Two announcements this week suggest that MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- will increasingly include a route for students to receive academic credit.
Georgia State University announced  Tuesday that it will start to review MOOCs for credit much like it reviews courses students have taken at other institutions, or exams they have taken to demonstrate competency in certain areas.
And Academic Partnerships, a company that works with public universities to put their degree programs online, announced  an effort in which the first course of these programs can become a MOOC, with full credit awarded to those who successfully complete the course. The educational idea is that this offering will encourage more students to start degree programs. The financial idea is that the tuition revenue gained by participating institutions when students move from the MOOC to the rest of the program (which will continue to charge tuition) will offset the additional costs of offering the first course free.
Among the first universities planning to make the debut course in their online programs a MOOC are Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar and Utah State Universities and the Universities of Arkansas, Cincinnati, Texas at Arlington and West Florida.
The announcements reflect increasing interest in turning MOOCs -- initially offered by elite institutions for educational gain but no credit -- into a tool that can be used by a range of students (including those who want credit) and into a strategy that can help a range of institutions without the endowments or prestige of MOOC pioneers such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One concern of many colleges and universities has been about what to do when their own students ask for credit for MOOCs that they took from other institutions. The issue is likely to grow because it is so common -- in an era when students transfer or stop in and out of various colleges -- for students to receive credit for work done elsewhere. But MOOCs were created as non-credit courses.
Georgia State's answer is to treat such courses much the way it would treat other courses or certifications earned elsewhere. The university's announcement noted that it already grants credit for Advanced Placement courses and classes taken at other institutions. And Georgia State characterized its move as consistent with those policies. "This represents a decision by Georgia State to consider MOOC courses in the way we consider every other course — whether they provide a good education for our students," said a statement from George Rainbolt, professor of philosophy and chair of the University Senate Committee on Admissions and Standards.
The University Senate this week approved the policy of treating MOOCs in this way.
Granting MOOC credit will not be automatic. The university statement said that students will have to work with "the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and academic departments to establish they have mastered the course material."
The Academic Partnerships program is called MOOC2Degree, and deals with the credit issue in another way. This program takes existing programs that are offered online (but not as MOOCs) and are fully accredited through their host institutions, and makes the first course into a MOOC -- open to all and free, but awarding credit to those who complete successfully.
For example, the University of Cincinnati is offering its Innovation and Design Thinking course as a MOOC. Credit for that course could start a student on master's degree tracks in the university's business or engineering colleges.
Randy Best, founder and chairman of Academic Partnerships, said in a statement: "The free start is just the encouragement many working adults need to enroll in a degree program that will have a big impact on their future success. For universities, MOOC2Degree will potentially attract larger numbers of qualified students into their degree programs."
The Academic Partnerships announcement also quoted Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities, as calling MOOC2Degree "a good idea" -- a perhaps not so subtle reminder from Academic Partnerships that the MOOCs its universities will offer are covered by their institutions' accreditation.
Other Paths to Credit
The announcements from Georgia State and Academic Partnerships follow other institutions' moves toward creating paths to credit for MOOCs. In October, Coursera, a major MOOC provider, entered into a contract to license several of its courses to Antioch University,  which would offer versions of the MOOCs for credit as part of a bachelor’s degree program.