Massive, open, online, for credit

Three models for allowing students to earn credit for completed MOOCs

Despite growing interest in the higher ed community about the potential of credit being offered for MOOCs, the number of institutions that have rolled out such programs is small.

And though more than 8 million people have taken a MOOC in the past three years, the number of students to take advantage of MOOC-for-credit programs is even smaller.

A handful of colleges and universities now allow students to convert MOOC coursework into credit—but generally the move has failed to attract a groundswell of interest among students. Two state institutions that agreed to award credit for passing a MOOC—Colorado State University-Global Campus and University of Maryland University College—have not, to date, had a single student take advantage of the offer.

An initiative called MOOC2Degree from the company Academic Partnerships, however, has been gaining traction. Launched in 2013, it allows students to earn credit for a MOOC and then apply it toward a degree program at partner institutions.

Last fall, the first MOOC offered in this initiative at The University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing attracted 29 students who completed the course for credit. Fourteen of them later enrolled in the nursing degree program.

Despite the uncertain start to the idea of MOOCs for credit, the idea has generated widespread interest and has even led to legislative proposals in Florida and California. Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law last June that orders state education officials to set rules that allow students hoping to enroll in college to earn transfer credits by taking MOOCs.

A bill to require California’s colleges and universities to grant credit for MOOCs was placed on hold.

“There’s a hype cycle for anything new, and MOOCs were the big new thing that everyone was talking about,” says Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at University of Maryland University College. “I think we’re going to find out in the next year or two how MOOCs are going to be applied to the educational horizon. It’s just like online learning—many institutions will do some piece of it, but it’s not going to replace all of higher education.”

Recommended by ACE

It was a move that changed the relationship between MOOCs and accredited institutions last year: The American Council on Education recommended that students completing 12 specific MOOCs—five offered by Coursera and seven by Udacity—be granted college credits. The decision whether to award credit for the ACE-endorsed MOOCs was left to individual institutions.

Colorado State University-Global Campus became the first in the U.S. to offer credit to students completing Udacity’s “Introduction to Computer Science.” The course complemented other offerings in the information technology program, officials had determined. To earn the credit, students also had to pass a proctored exam administered by Udacity at a cost of $89.

The process was simple, but more than a year after the offer was made, no students have sought the credit. “A lot of people start [MOOCs], but the number of students who actually complete them is very small,” says Jon Bellum, the university’s provost and senior vice president, adding that he believes the self-pacing required for these courses is a big reason for the lack of completion.

One study found an average 4 percent completion rate among the million users of 16 Coursera courses offered from June 2012 to June 2013. The research, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, found that the completion rate was somewhat higher (about 6 percent) for courses that had a lower workload.

At UMUC, a predominantly online college, students who took one of the ACE-endorsed MOOCs had to demonstrate that they had learned the material in the course by taking an exam or completing a final project. This rigorous process may be one reason no student at UMUC has requested credit for a MOOC, as of yet.

“It’s just a lot easier to take a class somewhere and pay for it than to go through all this,” Cini says.

Wanted: Degree program enrollment

Another approach to awarding credit for MOOCs is to use them to entice students into online degree programs. That is the strategy behind MOOC2Degree.

A group of public institutions working with Academic Partnerships agreed to convert one of their online courses into a MOOC, which was offered for credit in a degree program. UT Arlington’s College of Nursing joined the initiative so that it could attract registered nurses to enroll in the bachelor of science in nursing program, dovetailing a nationwide goal aimed at increasing the education levels of nurses.

Of the 342 students who took the college’s first MOOC, called “Interprofessional Collaborative Practice and Its Impact on Patient Safety,” 8 percent completed the course for credit. In addition, nine of the nurses taking the course went on to enroll in the online nursing program in January, and five more were in the process of applying, says Beth Mancini, associate dean of the nursing college.

“We know our population of nurses who need to go back and extend their education,” Mancini says. “We know a lot of them don’t feel comfortable signing up for an online program, yet are not geographically close enough to take a class at a university.”

Exposing registered nurses to a MOOC gave them the confidence to enroll in an online program, with the added benefit of earning three credits, Mancini adds. The cost of taking the MOOC, including the proctored exam administered by Proctor U and receipt of credits, was $43, compared to $771 for taking the course in the traditional online nursing program.

Continuing ed credits

When administrators at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., considered how the school could fit into the world of MOOCs, they chose to focus on creating courses that would cater to professionals needing to take continuing education courses each year to maintain their licenses.

So last fall, St. Scholastica offered the “Health Data Analytics” MOOC, completion of which awarded 12 continuing education credits through the American Health Information Management Association.

Though officials at the college promoted the MOOC primarily to its alumni, the course attracted 1,500 people from around the world. A survey showed that 70 percent took the course to learn a new skill that could help them with their work, while 60 percent wanted to earn continuing education credits.

“There’s a thirst for this type of education—free education that is related to some kind of skill that can be practically applied to their job or any area of employment they may be interested in pursuing,” says Ryan Sandefer, chair of St. Scholastica’s Department of Health Informatics and Information Management.

The potential for MOOCs to provide continuing education has not gone unnoticed by major providers of the online courses. Last spring, Coursera began offering medical education courses on topics such as Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. The courses count as continuing education credits for doctors and nurses who need them to maintain their licenses.

The educational technology company hopes to offer MOOCS for continuing education credits in other fields that require professional licenses, such as accounting. “A lot of our courses can fit really well with these topics,” says Chris Heather, product manager for Coursera. “I think it’s a good option to serve people who want to meet those requirements.”

Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based writer.


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