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MOOCs struggle for credit—and credibility

MOOCs struggle for credit—and credibility

According to a survey of professors who have taught massive open online courses (MOOCs), 72% don't think students deserve credit from doing the course. So what needs to happen for MOOCs to gain credibility?

Free online courses from universities can't quite bridge the gap between a learning hobby and serious education. A recent article ('The Professors Who Make the MOOCs') at US publication The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed a yawning divide between enthusiasm for massive open online courses (MOOCs) and what finishing a course might mean for students and educational institutions.

The Chronicle's survey, albeit small, touched on two important points that I found particularly interesting. The first is, from a sample that The Chronicle deemed "stacked with true believers", that 72% of the professors who had taught a MOOC did not believe successful students deserved formal credit from their home institution. This was despite a number of the professors devoted a significant amount of time to preparing for the course and interacting with students, including in discussion forums, to the extent that it distracted them from their regular duties.

Coupled with the fact that the pass rates are very low, at an average of 7.5%, this result suggests to me that MOOCs have yet to move beyond a hobby for many participants. If the bulk of students don't treat the course like a university course, then why should the teaching institution?

The beauty of offering what is essentially a full service course for free is that students can try it without significant negative consequences: high course fees are no longer a barrier and failure won't stop students from progressing through their degrees. Even testing out the course load is valuable for potential students who may be considering signing up for the real thing if they establish that they can dedicate the time. This 'try before you buy' benefit comes at a cost, however. It means MOOCs will continue to struggle for credibility if they cannot show the retention and pass rates that educational institutions expect from traditional degree pathways.

The other part of this struggle is the assessment process. Although MOOCs differ in terms of how students are assessed, many opt for multiple choice online quizzes or peer assessment to reduce the load on professors. For MOOCs to lead to credit, students need to be assessed in the same way as students who have taken the traditional path are in order to be considered equivalent. This, of course, means more resources to run exam centres or hire exam invigilators and/or employing teaching staff to verify and assess MOOC students' work.

One solution to this would be to 'paywall' the assessment-for-credit process. Students can take the course for free and do the exams and/or submit their assignments for free under the peer assessment model but if they want credit to enter a degree, they need to undergo assessment with the same level of rigour as their traditional counterparts. Universities could provide the infrastructure and resources for this for a small fee to cover any costs, with the possibility that the MOOC students become fee-paying students in the near future.

But MOOCs are worth the hype
The second interesting piece of information I'd like to cherry-pick from The Chronicle's survey is that 79% of the professors believe that MOOCs are "worth the hype". It seems MOOCs are a lot of work for teaching staff, but the promise of this study mode lowering the cost of college degrees, paired with the exposure for the subject that the professors receive from running one, seems to point in the right direction.

If we position MOOCs as a gateway to higher education, either as a way to put higher education in reach for those who would not ordinarily consider a degree or a pathway that prepares students for tertiary level learning, then MOOCs are certainly hitting the mark. But if we look to MOOCs as a silver bullet to boost a participant's educational standing or employment prospects, there's a long way to go before they will count towards those areas without a credible way to measure competence.

For my part, I'm happy that thousands of students are taking the first step to add to their education. Whether they will take the next step and use it to further their knowledge and skills is, at the moment, up to them.

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