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Thanks to Inside Higher Ed reporter Carl Straumsheim, we now know that the edX/Arizona State contract for the pending “Global Freshman Academy” initiative, through which ASU intends to MOOC-ify a year’s worth of general education credits, contains another interesting little tidbit.

On page 28, Item 1, sub-point d, we get the following:

Non-InstitutionX MOOCs. Institution will evaluate other MOOCs offered on the edX Site and, subject to appropriate review and approval, consider offering Institution credit for a fee to edX learners who earn, or have earned, verified certificates of achievement for such non-InstitutionX MOOCs.

Previously, I suggested that one of the motives for ASU’s partnership with edX was to draw students to the institution via the ersatz Gen Ed MOOC experience. Enticed by the Gen Ed Starter Pak,[1] students would take more ASU courses either online or face to face. ASU would then “launder” those MOOC credits from the transcripts, as they made it clear they do not intend to distinguish among the different course formats.

My vision is extremely limited, however, which is perhaps why I’m ill-suited to running a neoliberal university.

This particular clause makes it clear that ASU has the potential to expand their laundry service to the entire edX universe. In other words, they may do what the founding partner institutions of edX – MIT and Harvard – would likely never consider, give full institutional credit for a course taken as a MOOC outside their own institution.

As sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, who studies the financialization of higher education, put it on Twitter, this is a “different level” of articulation altogether when it comes to transfer credits.

Currently, we have a system where accredited institutions often deny transfer credits (sometimes unjustly) from other accredited institutions in an effort to require students to take more credit-bearing courses (for more money) under their roofs. There is no particular monetary incentive for schools to accept credits once a student has decided to transfer. In fact, it’s the opposite.

But ASU is pledging to figure out a way, following “appropriate review and approval,” to give as much credit to edX MOOC completers as possible.

The incentive is reversed. To earn its “fee,” ASU, an accredited institution, must approve the credits from edX, an unaccredited and essentially unaccreditable institution[2].

Even more alarming, to me anyway, is the language (“have earned”) that suggests these credits may be retroactive and extend to courses that haven’t been explicitly designed to be credit bearing or as a substitute for the analogous traditional online or face-to-face course[3].

While details are scarce, and we do not yet know the particulars of what ASU intends to do, at least in theory, this language makes it clear that there is a possible pathway to an ASU degree earned entirely through edX MOOCs, that have been, via some secret sauce to be named later, “validated” by ASU.

Those who view higher education through a purely credentialing lens are likely cheered by these developments. While ASU is no Harvard in terms of reputation, it is a fully accredited 4-year university.

Those who reduce education to mere information transfer also won’t be bothered[4].

edX must also be popping the champagne, as ASU has agreed to use its brand to provide a pathway for funding a heretofore unsustainable business model, and to do so in a way that won’t sully the cachet of the MIT and Harvard brand names in the process.

Even with credentialing attached, I think the jury is still out on whether or not MOOCs will work as educational experiences that people want and will pay for, but the willingness of ASU to wipe away the problem of credentialing by obscuring the MOOCy origins of the edX courses in their transcripts is a huge hurdle cleared[5].

At least we can put to rest the fiction that ventures like edX were set up as laboratories for learning. This is and always has been about bid’ness[6], pure and simple.

But I hope the rest of us are looking at these things much more closely, and with significantly greater caution.

ASU has already signaled a willingness to devalue the quality of the education attached to their degree by requiring writing instructors to carry more than twice the recommended limit of students. Deciding that general education could be handled exclusively through MOOCs with the Global Freshman Academy seems to indicate the same.

So tell me why should we believe that their “appropriate review and approval” will have any meaning?

Welcome to the New American University, one school to rule us all[7].


[1] TM pending

[2] I have to wonder if this alone is enough to make this plan a non-starter, at least unless and until ASU’s accreditors sign off.

[3] This is all also happening, surprise surprise, without the participation of the faculty who created the courses. The MOOCs managed to get out of the lab and the Dr. Frankensteins don’t have as much control they might’ve thought.

[4] Those of us who think that education is as much or more about process as it is product, are out of our minds about the mere thought of such a world.

[5] Caveat emptor to anyone hiring an ASU grad once this goes into effect. Caveat emptor as well to traditional students who are considering ASU who will be expected to perform in traditional classes instead of MOOCs, but will have their degrees devalued by these moves.

[6] I also note that Arizona State President Michael Crow has bonuses factored into his salary based on his ability to increase the number of bachelors degrees awarded.

[7] Except for the rich or the lucky few non-rich who get to go to MIT and Harvard and the like. They’ll be totally fine.




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