Institutions should not follow the University of Texas System in rushing to give credits for online courses
The Texas system of universities joined the edX initiative Monday. edX is a non-profit aimed at providing online education that was co-founded by MIT and Harvard and has since welcomed the University of California at Berkeley. But it is Texas — the most recent and least illustrious system of schools in the project — that looks to profit itself while putting other schools at risk by deciding to begin offering these online edX courses for credit.
Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, in a speech given Monday on Grounds said the Texas legislature and its breakneck educative philosophy posed a threat to higher education at large. In February 2011, Gov. Rick Perry demanded that a college degree in Texas cost less than $10,000. The gesture was lauded as political rhetoric but attempts at implementation have struggled. Now, online courses could be the perceived panacea for the University of Texas schools to make their degrees cheaper — benefitting some students and some politicians but costing other students and schools.
edX is one of a number of hubs — including Coursera and Udacity, with which the University works — recruiting universities to provide massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Thus far, none of these MOOCs, which are free, have begun giving credit in any substantive way: There is the example of Colorado State University giving credits for one of its Udacity courses, as announced in September. Some MOOCs give certificates, and individual institutions may also have online distance learning offering credits for students remotely. But what the University of Texas system plans to do will be different.
The system will first allow enrolled students to redeem a MOOC for credit. This is, according to University of Texas officials, so that students at its system currently can take the entry-level courses otherwise too crowded on campus. Schools will also award their students credit for courses by their edX partners. They will also grant certificates, for a fee, to those people taking MOOCs outside of the Texas system.
This may sound very generous: Texas is just giving credit for hard work students have done. But by being the first schools to provide credits unequivocally, the system will become the center of currency exchange. The University of Texas system — featuring nine universities with varying tuition prices — will benefit from the infrastructure designed by edX and has chosen to gain financially. The system will be the only place where edX MOOCs can be turned into credit, absorbing the revenue of MOOCs while footing very few costs.
Of course, the University of Texas system will not become a monopoly. Its decision to give credits for MOOCs may incite peer colleges to follow. What could have been a systematic, patient, thought-out progression toward credit-bearing online courses, featuring the approval of fellow universities or regional accreditors, could become a mad rush to cash-in on what was originally an altruistic movement. There is a reason that edX is a non-profit and why other institutions have yet to give MOOCs any credit. In ignoring this, the University of Texas puts other schools in a panic, meanwhile lessening the value of its degree for the students and faculty present. Other universities, ignoring the inflated degrees of Texas, could still work together to ensure that MOOCs — which studies have shown allow for easier cheating — are properly vetted before promising credits.