Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are not credit-bearing. But a pathway to college credit for the courses already exists -- one that experts say many students may soon take.
That scenario combines the courses with prior learning assessment  -- a less-hyped potential “disruption” to traditional higher education -- which is the granting of credit for college-level learning gained outside the traditional academic setting.
Here’s how the process could work: A student successfully completes a MOOC, like Coursera’s Social Network Analysis , which will be taught this fall by Lada Adamic, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. The student then describes what he or she learned in that course, backing it up with proof, in a portfolio developed with the help of LearningCounts.org or another service, perhaps offered by a college.
Generally those portfolios contain a broad array of demonstrated learning, like work experience and training, volunteering or even the voracious reading of a history buff. But MOOCs, such as those from Coursera, EdX, Udacity and Udemy, likely will be part of portfolios in the near future.
“It’s just a matter of time," said Chari Leader Kelley, vice president for LearningCounts.org, which is a subsidiary of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). And Kelley said CAEL will be ready to handle those submissions. “We are set up to do that. The infrastructure is there.”
Building a prior-learning portfolio isn’t easy. But if the final product passes muster with a CAEL-affiliated faculty member with discipline-specific expertise, the student could qualify for a credit recommendation that matches up with an equivalent course from a regionally accredited college. That credit recommendation, say for three credits in a course on social media, would have the backing of the American Council on Education (ACE), which runs the most established credit recommendation service.
With that document in hand, the student could then enroll in one of the many colleges that accept ACE’s recommendations, or the scores of colleges that have agreed to participate in LearningCounts.org. That means the student, having taken a free online course, taught by a professor from the University of Michigan and taken by tens of thousands of people around the world, could walk away with three credits from Argosy University, the University of Maryland University College or George Washington University, to pick a few LearningCounts.org partner institutions.
Andrew Ng, Coursera’s co-founder and an engineering professor at Stanford University, said the prior-learning pathway to credits for MOOCs is “fantastic” and a “big value add for students.” Furthermore, it doesn’t overlap with Coursera’s goals, as Ng said the company will not pursue accreditation as a means of issuing formal academic credits.
“Coursera is not planning to become a university,” he said.
Only a handful of institutions have used MOOCs as a direct means of granting college credit. In those cases, the colleges were overseas, like the University of Freiburg, in Germany, where students also had to complete university-proctored examinations. So at this point, prior learning may be a more viable way to earn credit for MOOCs.
In addition, the courses will have multiple uses at colleges that feature competency-based education. Excelsior College, for example, already steers students to open courseware in study guides  for its proficiency examinations . Students can earn college credit by passing those tests, which are in subjects ranging from English composition to Earth science, as well as a swath of courses in nursing.
Excelsior has identified free, or cheap, online courses that students can use to prepare for the exams, and includes them in study guides. Some of those courses include offerings from the Khan Academy and the Saylor Foundation. Excelsior will look at MOOCs as it expands those guides, said William M. Stewart, a spokesman for the college. And Excelsior is a LearningCounts.org partner institution, so it would accept MOOC credits as part of portfolio-based recommendations from CAEL.
MOOCs and competency-based examinations are part of the “post-traditional era of higher education,” Stewart said. But even in this era, “the world still requires some credible evidence, credible proof, that you’ve learned what you say you’ve learned.”
Big Classes, Big Potential
Prior learning experts are unruffled about the prospect of a flood of MOOC submissions in student portfolios. That’s because the same process would apply to reviewing them as to any other form of prior learning.
"We see MOOCs as yet another structured learning experience offered outside of the traditional college classroom setting," said Tina Grant, director of the National College Credit Recommendation Service, which is affiliated with the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, and along with ACE is a primary arbiter of what counts for college credits.
The delivery mechanism for learning is relatively unimportant in prior learning assessment, experts said. And when done well, the prior learning process demonstrates what you know and how you learned it, with plenty of evidence.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Melanie Booth, dean of learning and assessment at Marylhurst University. “The source doesn’t matter. Show me what you know.”
That process is fairly labor-intensive. In fact, some MOOC students might decide it’s easier to retake an equivalent course at a traditional college than to seek prior-learning credit for a MOOC.
With LearningCounts.org, students pay $500 to take a three-credit course on portfolio preparation and experiential learning theory. The fee for a one- to 12-credit portfolio review by a CAEL-affiliated faculty assessor in a given discipline is $250. For the reviewer to give a green light for credit recommendations, the student must explain that he or she has learned the concepts taught in a particular course at an accredited college, Kelley said, complete with detailed information that matches up with the content and actual syllabus of that course.
Each course-based description is “very similar to an end-of-course term paper,” she said. And although it can be a bit less formal than a research paper, “each concept needs to be addressed specifically.”
The student must present solid evidence as part of the portfolio. In the case of MOOCs, that would include the certificate or statement of completion, which will probably cost between $30 and $80 for a Coursera MOOC, as well as other citations. For example, Kelley said, other students from the course could be listed as references, if they interacted with the student in study groups or were peer evaluators of coursework.
A prior learning portfolio gets the pass-fail treatment at Learning Counts. Students must show that they are at a C level or better in the eyes of the faculty reviewer to receive a credit recommendation for a course equivalent. “The way we work, it’s all or nothing,” Kelley said.
However, an evaluator may give a student a chance to bulk up a portfolio that was close to the mark.
Boost for Prior Learning?
MOOCs may be just another form of nontraditional education in the context of prior learning. But the potential scale of the courses makes them different, experts said. For example, 104,000 students enrolled in a machine learning course that Ng taught last year. And 1.5 million people have signed up for Coursera, EdX and Udacity courses.
Groups like CAEL are already ramping up to handle increasing demand for prior learning, which is being driven in part by a big uptick in the number of adult students who are returning to college. Also at play is the college “completion agenda,” which has given a boost to prior learning because it can help students earn degrees quicker and more cheaply.
Some observers think the interest in MOOCs could help spur demand for prior learning assessment, building wider acceptance of the practice in the process. Many traditionalists in higher education, particularly at selective colleges, have been skeptical of prior learning assessment. But that may be more difficult when the learning occurs with the tutelage of professors at some of the world's most prestigious universities. And MOOCs might also make contributions to how prior learning is measured.
The explosion of MOOCs and other forms of open learning will increase the need for having strong standards in place on prior learning, said Nan L. Travers, an expert on prior learning and director of the office of collegewide academic review at Empire State College, which is part of the State University of New York. That’s because more students will cobble together their college educations through multiple sources of learning.
“This is going to help us get even better at what we’re doing,” she said.
Credit recommendations for MOOCs could serve as a "bridge" between the nontraditional and traditional college settings, said Grant, by "helping those students who want to take advantage of MOOCs and still earn a college degree."
But students shouldn't expect to get a leg up on their prior learning portfolio by underlining the name of the elite university that employs their MOOC professor. That's because what you know counts more in prior learning than where you learned it.
"It doesn't matter" which institution is affiliated with a MOOC, Booth said. "It's not more or less prestigious than other forms of prior learning assessment."
(NOTE: This story has been changed from a previous version to correct a reference to an affiliation of the National College Credit Recommendation Service.)