Friday, June 15, 2012

Making It Count

Paul Fain / June 15, 2012 - 3:00am

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, ... . 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 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.


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[snip].


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.


Excelsior has identified free, or cheap, online courses that students can use to prepare for the exams, and includes them in study guides. [snip].


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.


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. [snip].

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. [snip].

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.


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."

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