Playing Catch-Up

Despite the growth of online education, some colleges -- especially small liberal arts institutions -- have absolute bans on credit for such work. Some are starting to consider a shift.

March 3, 2014

Even as online education has become widely accepted, and many students take for granted their ability to mix in-person and online classes, some liberal arts colleges have a ban on awarding credit for anything online. But as more students learn online, even those colleges are reconsidering their policies.

Bowdoin, a private liberal arts institution in Brunswick, Maine, does not allow students to transfer in any academic credit awarded from completing an online course, but the ban could be softened this week. Earlier this month, the college’s Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee proposed to give departments the power to decide whether or not to accept credits from such courses. The proposal was first reported by The Bowdoin Orient, the college’s student newspaper, which endorsed the new policy.

Bowdoin’s dean of academic affairs, Cristle Collins Judd, declined to be interviewed for this article, as did several other members of the Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee. A spokesman confirmed the details in the Orient, saying faculty members will vote on the proposal next week.

One Bowdoin professor reportedly described the proposal as the college “trying to be a little bit ahead of the curve,” which may sound like an anachronism in 2014, as other institutions consider adaptive learning, fully online degree options and massive open online courses. But among the college’s contemporaries, it is not an uncommon policy.

“The general picture is even bigger than the question of transferring online courses -- it’s the question of transferring any courses,” aid Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. “Most colleges or universities believe that their own courses are special.”

The CIC counts more than 620 small and mid-sized colleges and universities among its members, and Ekman said he couldn't think of any institution “that will give a degree to someone who has transferred in the vast majority of his courses as online courses.”

The reluctance to acknowledge online courses has to do with both content and context, said Michael Nanfito, executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. For colleges that see campus life as an inseparable part of the undergraduate experience, an online course doesn’t meet the full criteria for academic credit. In general, though, small colleges aren’t rushing to accept online course credit because there’s not an urgent need to do so, he said.

“Despite all of the hullabaloo around MOOCs and online learning, most small colleges feel successful using the structures they have in place,” Nanfito said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not going to change, but right now, there’s not a need to alter policies.”

Student culture also plays a role, Nanfito said, especially at colleges that are highly selective or affiliated with a particular religious denomination. Those institutions may see even less of a need to allow students to complete parts of their education elsewhere, since students seek them out for a specific type of education. Once accepted, “they’re there to interact with that anthropology professor,” he said. And these are not colleges hurting for applicants.

Even among the colleges that have for now tabled the discussion about online course credit, the debate is far from concluded. A spokeswoman for Wellesley College, another institution that does not grant credit for online courses, said "at this point, further discussion by college faculty and leadership is required.”

Margaret Adorno, registrar at Pomona College, said in an email that the institution has seen the number of requests to transfer online course credit -- and the quality of online course providers -- rise in recent years. “In some cases, an online course is viewed as preferable to campus-based courses that don’t have the coverage we require,” she wrote.

Yet Pomona normally does not allow students to receive credit for online courses, Adorno said, and each application is handled separately by the faculty Academic Procedures Committee. The college discussed whether to automatically grant credit, but instead chose to let the committee build a catalog of accepted online courses.

“We anticipate that over time we will become aware of excellent options that exist for our students among specific online offerings that complement our curriculum through a body of ... exceptions,” Adorno wrote.

Pomona’s strategy has become a common move for small colleges. Smith College is this year piloting an Online Credit Subcommittee, which also approves individual courses on a case-by-case basis. So far, only a single course has received approval. Still, the pilot may represent a first step toward more a more lenient policy.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said the debate about online course credit fits into the “robust (and appropriate) conversation” about assuring the quality of higher education.

“Of course, every institution is responsible for evaluating the quality and appropriateness of any experience for which they are awarding credit,” Humphreys said in an email. “One of our biggest challenges, I believe, in getting more students to the levels of learning they need (and which employers are clamoring for) is more integration, not more fragmentation of the educational experience. So -- skepticism about allowing students to gather a bunch of disconnected credits and assuming that's enough is justified.”


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