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July 18, 2012

The University of Washington plans to offer “enhanced” versions of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) it will develop through a partnership with Coursera, according to the university’s provost.

The "enhanced" versions will add a number of features designed to make them more closely resemble conventional online courses -- including more assessments, direct interaction with instructors, and the opportunity to earn a certificate that hypothetically could be redeemed for course credit.

But the “enhanced” MOOCs will also come with price tags and enrollment caps. And while students might be able to redeem their completion certificates for credit toward a University of Washington degree, they could do so only if they enrolled as tuition-paying students at the university, says David P. Szatmary, the provost.

Apart from residing online and on the Coursera platform, these “enhanced” and potentially credit-bearing courses will hardly qualify as MOOCs.

Even as traditional universities have embraced massive free courses, those institutions have drawn a line on the matter of offering credit. Some professors send a letter of recognition to students who succeed in the free, online versions of their courses, but the universities have refrained from offering those students course credits that count toward the completion of a traditional degree. So far the only way students might redeem their success in MOOCs for formal college credit is by seeking validation through prior-learning assessment apparatuses.

This despite rumors, following Monday’s news of 12 new universities plotting to broadcast free versions of their highly regarded courses, that Washington was going to become the first traditional institution to take the plunge on offering course credit for its MOOCs. Washington is slated to develop 19 courses with Coursera -- covering topics in economics, business, biology and computer science -- making it the company’s most ambitious partner.

“[S]ome of them will offer credit,” The New York Times wrote of Coursera’s new partners in a widely circulated article about the company’s announcement. The article cited Washington, in particular, as planning to offer university credit for its MOOCs this fall, and noted that “other online ventures are also moving in that direction.” The report was the most e-mailed story on the Times’s website Monday, and the detail about Washington offering credit was parroted in several places around the Web.

But Szatmary, Washington's provost, says the university does not plan to offer course credit for its MOOCs. What it does plan to do is offer people the option of paying to take versions of its Coursera offerings that include additional layers of online instruction and assessment that will be make the courses “more conventional.”

According to the provost, people who choose the “enhanced” versions of Washington's Coursera offerings will pay for the opportunity to earn a certificate. And the prices will not be significantly lower than those of the existing certificate programs offered through the university’s center for professional and continuing education, Szatmary says. Those typically range from $2,500 to $4,000 per three-course program, he says.

Students currently enrolled at Washington may be able to take the “enhanced” versions of the Coursera courses for credit, but in accordance with university policy they will not pay any less than they would for a normal Washington course.

The university expects that instructors and students will benefit from the technology embedded in the Coursera platform -- including tools that quiz students as they are working through material, gauging both the individual progress of each student and the general effectiveness of different teaching resources.  

But as far as price, the Coursera partnership is “not likely” to be a cheaper alternative to anything the university already offers in the credit-bearing realm, says Szatmary.

Washington, like many universities, still links creditworthiness and a threshold of contact between students and instructors -- and actual MOOCs, which often enroll more than 100,000 students in a single course, don’t pass muster.

“We likely could not create a course that would offer credit for 100,000 people, out of the box,” Szatmary says. “We wouldn’t have the instructional resources for that.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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