Several higher education sites are reporting that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are soon to become the beneficiaries of $3 million in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over at Inside Higher EdPaul Fain reports that Gates is partnering with the American Council of Education (ACE), which plans to recommend which MOOCs offered by edX and Coursera are credit-worthy. The idea, Fain notes, is to develop a model for proctoring MOOC assessments, “probably through a webcam system where an actual human watches test takers as they work on a ‘final exam’."

The head of Coursera suggests that the currently free courses could cost between $30 and $100 if they become credit-bearing MOOCs, complete with proctored exams. Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education Jeffrey Young notes that “[ACE] will consider five to 10 massive open online courses…offered through Coursera for possible inclusion in the council's College Credit Recommendation Service.”

While credit-bearing MOOCs would likely be used to supplement traditional degrees and hasten college completion, it could represent a major step forward in creating a customized higher education experience that meets the needs of both students and employers, while increasing access and reducing costs. 

Credit-bearing MOOCs could hold the key to ushering in a fundamental transformation in the way we pursue higher education. If the approach becomes widespread and popular, credit-bearing MOOCs could provide the seals of approval needed to enable students to piece together a customized degree. Such a piecemeal approach, independently audited, would allow students to present to prospective employers a transcript that signals something more than just the perseverance a bachelor’s degree shows – proof of competence in a course or skill set that employers actually value.  

The higher ed landscape is rapidly changing. Gates’ entrance into the sector could hasten that change, as could the entrance of 2U, which is partnering with ten elite universities to offer credit-bearing courses online. While not technically MOOCs – admissions into the courses will be selective – it provides yet one more option for the student who wishes to create a customized diploma.

There are certainly those skeptical about the transformative power of MOOCs. But one thing is certain: traditional universities have been put in a position where, for perhaps the first time, they are having to rethink their costs, effectiveness, and very business model. The proliferation of MOOCs and budding concepts about their certification leave traditional colleges unable to ignore the revolution at their doorsteps. But if Traditional U decides to embrace the revolution, creative new approaches to organizing courses and teaching hold the prospect of sharply reduced costs for campus-based and “hybrid” colleges that combine bricks-and-mortar with online information.

Creating venues for the certification of MOOCs and other online courses could be a win-win for students and traditional universities. The next few months will be telling indeed about the direction of higher education.


Posted by: Lindsey Burke

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