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Whether massive open online courses will help traditional college students significantly cut costs remains to be seen, but a smattering of institutional trials may soon help tell.

More than a half-dozen institutions have made clear they will grant transfer credits to students who successfully complete certain MOOCs from low-cost online providers, mainly Coursera and Udacity. An untold number of other colleges may be quietly wrestling with the issue of transfer credits for MOOCs, perhaps at the request of students themselves.

What is not yet clear is how many students have or will take advantage of these offers and whether those students will fare as well in college as traditional students. But now, for the first time, the idea of saving money through a MOOC isn't theoretical, as some colleges have started to announce policies on awarding credit and charging tuition.

Georgia State University announced in January that its departments would consider granting prior learning transfer credits for students who had taken MOOCs and could demonstrate they’d learned something, either through an exam or an oral interview with professors. The offer made a splash, but has yet to receive any takers. No one at the 33,000-student university has formally asked to receive transfer credit because they’ve taken a MOOC, said the chief enrollment officer, Timothy Renick.

He said if students do ask for transfer credits, they will have to prove they’ve learned the same as a student who had taken an on-campus course. “We would still have to do the assessment to make sure they’ve learned what they claim,” Renick said.

If students can prove that, they will not have to pay tuition -- at least not unless so many students ask for credits that the university needs to start charging a fee to handle all the requests.

University of Maryland University College, a public university with 102,000 students on campus and online, said last week it will grant transfer credits to students who take and successfully complete classes from Coursera or Udacity.

“In many ways this is just totally in line with what we do anyway,” said UMUC's acting vice provost, Cynthia Davis. “We recognize prior learning and many of our students bring transfer credit and we’re really set up for it. As we looked at MOOCs, they are just another way of learning.” The university is geared toward nontraditional students, including members of the military.

Still, Davis made clear, the university is not giving credit for MOOCs themselves but for demonstrated learning associated with them. The offer for transfer credit is only for three Coursera MOOCs and three from Udacity. Each of those are among the MOOCs that have received the American Council on Education’s stamp of approval to fulfill credit requirements.

To be eligible for UMUC credit, students will need to have taken the premium versions of the courses, which include exam proctoring and user authentication measures. That costs about $130 per Coursera course and about $90 per Udacity course, according to each company’s website.

While that's not free, that small charge would be a incredibly good price tag compared to the cost of a three-credit course at UMUC. In-state tuition for a three-credit course is $774, while out-of-state students pay nearly $1,500.

In theory, any institution that grants transfer credit can be granting transfer credit for MOOCs, but it's not clear yet how many are.  

It may also be too early to tell how many students and institutions take advantage.

“We’re seeing pockets of interest bubbling up here and certainly the announcement by UMUC is a real big example of that,” said Cathy Sandeen, ACE’s vice president of education attainment and innovation. ACE has already recommended seven MOOCs be eligible for transfer credits.

But there has so far been little chance to see the rubber hit the road. ACE made its first credit recommendations in February, after the start of the spring semester. Despite the popularity of MOOCs in higher ed circles and even the popular press, prospective undergraduates who are most likely to want transfer credits for lower-division courses may not yet be aware of them.

That could change. Besides UMUC, other sizeable institutions are explicitly granting transfer credits for certain MOOCs, including the for-profits American Public University System and Kaplan University and the public Empire State College of the State University of New York.

SUNY, whose 64 campuses make it one of the largest systems in the world, is in the midst of an ambitious effort to enroll 100,000 new students over the next several years as part of its Open SUNY effort. SUNY could potentially allow up to a third of the credits for certain SUNY degree programs to come from outside institutions, including MOOCs.

How things work at Empire State could inform that effort.

“That will serve as a model for what we want to do with Open SUNY,” said David Doyle, a system spokesman.

Students who receive transfer credit will also be part of a study backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation gave money to ACE to look at teaching methods in MOOCs and the success of students after they have received credit for a MOOC, said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Schroeder, who is working on the study, said researchers should begin to get preliminary results at some point this fall and have more to talk about next spring. The research on MOOCs, which became popular less than two years ago, is in its infancy.

“This is a 40-acre field and we’re plowing the first row of research in this field,” Schroeder said.

Because of that, each wave of findings tends to receive a good deal of attention.

Last month, San Jose State University said it would “pause” a pilot project with Udacity because of disappointing student outcomes. The results led to a lot of hand-wringing by pundits about MOOCs and the future of online learning, even though the Udacity courses being studied were not exactly MOOCs and online learning has successfully existed in numerous forms for a few decades.

Still, the early MOOC research is closely watched because of the potential for new technology to automate traditional faculty roles and potentially reduce in a significant way the costs to students. While the San Jose State pause involved a pilot project, titanic decisions are being made about the future of higher ed, and research could boost or wound the ambitions of policy makers, investors and entrepreneurs who say MOOCs are the answer.

International Experiments

Outside of the United States, two major research universities are working with the MOOC provider Coursera to grant credit -- but none of those credit-granting experiments are technically MOOCs because they involve only enrolled students, tuition charges and more faculty support than MOOCs provide.

Tel Aviv University, in Israel, is allowing students to take MOOCs that are developed by the university and taught by its professors. In addition to going through the online material, students will have to take an on-campus exam to receive credit, which they will have to pay full price for.

“At this point we aren’t looking to lower tuition but to offer a wider choice of courses to our students,” Tel Aviv spokesman Nadav Stark said in an e-mail. “They will be able to take a course at a time they choose and for a lot of them that is a very attractive offer.”

The University of Alberta is also offering credit to students who enroll in a Coursera class on dinosaurs the university has developed for the wider public. But its enrolled students will still have varying degrees off on-campus obligations to fulfill before they can receive credit -- plus they have to pay tuition costs, though those costs are quite low in Canada compared to the U.S. Enrolled students will can enroll in one of two sections. In one section, students will still have to show up for class and will go on site visits to nearby bone beds.  

In another section, which will be half-price for students, students will take the course online but will have better access to instructors and teaching assistants, through the campus’s Moodle learning management system, than students in a normal MOOC will, said Jennifer Chesney, associate vice president of university digital strategy. In both cases, the Alberta students will be required to show up on campus to take their midterms and final exams.

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