?
That is one of the groundbreaking ideas behind an Arizona State University plan, announced Wednesday, to offer a freshman curriculum online through the nonprofit Web site called edX.
The Global Freshman Academy, as ASU calls it, is the latest in a head-spinning series of technological innovations for higher education since the emergence of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in 2011 and 2012. The academy will consist of 12 online MOOCs from ASU faculty on various topics, from math to humanities to social and behavioral sciences. Introduction to Astronomy is scheduled to launch in August, followed in the fall by Human Origins and Western Civilizations: Ancient and Medieval Europe. The rest are slated to be introduced gradually over the next two years.
Like other MOOCs on edX — which was founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University — these will be available free of charge to anyone who wants to audit them. But ASU is introducing a twist: a path toward credit. To qualify, students can pay a $45 fee to verify their identity using a webcam and an official photo identification card. Then they can take their class.
At the end, they will be able to take a proctored final exam. Those who are successful can pay tuition of up to $200 per credit toward an ASU degree. Students who complete eight classes this way can enter ASU as sophomores, according to university President Michael M. Crow. Estimated total tuition and fees for this route: a little more than $5,000. That’s about half of what in-state students are paying this year on the main campus in Tempe, Ariz., and about 20 percent of what out-of-state students pay.
Crow said the university will maintain high academic standards through the design of the MOOCs and engagement with faculty and teaching assistants.
“Call this MOOCs on steroids, or MOOCs to the third power, or something like that,” Crow said. “It’s a different, more intensive experience.” Students, he said, won’t simply be “watching talking heads on a screen.”
Skeptics say that MOOCs are more about building brands than delivering quality education. What matters most in higher education, they say, is the interaction between a student and a professor. That is inherently limited in an online course with thousands of participants.
But Crow believes the courses can open a new route for degrees in a nation that needs to expand its share of adults with college credentials. “There are many pathways to success, both academically and in life,” he said. “This is now one of them.”
How many students will choose it remains entirely unknown. The market for online education, whether free, inexpensive or pricey, is highly fluid. But ASU officials hope the design of their initiative — paying tuition at the end of a course rather than the beginning — will help lure students from around the world.
“This really changes the risk relationship of the student to the course,” said Philip Regier, ASU’s dean for educational initiatives. “For a modest sum, they purchase an option to determine if they want to buy credit at the end of the course. Students don’t have to pay for credit until they know they’re successful.”
ASU, with about 83,000 students last fall at several campuses and online, is among the largest public universities in the country. Crow last year announced a partnership with Starbucks to help the coffee company’s employees finish college. Nearly 2,000 Starbucks employees have enrolled.
For edX, based in Cambridge, Mass., the ASU initiative marks another leap into the unknown. Since 2012, the nonprofit organization has hosted hundreds of online courses from about 70 institutions. It also has attracted 4 million registered users from around the world. Coursera, a business based in Mountain View, Calif., is another major online host of university MOOCs.
Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX, said ASU will be the first university to offer non-traditional students direct credit for passing the MOOCs it places on the site. “This is truly revolutionary,” he said.
Agarwal said many students view entering college like scaling a cliff: steep and forbidding. ASU’s academy on edX, he said, will be “a risk-free, gentle-slope approach to college.”
So far, other universities — Harvard, MIT, Georgetown and others — have conceived of edX mainly as a platform for global outreach and for pedagogical experiments. They have not offered credit for those who pass edX courses.
In January, philanthropist Steven B. Klinsky announced a $1 million donation to edX to develop what he calls “freshman year for free” — a suite of courses geared toward students in high school and beyond to help them pass Advanced Placement and other College Board examinations. Passing scores on those tests can help students qualify for credit.