Proctor’s orders

The American Council on Education was right to partner with Coursera for the purpose of vetting MOOCs

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs according to parlance, received a boost to their legitimacy Tuesday when it was announced the American Council on Education would begin assessing MOOCs with the possibility of granting course credit. The council — an advocacy group representing nearly 2,000 institutions, including the University — will partner with the MOOC provider, Coursera. The goal is for the council to act as the liaison between the online platforms, on the one hand, and universities and accreditation bodies. The council’s initiative is a measured, but important step, in translating MOOCs into credit. Its approach is more valuable than would be a mad rush of individual colleges bargaining to recognize MOOCs.

Here is how the proposal of the council will work. Starting next year, it will assemble teams of faculty members to gauge the output of MOOCs by testing the students who take them. The council would design proctored, in-person exams for a select batch of MOOCs. Students who have completed a MOOC will be able to sit for these tests for a fee. Based on the overall scores of all students, the council would determine whether the corresponding MOOC should be worth any credit. Then, those students who performed well on the test would get a recommendation of credit from the council to be presented to a university.

Granted, this process is not entirely new. MOOC providers already grant those students who’ve completed their course a certificate. The idea is that certificates provided by the council — indicating both completion of the MOOC and a vetted final exam — would carry more weight if provided to a college and could be used as a bargaining chip by the students to earn them well-deserved credit. The council already does similar projects for professional and military training, turning courses provided by employers into academic material.

There are some problems with this approach, however. Not all students are proficient test takers, and by making a high-stakes exam the sole barometer by which to judge online courses, those individuals who scored high in the MOOC but failed to achieve on the test could unfortunately miss out on the credit. Moreover, the council has highlighted that the group performance on these proctored exams will count for much in checking if a MOOC was academically serious enough to justify the allotment of credit. This neglects the fact that the outcome of a body of students on one exam may not be the best metric by which to pass or fail the credibility of an entire MOOC.

Nevertheless, the council’s plan is of a better variety than the proffered alternatives. Before Tuesday, single institutions — such as Antioch University and the University of Texas system — looked to make agreements with MOOC distributors for the sake of distributing credit. Allowing such groups — in this case, the council, but perhaps eventually accreditation bodies or the Department of Education — to act as auditing agencies will make the transition from online to for-credit both smoother and also more rigorous.

related stories