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A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

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Is this the Beginning of a Sea Change in Higher Ed?

Published:  July 17, 2012

UPDATE: It turns out this was not the beginning of a sea change. See post above.


Today twelve heavy-hitting research universities announced their intent to join the small, but rapidly-growing, ranks of institutions that provide Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). While MOOCS are not new, there are at least two reasons to think this announcement represents the beginnings of a sea change in how higher education is provided -- and counted.

The first, and most obvious, has to do with the scale and scope of this enterprise. Private and public institutions in Canada, Switzerland, the U.S, and the United Kingdom will provide hundreds of these courses. This means that millions of students around the country and world will have the benefit of these free courses.

Or, at least, some of the benefits.

This brings us to the second, and most critical, innovation from today’s announcement.   Until now, students could learn from—but not receive credit for -- MOOCs. At the most, students could receive a letter stating how well they did in the course—but letters are not the same as credits. And they’re apparently not the same as “certificates,” as my colleague Kevin Carey found out when he blogged about Stanford University’s ground-breaking artificial intelligence MOOC. Shortly after publishing his post, in which he referred to the letter students received as a “certificate,” Carey received an email from Stanford’s communication shop clarifying that

Students who did well did not receive a certificate. Neither Stanford nor the professors issued a certificate. All students who completed the courses received a letter from the professor saying that they had completed the course. And that’s it.

Alarm bells had gone off in Stanford; and it’s easy to see why. A certificate has the air of a legitimate credential. And credentials are usually paid for -- not given away to students who don’t pay, no matter how much they have learned. Stanford’s insistence on maintaining a distinction between a letter and a certificate underscores just how absurd and arbitrary the difference is. Yet this distinction carries real-world consequences for students whose learning only “counts” if they are awarded credit.

Colleges have been reluctant to break their lucrative monopoly on credentials and offer credit for their own MOOCS -- until now. At least one of the dozen of new MOOC providers, the University of Washington, says it will offer credit for their courses.

Watching UW grapple with the questions that arise from this move could provide all of us with a front-row seat to the first act of a seismic shift in higher education. Here are some of the more intriguing questions to look for:

  • Although the courses themselves are free, it’s likely that UW will charge a fee of some kind to verify learning and award credit for that learning. But how will UW choose a price point?
  • Will these courses be similar to courses taken by traditional (paying) students?
  • Will the university count its own MOOC credits towards a degree and will it work to ensure that these credits are accepted by other institutions in the MOOC partnership?
  • What assessments will it use to ensure that students have mastered the material?
  • And will the commitment to the free and open part of MOOCs remain?

The answers to these questions -- by UW and other institutions that choose to provide credit for MOOCS -- will have profound implications for the future of higher ed.


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