Boosting Nontraditional Learners

To help those students obtain a degree or credential, colleges should consider accepting alternative-credit courses like those evaluated and approved by the American Council on Education, says Deborah Seymour.

November 23, 2015

Last month the American Council on Education launched the Alternative Credit Project Ecosystem. Through this project, students who successfully complete courses in a pool of 111 low-cost or free lower-division general-education online offerings will have a transparent pathway to determine, prior to transferring, whether certain higher education institutions will accept those alternative credit courses. ACE has engaged 40 colleges, universities and systems that all have a strong commitment to access and attainment and that have agreed to accept a large amount, if not all, of the courses in the pool.

The project is meant to give nontraditional or underserved learners introductory knowledge upon which they can build as they pursue a formal degree or credential. It also aims to encourage greater acceptance of alternative credit recommendations among higher education institutions.

ACE believes it is important that colleges and universities consider and accept such alternative credit courses. Nontraditional students find them useful as low-cost points of re-entry into the higher education system and helpful as they strive to complete a degree program. Institutions have indicated that these types of courses serve as gateways or filters for student success, since nontraditional students who successfully complete such alternative credit courses tend to persist and graduate at higher rates than nontraditional students who have not taken such courses. These courses are thus important for the nation’s postsecondary attainment agenda on several levels.

With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ACE has designed a process to deepen the shared understanding of how to evaluate the quality, content, scope and rigor of courses nonaccredited providers offer. The 25 founding institutions -- an additional 15 joined the project earlier this year -- provided input to ACE on subject areas to include in the project, the development of the course rubric, and the process by which institutions would determine which courses they would accept for transfer credit.

ACE invited seven nonaccredited course providers to join the project and offer the online courses: Ed4Online, edX, JumpCourse, Pearson Learning Solutions, Saylor Academy, Sophia Learning and StraighterLine. These providers submitted more than 160 courses for consideration, and we selected the final pool based on the outcomes of ACE faculty evaluation teams and institutional acceptance rates. Some of the courses that the providers submitted fell outside the scope of the project because they were in non-general education disciplines, such as criminal justice or allied health, and did not receive reviews.

Selecting the Courses

As many higher education institutions and policy makers are discovering, evaluating these types of courses requires somewhat tailored standards to ensure the quality of learning that takes place in a self-paced environment compared to that which goes on in a college classroom. Because ACE has a long history of leading academic quality evaluation processes through previous work evaluating learning that takes place in military and workplace settings, we understand that while the wide array of nontraditional courses share common features, we must also take into account key differences in assessing the effectiveness of teaching and learning that take place in different settings.

For example, we would evaluate a training course provided in a military setting somewhat differently than a training course provided in a workplace setting. The types of instruction vary -- and the kinds of assessment also vary -- in these very distinct contexts. Evaluation of alternative credit courses should differ, too, from these types of evaluation -- and the Alternative Credit Project provided us with the opportunity to learn more about the most effective methods for assessing this type of learning.

In studying how best to evaluate these nonaccredited provider courses -- across disciplines such as business, critical thinking and writing, foreign language, humanities, mathematics, natural and physical sciences, and social and behavioral sciences -- we have remained committed to providing an assurance of academic quality based on faculty evaluations that institutions can rely on. ACE does not accredit a course, a company or an institution. Rather, we recommend that a particular course is worthy of credit due to its subject matter, the knowledge a student will gain and how that knowledge aligns with what typically takes place in a formal college class in that subject area.

As with all ACE credit reviews, experienced college and university faculty members have operated as independent teams and carried out rigorous evaluations to assess the content, scope and rigor of each organization’s courses in order to make appropriate recommendations for comparable college credit. These are individuals who are teaching college-level courses at an accredited institution recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and who have been teaching for at least five years.

The faculty reviewers used a newly designed course quality assessment rubric to evaluate the courses that qualified for review. All of the courses that were included in the Alternative Credit Project pool successfully met the rubric standards and were reviewed by faculty evaluators to ensure that the content, scope and rigor of the course aligned with what is expected in a similar course at colleges and universities across the country.

Specifically, the rubric outlined seven mandatory minimum standards for which each course was required to receive either an “effective” or “exemplary” rating in order to be included in the final pool. Those standards are: 1) articulating student expectations, 2) course organization/navigation, 3) course syllabus, 4) course objectives, 5) curriculum alignment, 6) mastery of concepts and 7) assessment criteria.

If a course failed to meet one of the mandatory minimum standards, it did not receive a credit recommendation and was not included in the final pool. If it met those minimum standards, it was evaluated against 11 additional mandatory standards: 1) student support services, 2) course provider policies, 3) functional design, 4) grading standards, 5) learning engagement, 6) active learning, 7) references and resources, 8) student grades, 9) student assessment of learning, 10) learning technology and tools, and 11) technology requirements and aptitude. Nine of those had to be deemed “effective” or “exemplary” for a course to be included in the final pool.

As an example, one course in the area of English Composition was found not to have adequate assessment criteria because a 50-question multiple choice test was used to measure learning rather than the submission of a writing sample. In another example, a humanities course did not provide adequate course organization or navigation for a student, which may contribute to low completion and success rates.

One key difference in the process used to evaluate courses that are part of the Alternative Credit Project compared to a workplace credit review is that a traditional syllabus was required for a nonaccredited provider course to be considered for inclusion in the pool. Since the participating institutions are guaranteeing that they will accept for credit a large number, if not all, of the courses in the pool, they and ACE felt that this portion of a course needed to align more closely with traditional higher education methodology. In some cases, that requirement resulted in submitted courses not receiving a credit recommendation.

Other standards against which courses did not pass muster under the rubric include grading standards, course provider policies, technology requirements and aptitude, and learning technology and tools.

In total, seven courses with prior credit recommendations under ACE’s traditional process did not measure up against the rubric and were not included in the final pool. Among them was a JumpCourse Introduction to Sociology course, which Daniel F. Sullivan, president emeritus of St. Lawrence University, recently critiqued in an Inside Higher Ed column. While the Introduction to Sociology course has value, it did not meet the parameters of the Alternative Credit Project rubric because the course learning objectives did not align with what would be found in an Introduction to Sociology course at a regionally accredited institution. In addition, most postsecondary sociology courses today require a written project, which was also missing from this course. However, seven other JumpCourse courses were accepted into the pool.

Lessons for the Future

As we continue a process of continuous improvement based on what we are learning through the Alternative Credit Project and other self-assessment processes, it is possible that some of the courses that currently have credit recommendations may have to meet an updated set of standards the next time they come up for review. In addition, ACE will be evaluating, along with participating institutions, the results for student success in the coming months and years -- both in terms of this pool of courses and also how this work might be adapted to our workplace-credit recommendation processes. That fits with ACE’s commitment to exploring new ways to improve all of our quality assessment methods.

What we have learned so far in applying the new Alternative Credit Project rubric to this pool of courses offered by an array of nonaccredited providers is insightful and promising. For example, we have found that evaluating new kinds of content and methods of delivering instruction to nontraditional students requires refinement of the processes used to evaluate other types of content and instruction more applicable to and aligned with how adult students with some prior college experience learn.

We have also learned that various approaches to online instructional design can each be successful, as long as they all meet certain basic criteria. Finally, we have found there are multiple ways in which students can demonstrate learning in different settings, even using the same modality across those settings -- such as online workplace training versus online alternative credit instruction by nonaccredited providers.

Most of all, we’ve learned that the objective is ambitious but achievable: providing nontraditional learners with additional tools to speed their path to a degree or credential, while giving higher education institutions the quality assurances they need to help those students succeed.


Deborah Seymour is the American Council on Education’s chief academic innovation officer.


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