Are the MOOCs now ready for prime time? Like a lot of people, I’ve been pretty amazed by how quickly these massive open online courses have spread over the past year. First, there was the sheer number of students who signed up: some two million have enrolled this year, a figure that astounds me no matter how often I hear it. And it’s hard to keep up with the seemingly daily announcements of new high-profile university participants and partnerships. Still, the inability of MOOC students to earn conventional course credit for their work, rather than non-credit certificates, has thus far posed a seemingly huge obstacle to credibility for this strangely named new educational life form.
Nevertheless, in recent months the MOOCs have been inching closer to the mainstream In September, Colorado State’s Global Campus said it will award transfer credit for one of Udacity’s artificial intelligence classes. The University of California at Berkeley is considering granting credit to California community college students who take MOOCs offered by Berkeley professors. And last month Antioch College reached an agreement to grant credit for Coursera classes overseen by Antioch instructors.
All that was a nice start. But a much more significant development occurred yesterday with the American Council on Education’s announcement that, with funding from the Gates Foundation, it would evaluate eight to 10 courses offered by Coursera to see whether they should be granted a thumbs-up by ACE’s credit recommendation service.
There are of course many uncertainties surrounding this new ACE-Coursera project, as well as a flurry of other Gates-funded MOOC ventures announced yesterday. But ACE-recommended credit for MOOC classes promises to be a very significant next step. Broadly speaking, as Inside Higher Ed ’s excellent account puts it, yesterday’s announcements signal that the higher ed establishment has embraced “the disruptive potential of MOOCs.”
So far so good. But there is another frontier, well beyond transfer credits, that has yet to be crossed: Accreditation. What happens if a MOOC wants to develop a full program of study—a series of courses leading to a degree? Right now, prospects for earning traditional accreditation for such new ventures and arrangements are dim. As critics have long complained—with justification, in my view—accreditors often foster institutional conformity, offering their seal of approval to colleges and universities that looks more or less like what is already out there. Inputs like the number of faculty with PhDs receive a lot more attention than students’ academic and career success. So entrepreneurial organizations like MOOCs—which in many ways don’t fit traditional notions of what a university should look like, from their scale to their pedagogical approaches to their business models—have a tough time gaining a toehold in the academic establishment.
Against this backdrop, I was pleased to get an email the other day suggesting that the accreditation establishment is beginning to take MOOCs seriously. The latest issue of Inside Accreditation, penned by Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), calls today’s discussion of innovation in postsecondary education “a refreshing change” and zeroes in on the promise and pitfalls of MOOCs. Much of Eaton’s newsletter, perhaps appropriately, is devoted not to answers but to a series of questions. Among them, in a sampling of her words: Are MOOC students learning? How do we know? Does it make sense to judge MOOCs through the lens of traditional higher education? Or, do we need a different lens and what is this? If accreditation is to address MOOCs, what needs to be done? Do alternative [quality review] tools need to be created? If so, what are their characteristics?
These are good questions, and their appearance on the agenda of CHEA’s annual meeting in January is another welcome sign that the organization sees the need to take them seriously. (I should perhaps mention that I spoke at CHEA’s yearly gathering in 2011, and also that I’ve consulted for ACE on some writing projects.) Still, maybe all this is just talk. The establishment will inevitably take a while to embrace new forms of postsecondary education. And it would be naïve to assume that the excitement around MOOCs means that they will solve all that ails higher ed. But it would be a big mistake not to give them a chance to unleash their potential. A pilot of ACE credit recommendations for Coursera classes (and soon EdX as well) is a key move toward respectability. Full-blown accreditation, if the establishment can seize the opportunity to maintain its relevance in the face of change, would be even better.