The Online Pecking Order

August 2, 2012

Online education not only gave nontraditional students a chance to enroll in collegiate programs from afar; it has also given universities that historically have not enjoyed the prestige of the Ivies a chance to build a reputation on fresh territory and build reliable revenue streams.

But, now that higher education’s traditional heavyweights are creating online courses and offering them for free to anyone who wants to register, those universities that have made names for themselves in the market for “conventional” online programs are trying to sort out how these high-profile “MOOCs” (i.e., Massive Open Online Courses) could affect their own positions in an online market where many have staked their futures.

One strategy for established online players would put them in the somewhat ironic role of making sure students who have passed Harvard-level exams deserve college credit.

As online education has bloomed over the last decade and a half into a mainstream avenue for attaining a postsecondary degree, the “elite” universities largely declined to transpose their vaunted courses to the Web. In the last year, however, more than a dozen top universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and the Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology, have announced plans to develop free, open, online courses through platforms such as Coursera and edX. Professors at other top institutions are holding their own MOOCs through Udacity and Udemy.

None of those universities or professors are offering course credit for its MOOCs, let alone full degree programs. But, degrees or no, the top brands in higher education have turned heads by suddenly investing in what they promise will be innovative online teaching and assessment techniques. Their emphasis on harnessing data to create personalized, measurable learning experiences, as well as their interest in building alternative job pipelines that might render a traditional college credential beside the point, has suggested that Stanford and MIT do not merely want to show their faces in the online medium but want in fact to take their places at the front of the class. 

“There is no doubt in my mind that in just a few years the entire online space is going to be very different,” says Arthur Kirk, the president of Saint Leo University, which enrolls about 3,000 online students. “And while the MOOCs aren’t, in my mind, an immediate threat, it’s just one of a number of things that are going to transform the entire space.”

For years the abstinence of the most recognizable universities from offering online programs opened the door for new institutions, both nonprofit and for-profit, to scramble for the top of the heap, says Richard Garrett, managing director of Eduventures, a consulting firm. Now that Stanford, MIT and other brands that “no one’s going to question” have ventured into the online territories, one could propose that “the traditional brand pecking order” will “reassert itself online,” says Garrett. Especially since the most desirable brands are offering their product for free.

But Garrett says conventional online degree programs need not panic yet. Any substantial upheaval of “conventional” online programs would be contingent upon those top universities offering traditional college credits and degrees via those free courses “in strategic and scaled ways,” he says, and none have indicated that they plan to do so.

“It’s something to watch — there are frictions and vulnerabilities in the mainstream system that MOOCs are pointing to, but no evidence of quick revolutionary forces,” says Garrett.     

Certifying MOOC Learning

Although the MOOC platform hosts and their high-profile university partners do not offer to give out credits for high marks on exams, there are ways students can cash in their MOOC learning for credits that they can use toward a degree. Indeed, the significance of MOOCs, and the strategic implications for conventional online learning providers, may be tied to another transformative phenomenon: the growth of “competency-based” learning.

The high-profile MOOCs that originated at Stanford last fall are not quite a year old; many online institutions are still waiting to see how MOOCs evolve before they make strategic maneuvers. But the idea of helping students redeem MOOC learning for college credits, for a fee, has already gotten some traction since a number of online institutions already have the infrastructure in place to assess "nontraditional" learning experiences.

Competency-based learning, which has been around for a while but recently has found a foothold in the “completion agenda,” gives preeminent weight to how well students can demonstrate specific skills, no matter how they learned them — on the job, say, or in a MOOC. Institutions such as Western Governors University, the popular online nonprofit, have built formal curriculums around competency. Others institutions provide “prior learning assessment” services, where advisers work with students to formalize their ad hoc learning experiences into portfolios that can be redeemed for actual college credits.

The University of Maryland University College, a long-running distance education provider that has become a powerhouse in the online era, envisions a role for UMUC of validating MOOC learning through the university’s prior-learning assessment arm. This could help the university funnel bright, motivated MOOC students into its online degree programs, says Marie Cini, the acting provost of UMUC. “If you want to finish your degree we’re the place that will allow you to do that easily and seamlessly,” says Cini.

John Cunningham, the acting CEO of UMassOnline, another well-reputed bastion of online programs, says his institution is also looking into awarding credit for MOOC learning.

“UMass is interested in providing appropriate academic credit for learning accomplished from open educational resources, including MOOCs — alone or in combination with traditional approaches — in those cases where our faculty are able to assess that learning with respect to the curriculum,” said Cunningham, who is also the vice president for academic affairs, student affairs, and international relations at UMass proper, in an e-mail. “This may be an avenue facilitated through UMassOnline once the methods of assessment are established by our faculty.”

The Actual Costs of Getting Credit

Yet the question remains as to how earth-shattering the prior-learning route for converting MOOCs to credit will actually be.

At a time when students are sizing up online education based largely on price and reputation, arguably the most intriguing aspect of MOOCs is the combination of the prestige of the universities offering them and the fact that the courses are free. Although finagling college credit via a prior-learning workaround bridges the gap between MOOCs and mainstream higher education, it does so at the expense of both prestige and freeness.  

Getting credit for MOOC learning through a prior-learning apparatus is not as easy as submitting one’s MOOC exam scores with a form letter from the instructor and then waiting for the credit to be posted. Rather it is a highly involved process that, while allegedly less expensive and time-consuming than sitting through a course, nevertheless requires patience, dedication and money.

A student who wants to convert MOOC learning into a credit through UMUC, for example, would first have to enroll at the university (application fee: $30). Then she would have to take a semesterlong online course costing $753 or $1,497 depending on whether she qualifies for in-state or military discounts. During that course she would, with the help of an adviser, develop a portfolio to submit for evaluation. The centerpiece of the portfolio would be a long essay that presents “a narrative explaining how [her] learning maps to the learning outcomes” in a particular course at UMUC, according to Cynthia Davis, the acting undergraduate dean at the university.

The student could include in her portfolio any exam scores or blandishments she earned in MOOCs, but she could not submit those instead of writing the essay or taking the course, says Davis.   

After that, the student would have to pay again to have someone at the university evaluate her portfolio: $250 for the first subject area, then $125 for any others beyond that. Finally, if the evaluator determines that whatever learning she picked in her MOOC was indeed credit-worthy, she would have to pay $90 for each credit.

All told, students can expect to spend a minimum of $1,300 to convert the learning picked up in a MOOC into three college credits. That is, of course, in addition to the hours and effort they sink into actually taking the MOOC.

There is an alternative: Students can pay a fee to take a “challenge exam” to earn credit immediately for certain courses. But the nonrefundable exam fee is equivalent to the tuition of the course. UMUC charges about $250 per credit for in-state residents and military and $500 per credit for out-of-state students. And students who wish to take challenge exams also have to enroll at the university.

At this point, converting MOOCs to credit might seem more trouble than it is worth, says Garrett, the Eduventures analyst. “If you have to jump through an extra four hoops … the cost-benefit analysis starts to become difficult,” he says. “It just seems rather longwinded and therefore not as appealing.”

Moreover, the credit they would earn would be UMUC credit, not Harvard credit. That is not to say students cannot take those credits elsewhere, but they would carry considerably less weight than if the credits had been awarded outright by the university whose exams they had passed. “I can’t promise another university would take those credits — every university has its own admissions requirements,” says Cini.

While students have successfully transferred prior-learning credits earned at UMUC, some institutions are less likely to accept them than others. Harvard, for example, is particularly conservative when it comes to accepting credits earned elsewhere, especially through online or otherwise unconventional programs. At the same time, according to its website, Harvard is likely to accept credit if a student "took courses comparable to those given at Harvard."

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