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Arizona State University, in partnership with edX, this fall will begin to offer credit-bearing massive open online courses at a fraction of the cost of either in-person or traditional online education.

ASU’s faculty members will create about a dozen general-education MOOCs, the first of which -- an introductory astronomy course -- will launch this August. Anyone can register for and take the MOOCs for free, but those who pay a $45 fee to verify their identity can at the end of each course decide if they want to pay the university a separate, larger fee to earn academic credit for their work.

By fall 2016, ASU anticipates it will offer enough MOOCs so that students can complete their entire freshman year online through what edX and the university are calling the Global Freshman Academy.

After completing the courses, students can receive a transcript from ASU showing that they have earned enough credits at the university to transfer to a different program or institution as sophomores. Since the university stresses the MOOCs are just a new form of delivering courses it already offers, the transcripts won’t specify which type of course -- in-person, online or massive online -- students enrolled in to earn the credit. 

“What this does is it really opens up new pathways for all students, no matter where they are in the world,” edX CEO Anant Agarwal said in an interview. “There are no admissions requirements -- no SAT scores, no GPAs, no recommendation letters.”

Those students could be in high school, knocking out a handful of general-education requirements before setting foot on campus, Agarwal suggested. They could be future international students in the U.S. Or they could be students who considered going to a community college to complete core requirements but preferred taking the courses online.

Performing well in the Global Freshman Academy, Agarwal said, could be a gateway to a two- or four-year degree. “If a baseball team is able to see how a player will perform in the first innings of a professional baseball game, that is the ultimate test,” he said. “You don’t have to see how they perform in the minor leagues.”

MOOCs have existed almost exclusively outside the credit hour since their major providers were founded in 2012. Video lectures, quizzes and other content initially made for MOOCs may have found their way into for-credit courses, but the full MOOCs themselves have merely complemented, not supplanted, traditional higher education, as some initial predictions envisioned. Many MOOC providers have therefore offered identity-verified certificates for a small fee to increase the perceived value of MOOCs to both learners and potential employers.

The closest example of a MOOC-powered degree program may be Udacity’s partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology on an affordable online master’s degree in computer science. That program, however, is neither massive (the institute admitted 401 students in its first cohort) nor open (it uses the same admissions criteria as the face-to-face program).

Wednesday’s announcement, Agarwal said, is edX’s response to the two major points of criticism that have dogged MOOCs: that the completion rates are too low, and that the courses mostly benefit learners who have already earned advanced degrees.

“In one fell swoop, we can address all these challenges,” Agarwal said. He spoke of an “undercurrent” at edX -- that the MOOC provider is “truly not fulfilling [its] mission until we can break through to credit.”

EdX is likely not the only provider of alternative credentials with that goal in mind. Lawmakers have recently increased their push for those providers to have pathways not only to accreditation, but also to federal financial aid.

Agarwal described the Global Freshman Academy as a next logical step for edX, which is discussing similar initiatives with other unnamed institutions. The MOOC provider began with individual courses taught by high-profile faculty members at elite universities, then, as its catalog grew, bundled those courses together into sequences known as XSeries.

“Learners are looking for more and more coherent bodies of learning that span larger and larger amounts of time,” Agarwal said. Asked if edX planned to continue in that same direction, perhaps building on the Global Freshman Academy to offer full degrees through MOOCs, Agarwal laughed and again resorted to the baseball metaphor.

“We’ve just gotten to first base here, and now you’re asking me about getting to home plate?” he said.

ASU's Angle

The Global Freshman Academy adds a third option for students who wish to enroll as freshmen at ASU. In addition to the roughly 10,000 freshmen who attend the university in person, ASU offers certificate and degree programs through its online arm, ASU Online, which enrolls about 13,000 students in total.

Philip Regier, university dean for educational initiatives, said the university is “not worried” that the Global Freshman Academy will result in empty lecture halls or abandoned online forums.

“People always worry about cannibalizing the current population of students,” Regier said. “The way we’re thinking about it is we’re making the whole pie bigger. It’s not as though the pie is a fixed size and we’re taking larger and larger slices out of it.”

The different modalities attract different kinds of students, Regier said. For example, nearly all ASU Online students come to the university with 25 or more credits already completed, meaning they are likely to have already taken courses equivalent to the general-education MOOCs. If it turns out many rising freshmen or ASU Online students choose to take the MOOCs, he said, the university will not discourage them from getting a head start on their studies.

“What we’re trying to do is get people who would otherwise not have had access to freshman general-education studies, provide them with that access so they can go on to be successful and graduate,” Regier said. “The end goal is graduating educated university students, which this country is increasingly dismal at doing.”

ASU is at least undercutting itself on price. The university has agreed to charge students taking the MOOCs no more than $200 per credit hour. Students at ASU Online, in comparison, pay $480 to $543 per credit hour. In other words, earning credit through MOOCs may be less than half as expensive as a traditional online or in-person course.

ASU and edX have yet to finalize details of how they will share tuition revenue, although an eventual agreement may resemble the contracts the MOOC provider has signed with its other university partners. “I think it’s 50-50,” Regier said. “The split between ASU and edX won’t be dissimilar to that.”

Multiplied by tens of thousands of students, that’s a lot of tuition revenue. ASU has begun to set some enrollment targets, Regier said, adding that “we would expect maybe 25,000 to enroll in some of the courses.” The key question, however, is how many of those students choose to pay to verify their identity, and then how many of those go on to pay for credit, he said.

“There are a lot of uncertainties here,” Regier said. “Do we know what the answer is? No.”

‘Same in All Essential Respects’

Another unanswered question is how to build a course that effectively evaluates tens of thousands of students at the same time. Mastery in some courses -- math, for example -- is easier to track through multiple-choice tests or automated grading, but those tools won’t necessarily work in a freshman composition class.

“When you have 50,000 students versus 50 students, the methods of evaluation and the methods of assessment will change, but we will have both formative assessments and summative assessments at the end of the course,” Regier said. “We haven’t figured out what we’re going to do in every course yet, and we know every course is going to be different.”

The challenges each planned course present explain ASU’s road map for the Global Freshman Academy. After the first course launches in August, the university has committed to introducing two new courses each in October, January, March and next summer, Regier said. Freshman composition will probably be one of the last to launch. Right now, he said, the university is planning on having “actual people” grade however many thousands of student essays such a MOOC would produce.

Generally speaking, Regier said, each course will last seven and a half weeks and will be led by a “master teacher” working with a team of university teaching assistants, who will be responsible for answering student questions. 

“What we aren’t going to do is put a course online that is an automaton -- in other words, when the student engages with the course, there’s no interaction, no chance to have a question answered by a human,” Regier said. “Technology has made us more efficient at delivering courses, but there’s still a need for human interaction, and that won’t go away because we’re offering an open online course.”

The prospect of one professor teaching tens of thousands of students, however, drew criticism from the Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

"Massive open online courses can't provide that same invaluable relationship students and faculty develop over time and the flexibility in instruction needed to help all students achieve success," Weingarten said in a statement. "There's no substitute for the educational and personal development students undergo in their first two years in college. This plan mistakes convenience and profits for quality and engagement and in doing so, ignores students' individual learning needs and stunts this growth."

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said the assignments that ASU faculty members create may serve as an indicator of the quality of the MOOCs.

“Ill-designed general-education programs invite students to get general education out of the way as quickly and as cheaply as possible,” Schneider said in an interview. “The message to students is none of this really matters -- get past this and work on your major.”

In many MOOCs, students watch a brief video, complete a quick assignment and repeat, and the courses feature little interaction beyond a discussion forum. Schneider recommended a more “hands-on” approach that ties course objectives to qualities, such as critical thinking and problem solving, that are required in upper-level courses and future careers.

“The fact that it’s a MOOC does not automatically disqualify it, but… it does suggest it is aiming at huge participation levels, which raises the question of how exactly students will be doing those hands-on, problem-centered assignments through which they would have the opportunity to practice and develop the skills they would need for their lives beyond college,” Schneider said.

Blueprints for many of the MOOCs already exist in courses offered through ASU Online, but also in the courses taught face-to-face, Regier said. While the assignments and methods of evaluation may differ, he said, the courses -- no matter the mode of delivery -- will be “the same in all essential respects.” As a result, the university does not “anticipate any issues” concerning accreditation.

“All this is, is a different modality to receive the same kind of competencies,” he added. The Western civilizations course launching in the fall, for example, will be a new method of delivering HST 102, currently offered in-person and through ASU Online.

Justin Reich, the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow at Harvard University, said the Global Freshman Academy could potentially boost MOOC enrollments and cut costs for students if used as a dual enrollment option.

"If someone can find a way to attach college credit to a MOOC, and that credit is widely accepted at other institutions, then that could certainly accelerate enrollment in credit-bearing MOOCs," Reich said in an email. "It also might make issues of participant identity validity and cheating come to the surface quickly."

In addition to ASU Online, Regier pointed to the partnership with Starbucks as an example of how the university has worked its way up to being able to offer credit-bearing courses to massive audiences.

“It’s just like bodybuilding,” Regier said. “If you go out and try to bench-press 250 pounds on your first day, you’re going to have a problem, but you can develop your capacity to do that over time.”

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