The Shape of Things (To Consider): Credible Credits

Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version.

At the moment, colleges have a monopoly on the sale of college credits, the only units of learning that can be assembled into credentials with wide acceptance in the labor market. Monopolies are valuable things to control, and monopolists tend not to relinquish them voluntarily. But the MOOC explosion will accelerate the breakup of the college credit monopoly.[1]

~ Kevin Carey

            How can we create academic assessment and credential programs appropriate to the realities of contemporary learners? And how can we do this without sacrificing the quality and integrity of current models?  Answering these questions is vital to dealing with the challenging opportunity confronting agencies concerned with higher education for the twenty-first century. Barriers to accessing traditional higher education—and obstacles to degree completion for students who have successfully matriculated—are adding to the growing pressure to identify viable alternatives to traditional college education. State and federal government officials are drafting legislation requiring public institutions to provide new paths for students struggling to amass required credits to graduate. Badges, fee-based certification, and competency-based education programs are increasingly being scrutinized and—in some cases—adopted. This movement has led to various agencies now creating systems that provide credit for participation in MOOCs and other online learning programs.

The trend toward education persisting over the life and career of a learner, is growing. The contemporary college student is no longer necessarily between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, and few students now complete their college career in four years. Military veterans are seeking college transfer credit for formal and informal training acquired during their service. In the spirit and application of lifelong learning, today’s students engage with educational opportunities in a variety of venues inside and outside the formal educational infrastructure. As Cathy Davidson, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, notes, “People seem to think they know what school is and they know what work is. We live in a world where anyone can learn anything, anytime, anywhere, but we haven’t remotely reorganized our workplace or school for this age.”[2] Government agencies, influential foundations, and corporate leaders are now actively working on that reorganization.

            Digital Badges for Learning: the U.S. Secretary of Education Speaks Out. On September 15, 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the fourth annual launch of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition. In his speech, Duncan referenced the Obama administration plan, “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” noting that it “aims to reframe learning as a process that is not only lifelong, but life-wide.” Duncan described the persistent reformation of the higher education system as an economic and social imperative, noting that the “cradle-to-career” vision of the Transforming American Education plan is critical to the social and economic development of the nation. Duncan offered remarks about the future of higher education, the importance of innovation, and the value of digital “badges” with respect to documenting and credentialing individual educational accomplishments.[3]

Duncan also acknowledged several agencies working to improve access to education, including the MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla, the University of California Humanities Research Institute, and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory).  These groups are all working to provide funding and identify paths to college credit for academic accomplishments outside of the traditional model.  Digital badges are a centerpiece of that effort. Badges, Duncan noted, engage, inspire, and serve as acknowledgement of accomplishment in an era of education anywhere and anytime, and as complements to the traditional venues of college and university.

According to Duncan, the participation of schools, corporations, and supporting organizations in the Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition “will serve as a catalyst to advance the potential of digital badges. Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate—as well as document and display—their skills.”[4]

Duncan targeted traditional metrics of academic achievement and argued for the development of systems that acknowledge the value of both formal and informal learning. Badges are a critical component of the transition from “credentials that measure seat time to ones that more accurately measure competency” and, he further argued, that shift should be accelerated. Badges, he added, will help measure, document, and communicate knowledge that is acquired by learners in an increasingly interconnected educational matrix in which “learning not only can—but should—happen anywhere, anytime.”  Digital badges are a mechanism to help universities and colleges acknowledge learning that happens in both “physical and online” environments “and whether learning takes place in schools, colleges or adult education centers, or in afterschool, workplace, military or community settings.” The traditional system of schools, colleges, and universities are “very important” points within interconnected “networks of learning.” What is required are systems that do a better job of measuring and credentialing learning that occurs in the spaces between these points.

We are witnessing renewed analyses of competency-based education and prior learning assessment.  This open and expansive educational model—that of the student actively engaged in the development of learning programs with outcomes measured in their professional development—synchs well with MOOCs and could be a potent combination in the decision-making of learners with respect to their formal education plans and commitments. MOOCs paired with complementary digital badges fit with the trend for twenty-first-century learners to “seek out the right tools among many resources available, and in their fields of interest—and build a record of what they have mastered.”

Duncan’s remarks highlighted the federal government’s commitment to support the cooperative work of traditional education, business, industry, and influential foundations in promoting an increasingly open education infrastructure. “With efforts like this competition, we can encourage breakthroughs in the types of free, high-quality, online Open Educational Resources that lift educational attainment rates and foster renewed economic growth.” Harnessing the talent, aspirations, and abilities of new generations of learners and citizens will be key to economic and entrepreneurial renewal, a significant portion of which is sponsorship of new approaches to providing college credit for knowledge acquired by non-traditional means. To that end, powerful interests are aligning to support the development and acceptance of digital badges.

What then are these badges? How does one acquire them, and from whom?

            Digital Badges and the Disintermediation of Credentialing. Digital badges measure competent interaction with material, activities, and peers in a learning environment. Badges as they are implemented today are derived from research into gamification.

In gaming culture and practice, “achievements” (badges, awards, stamps, or challenges) encourage players to do more than simply finish a game: they encourage one to go farther, to explore all aspects of a multi-space environment, and learn what is knowable in the context of that expansive environment.

Achievements/badges are consciously designed into the environment by the developer as specific challenges to be encountered and worked through by the player. Badges are awarded as players successfully navigate the game; they are often interdependent, and build on progress and demonstration of problem solving. Earned badges are visible to the community of participants as part of the player’s digital profile. Internet spaces exist for players to post profiles and demonstrate accomplishments. Microsoft’s 2005 Xbox Gamerscore system is generally considered to be the first implementation of such an “achievement system.” In these multi-game environments, players are motivated to work through challenges and demonstrate accomplishments by public recognition accrued through demonstration of competency with the entire range of events and challenges across a multi-game environment rather than a single task or activity as part of a single game.

In 2007, two years after Microsoft introduced Xbox Gamerscore, Eva Baker, president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), stated the need to develop and implement a system of badge-like certifications of student accomplishment. Badges, Baker said, would document learning in formal and informal environments. Building on the achievement systems of gaming environments, learning badges would be public recognition of documented accomplishments and would be visible to universities, employers, and peers.

Despite the call to action by Baker and the AERA, badges failed to get widespread attention.  Then, in 2011, Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, co-authored An Open Badge System Framework, a white paper conceptualizing badges as an alternative path to certification and credentials for education.

Mozilla, provider of the popular Firefox web browser, develops resources that are open and accessible to everyone.  As stated on its website, “Mozilla promotes openness, innovation and opportunity on the Internet by engaging in unique partnerships with some of the world’s leading brands and non-profits, as well as with technology, content and service providers.”  In keeping with that mission, Mozilla’s alignment with the MacArthur Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University reflects its intention to put Mozilla’s considerable resources behind a plan to develop an open tool to help institutions and organizations authenticate and certify learning.

The white paper outlined a systematic approach to credentialing knowledge and competencies intended to augment the existing model of formal curricula and degrees. The paper sketches a model in which a student’s skills and competencies would be “captured more granularly across many different contexts…collected and associated with online identity and could be displayed to key stakeholders to demonstrate capacities.”  The paper defined a framework that “outlines the key elements of an open badge system for connected learning contexts, including the badges, associated assessments and an open infrastructure to support issuance, collection and sharing of badges.”  Badges, the paper reported, would be awarded for competencies regardless of where the competency is developed.  A collection of such badges would serve as a “virtual resume of competencies and qualities for key stakeholders such as peers, schools or potential employers.” Badges connect the “learning ecology,” bridging contexts and making alternative educational channels more “viable, portable, and impactful.”[5]

The paper had an impact of its own. In December 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched MITx to enable students to take advantage of open online course materials and take online exams to assess their mastery of the material and earn certificates. Foreshadowing—or perhaps reflecting—emerging MOOC participation models, MIT entered into an agreement with OpenStudy, a company that administers online study groups, to issue digital badges to students who consistently provided mentorship and support to colleagues in the online discussion forums supporting the OpenCourseWare project.

Following rapidly on the publication of its 2011 white paper, the Mozilla Foundation staked out its presence as a significant player in the credentialing movement when it announced Mozilla Open Badges, a program for creating a common system to issue, earn, and display digital badges across educational environments. That announcement and subsequent software development marked a programmatic commitment to change badges from playful game-based tokens with limited credibility to symbols of certified learning backed by data authenticating students’ activities and successes.

On March 14, 2013—two years after Secretary Duncan’s speech about digital badges, open educational resources, and credible alternatives to the credentialing of competency and knowledge—Mozilla launched Open Badges 1.0.

Mozilla Open Badges is an online standard, an actual tool that institutions and organizations can use to authenticate and verify learning, “making it easy for anyone to issue, earn and display badges across the web—through a shared infrastructure that’s free and open to all,” as the Mozilla Open Badges website states. Open Badges 1.0 creates a tool that enables organizations to verify competencies for other institutions to review, and for learners to display achievements, interests and skills in an open manner congruent with the online culture and practices of this century. The system is open, enabling students to combine badges from different organizations in a user-managed portfolio that provides a more complete story of individual achievement. Earned badges are controlled by the user and may be displayed for review by others for professional purposes, potential employment or educational programs—as a record of what Secretary Duncan calls “life-wide learning.”

Contrary to the image that the label “badge” evokes, digital badges are more than a static emblem.  The value of the badge derives from the metadata about the learner’s activities and progress relating to the competency for which the badge is issued. Badge metadata includes information about the issuer of the badge along with how, when and why the badge was earned, and links to documents, reviews, and projects associated with the work of the learner. It is a portfolio of progress. As the Open Badges website states, “This supporting data reduces the risk of ‘gaming’ the system and builds in an implicit validation system. The metadata may vary based on the particular skill, assessment, and issuer.” As an integrated system, Open Badges gives users control over display (critical to privacy concerns) and provides tools to manage different displays for different audiences. “Mozilla Backpack,” a component of Open Badges, enables users to customize collections of badges for display and review by schools, employers, and universities with details that are relevant to the specific interaction. The backpack gives users an easy way to sort badges by category and display them across such social networking sites as LinkedIn and employers’ websites. Open Badges, with supporting resources like the Mozilla Backpack, reflects the sensibilities and intention of a contemporary generation of users.

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More than 600 organizations and educational institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Empire State College of the State University of New York, NASA, and the Smithsonian Institution, are now using Open Badges to authenticate education and lifelong learning in support of students’ education and professional development.

  • Mozilla Open Badges is not proprietary — it’s free software and an open technical standard. That means any organization can create, issue and verify digital badges, and any user can earn, manage and display these badges all across the web.
  • Open Badges knits your skills together. Whether they’re issued by one organization or many, badges can build upon each other, joining together to tell the full story of your skills and achievement.
  • With Open Badges, every badge is full of information. Each one has important data built in that links back to the issuer, the criteria it was issued under and evidence verifying the credential — a feature unique to Open Badges.
  • Open Badges lets you take your badges everywhere. Users now have an easy and comprehensive way to collect their badges in a single backpack, and display their skills and achievements on social networking profiles, job sites, their websites and more.
  • Individuals can earn badges from multiple sources, both online and offline. Then manage and share them using the Open Badges backpack. Right now we’re launching with the Mozilla backpack — other organizations will be able to use Open Badges to make their own backpacks later this year.

~ Source: Mozilla’s Open Badges Project. MozillaWiki, 2013

            Grant funds attached to the Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition have attracted institutions eager to experiment with digital badges. The University of Southern California’s service-learning division, for example, is among the winners of a MacArthur grant to try the badge platform. According to Susan Harris, the associate director of the Joint Educational Project developed at USC, the project “works with professors to run community-service projects that grant students extra credit for volunteer work. The service-learning community has struggled with how to identify and recognize the outcomes that students learn, like civic knowledge and diversity.”[6]

Critics of open badges are concerned that corporations, the federal government, and the “larger educational marketplace” are building an ineffectual system that forces teachers to teach to tests. Some argue that systems like digital badges reduce learning, mastery, and credentials to a cheap facsimile of formal education. Badges, in this view, simply amplify the worst failings of our current educational model in which students are driven from the pursuit of knowledge to chasing after a reward for the sake of the reward rather than the knowledge and mastery it represents.

It is true that significant impetus to explore and implement digital badges comes from corporate and educational entrepreneurs and reformers rather than traditional institutions. The concept and practice of issuing emblems of achievement is well established in commercial information technology sectors.  Microsoft and other software development companies, for example, offer online certification programs to help professionals demonstrate competency.  The Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) program is a widely recognized model for attaining and demonstrating competency in a complex learning environment. Employers making decisions about staffing and eager to access credentials that provide details about potential employees’ academic career, achievements, and competencies have long made use of such digital “badges.”

The trend for students to combine formal education with work and professional development will certainly continue.  Digital badge systems provide the ability to earn and display emblems of achievement in a structured, portable, and customizable system, and to demonstrate competency without waiting years for a single comprehensive credential. Since few students currently complete a college degree in four years and are increasingly compelled to intersperse education and employment over a longer period of time, such a system may well be attractive and pragmatic for this generation of students. How tools such as digital badges will be accepted and implemented by traditional institutions is yet to be determined. However, it will be difficult to ignore the utility of metadata detailing a student’s successes and interests as we all increasingly find ourselves moored in online spaces fueled by social media and open publishing.

Educational leadership has the opportunity and the obligation to actively engage in the dialogue over these issues, and to ensure that traditional institutions help direct the course of these emerging trends.

            From Badges to Credits. The advent of MOOCs is yet another impetus toward considering the value of issuing, earning, and displaying badges of academic achievement.  Similarly, increasing acceptance and implementation of badges will add credence to the argument that MOOCs should be considered for college credit. 

Despite concerns that digital badges, alternative assessment models, and open and online learning environments like MOOCs reduce the status of learning to a facsimile of authentic education, many believe that we have arrived at a historic moment in the history of education, and that inevitable changes are on the horizon for higher education policy and programs.

Kevin Carey, director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation, believes that MOOCs will ultimately (inevitably) be considered for credit. In a September 3, 2012, Chronicle of Higher Education article, he highlights the obvious paradox of MOOCs that do not merit credit despite being taught by prominent scholars from elite schools. Contrasting the current model that enables a “slacker freshman who ekes out a C to collect full credit for a course they barely attend” with the emerging MOOC model in which an enthusiastic, engaged student scores in the top one percent of a “course taught by a world-famous scholar and endorsed by a world-famous university,” yet earns no credit, Carey argues that “such cognitive dissonance can’t last forever.” He goes on to describe scenarios in which accredited colleges will increasingly accept MOOC certificates as transfer credit. He reminds us that there are several thousand accredited schools and that many are struggling to find strategies to enhance their visibility, enrollment, and financial futures. Public officials (as demonstrated in Secretary Duncan’s 2011 speech), meanwhile, will continue to press for better access to higher education for families effectively shut out by the current traditional system.[7]

MOOCs in this scenario offer campuses the opportunity to market themselves anew, build (or rebuild) their brand, and boost enrollment numbers in the context of an increasingly inter-networked educational model in which students engage in learning across many venues and over extended time periods. Adhering to a model bound by limited time spent in college (four years), false demographics (18-to-22-year-old students), and one or, at most, two accredited institutions attended, is a failing proposition for campus leadership dealing with older students who have mixed educational backgrounds and various family and employment responsibilities.

When Sebastian Thrun wanted to give his first massive online course away for free, Stanford University had no problem.  When he wanted to offer a Stanford-sanctioned certificate to those who completed the course, the university balked.  The message is clear.  Content and content delivery is negotiable.  Sanction of certification and credentialing has been the business and purview of the university.

It is in this context that MOOC providers and other agencies are actively working to certify MOOC participation for credit. An infrastructure to provide for the assessment and credentialing of alternative educational opportunities like MOOCs is gradually taking form. Agencies that have worked for years (and, in some cases, for decades) to verify and recommend alternative courses for credit, and to supervise and proctor exams for credit, are now involved in the validation of emerging online education. Applying well-established and rigorous review programs and protocols to MOOCs likely will confer credibility on these non-traditional learning environments.

            The American Council on Education (ACE) and Accredited MOOCs. The American Council on Education (ACE) is leveraging its position as the umbrella agency for higher education in the U.S. to provide leadership in determining the credit-worthiness of MOOCs. ACE College Credit recommendations have long been used to connect workplace learning and formal higher education. Since 1974, the ACE College Credit Recommendations Service has used teams of faculty to review training and educational experiences offered by the military, corporations, and professional associations in order to determine whether they should be issued credit signifying that their learning outcomes are equal to that of traditional, college-level work. ACE institutional membership includes nearly two thousand colleges and universities that use these credit recommendations in their acceptance of credit for courses outside the traditional model. ACE has a client list of over six hundred organizations and institutions for which they evaluate courses and programs.  Clients include such companies as Starbucks and McDonald’s, such education providers as Skillsoft, and such government agencies as the Federal Aviation Administration. Through the ACE Credit Registry and Transcript System, learners who complete courses with the appropriate credit recommendations can request and obtain transcripts that they can submit to colleges and universities. Approximately 1,200 institutions accept these recommendations for consideration in the credit transfer process. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

In November 2012, ACE announced that it would apply its rigorous credit review process in an evaluation of several MOOCs. Given its long history and successes, ACE is well positioned to influence the acceptance of accreditation for MOOCs. (It is reliably estimated that 82 percent of ACE-endorsed students receive some credit from institutions of higher education because of that recommendation.) By working methodically with various agencies and MOOC providers to develop a comprehensive program for reviewing and credibly accrediting MOOCs, ACE likely will drive traditional colleges and universities to recognize MOOC credits.

Since that 2012 announcement, ACE has evaluated and approved several courses offered by Coursera and Udacity. As ACE president Molly Corbett Broad says on ACE’s website, “MOOCs are an intriguing, innovative new approach that holds much promise for engaging students across the country and around the world, as well as for helping colleges and universities broaden their reach. But as with any new approach, there are many questions about long-term potential, and ACE is eager to help answer them—questions such as whether MOOCs can help raise degree completion, deepen college curricula and increase learning productivity.”

ACE has considerable foundation support in this effort, including a nearly $900,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With that funding, ACE is going beyond evaluation of specific courses and is establishing research to “identify and answer questions about the disruptive potential of this new and innovative approach to higher education.” The agenda for this initiative includes:

  • Creation of a Presidential Innovation Lab that will bring together presidents and chancellors from diverse institutions to engage in conversations about potential new academic and financial models, inspired by the disruptive potential of MOOCs, that can help address attainment gaps.
  • Evaluation of select Coursera courses for college credit by the ACE College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT).
  • Examination of effective approaches, pedagogies and practices that lead to student success, as well as the applicability to college degree completion programs of college credit recommendations for MOOCs.

In order to make strategic sense of MOOCs and other emerging online learning initiatives, it is critical to provide spaces for campus leaders to wrestle with their issues and potential. Higher education is grappling with how, when, and to what extent online education will impact existing curricular, pedagogical, administrative and financial models. Ideas like the ACE Presidential Innovation Lab will certainly inspire others to organize similar spaces in the context of their own regional and national consortia. Academic leadership will need such structured programs to effectively grapple with the issues, challenges, opportunities, and institutional obligations related to MOOCs, and to publish outcomes so as to contribute to a disciplined, productive dialog with the broader community of higher education.

            Multi-agency collaborations. Many institutions and organizations are working together on developing acceptable paths to credit for participation in MOOCs. In addition to recommending several MOOCs for credit, ACE is collaborating closely with Udacity and San Jose State University in researching the academic rigor and pedagogical implications of MOOCs for low-income students and adult learners. San Jose State, part of the beleaguered California State University system, has committed to persistent review, development, and implementation of alternative online education models. ACE’s role in that project is to develop research on the demographics of students who participate in Udacity coursework and to identify effective pedagogical practices, given the demographic and disciplinary context of the courses. This research, undertaken in alliance with the University of Illinois Springfield’s Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service, is expected to define attributes that contribute to successful MOOC course completion and will compare demographics within disciplines of students enrolled in both MOOCs and traditional courses.

This may be the kernel of an effective response to criticism of the course-by-course review that ACE typically conducts.  If ACE develops an observable methodology that is extensible and easily applied to the MOOC model rather than individual MOOC courses, it could ease the process and accelerate acceptance.  The development of such methodologies may influence how MOOCs are developed in the first place, effectively creating a model that responds to documented shortcomings, establishes acceptable online pedagogies, and deepens the penetration of MOOCs and other online programs into higher education. Such work may help articulate better questions for campus leaders as they redefine the nature and shape of higher education in their own institutions. Other organizational efforts to authenticate acceptance of MOOCs, prior learning, and competency-based education include:

The College Board’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP), which provides exam-based access to college credit. According to its website, CLEP has been “the most widely trusted credit-by-examination program for over 40 years, accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities and administered in over 1,700 test centers.”

Excelsior College, which offers examinations to certify students’ understanding of concepts taught in traditional general-education course classrooms, has now extended its portfolio to include MOOCs. “By matching content in MOOCs offered through MIT, Johns Hopkins, Saylor and others to 31 of its existing Excelsior College Examinations (ECE), Excelsior has provided a means for students to demonstrate knowledge gained through the use of free open educational resources such as MOOCs.” Ironically, Excelsior College—a pioneer in prior learning—has so far declined to honor ACE credit recommendations for MOOCs. This policy is based on concerns that ACE has moved too quickly to credit MOOCs and that that haste might undermine the work of other organizations working to extend acceptance of prior learning. John Ebersole, the President of Excelsior, is confident that his institution and ACE (which he concedes is the national leader in this space), will ultimately re-converge, as both organizations share the same goals.

The Saylor Foundation is a non-profit organization committed to providing free undergraduate college education “with the goal of producing high course and program completion rates.” The foundation does not confer degrees, but offers “the knowledge equivalent of majors in fifteen popular disciplines, and . . . [is] making strides toward providing student credit pathways.” Students can use Saylor offerings to prepare for challenge exams that can lead to credit. Saylor and Excelsior College offer a program through which students who complete Saylor online courses can pay a fee to take challenge exams to earn credit via Excelsior, which is a regionally accredited nonprofit online institution.

StraighterLine is another online provider offering low-cost ($99 per month) learning modules that can lead to ACE credit recommendations. StraighterLine has partnered with Excelsior to offer fifteen courses taught by professors. On its website, StraighterLine boldly guarantees that its courses transfer to partner colleges. Agreements with these colleges—almost all online schools—“detail how a StraighterLine course is comparable to and accepted in lieu of a specific course/course requirement at each partner college.”

Education Portal, a Silicon Valley-based for-profit, offers over thirty courses that link to challenge exams leading to college credit.  Sixteen courses are linked to CLEP, two to Excelsior, and another eight to both exam paths.

In September 2012, Pearson VUE, a subsidiary of the Pearson publishing and education assessment giant, partnered with the edX to offer proctored exams to students participating in edX MOOCs. Previously, edX awarded “certificates of mastery” to the 7,157 graduates of its inaugural MOOC in electrical engineering. Now, as a result of the agreement with Pearson, graduates will receive certificates indicating they passed a proctored exam. Pearson signed a similar agreement with Udacity earlier in 2012. Pearson is almost unique in its capacity to offer a massive, site-based testing infrastructure that can accommodate the scope and scale of emerging massive, open educational models. Such site-based testing could confer additional credibility to credentials earned via MOOCs and certified via proctored exams.

In October 2012, Coursera and Antioch University agreed to license the company’s MOOC courses to the university as credit-bearing courses in a bachelor’s degree program. Significantly, this is a step for Coursera in the development of a comprehensive course product, for sale to colleges, that integrates content and assessment tools.

In January 2013, Academic Partnerships launched MOOC2Degree, a hybridized collaboration with several of its forty partner institutions. Students entering an online degree program can take the first course in the program as a MOOC, with full course credit offered to those who complete the course. Students moving on in the program will be enrolled in “standard” online courses for full tuition. The MOOC2Degree effort encourages students to get started in full-blown degree programs by lowering the initial threshold. For example, the University of Cincinnati now offers Innovation and Design Thinking as a MOOC.  Successful, accredited completion of the course provides the option to embark on Master’s degree paths in the university’s engineering or business schools. Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar, and Utah State Universities as well as the Universities of Arkansas, Cincinnati, Texas at Arlington, and West Florida were the first of Academic Partnerships’ partner institutions to participate in MOOC2Degree.

Also in January 2013, Georgia State University announced a new policy encouraging its colleges and departments to explore and develop means to grant credit for MOOC courses at other institutions. “The landscape in higher education is changing and Georgia State University is at the forefront,” said President Mark Becker in a university press release. “This represents a decision by Georgia State to consider MOOC courses in the way we consider every other course—whether they provide a good education for our students,” said George Rainbolt, professor of philosophy and chair of the University Senate Committee on Admissions and Standards. The policy extends current practices in which the university grants course credits to students who take university-vetted examinations, such as the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

Common to all of these developments is the commitment on the part of many agencies and institutions to accept credit for participation in alternative education and improve access to formal degree programs for non-traditional students. This concerted effort speaks directly to the aims of the Obama administration, resonates with persistent political pressure to evaluate educational models based on performance and results, and reflects administrative support for prior learning and competency-based education. The scale and financial strength of these cooperative efforts will almost certainly result in policies and programs favorable to alternative college credit models. Competency-based education and awards for prior learning will find attentive audiences across the higher education landscape and will continue to challenge the tradition of “seat time” as the primary metric of college credentialing. As these programs develop and mature, campus leadership will need to decide whether—or, more likely, to what extent—emerging credentialing models fit with the vision and mission of their institution for students, faculty, and staff.

Planning Questions

  • How can we create academic assessment and credential programs appropriate to the realities of contemporary learners without sacrificing the quality and integrity of current models?
  • How will you evaluate alternative forms of credit?
  • If the “traditional system of schools, colleges, and universities” are in fact critical points “within interconnected ‘networks of learning,’” what are the strategic relationships between your institutions and other, emerging or alternative educational opportunities in the matrix available to students?
  • Is your institution prepared to evaluate and, if appropriate, integrate alternative forms of credit?
  • What is your strategy to be actively engaged in the dialogue over these issues, and to ensure that traditional institutions help direct the course of these emerging trends?


Recommended Readings

“ACE to Assess Potential of MOOCs, Evaluate Courses for Credit-Worthiness.” American Council on Education, November 13, 2012.,-Evaluate-Courses-for-Credit-Worthiness.aspx.

“ACE to Forge New Ground in MOOC Evaluation and Research Effort.” American Council on Education, January 15, 2013.

“AP Credit and Placement.” AP Student, 2013.

Booker, Ellis. “Can Big Data Analytics Boost Graduation Rates?” Information Week, February 5, 2013.

Carey, Kevin. “California Shifts the Ground Under Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Conversation, March 13, 2013.

———. “Into the Future With MOOC’s.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2012, sec. Commentary.

Catropa, Dayna, and Margaret Andrews. “Did MOOCs Just Make Landfall? 10 Questions to Consider.” Inside Higher Ed, November 5, 2012.

“Coursera Terms of Service.” Coursera, January 14, 2013.

Duncan, Arne. “Digital Badges for Learning.” presented at the 4th Annual Launch of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition SEPTEMBER 15, 2011, September 15, 2011.

Empson, Rip. “Coursera Takes A Big Step Toward Monetization, Now Lets Students Earn ‘Verified Certificates’ For A Fee.” TechCrunch, January 8, 2013.

Fain, Paul. “ACE Doubles down on Prior Learning Assessment.” Inside Higher Ed, March 4, 2013.

———. “ACE to Assess Udacity Courses for Credit.” Inside Higher Ed, January 16, 2013.

———. “Community Colleges Warm to Free, Self-paced Course Content.” Inside Higher Ed, April 22, 2013.

———. “Competency-based Education Continues Spread.” Inside Higher Ed, March 5, 2013.

———. “Competency-based Education’s Newest Form Creates Promise and Questions.” Inside Higher Ed, April 22, 2013.

———. “Free Online Course Providers Pair up with Credit-bearing Exams.” Inside Higher Ed, February 4, 2013.

“Five Courses Receive College Credit Recommendations.” Coursera Blog, February 7, 2013.

Gardner, Lee, and Jeffrey R. Young. “California’s Move Toward MOOCs Sends Shock Waves, but Key Questions Remain Unanswered.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 14, 2013, sec. Government.

Head, Karen. “Sweating the Details of a MOOC in Progress.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, April 3, 2013.

Jaschik, Scott. “Admissions Leaders and Legal Experts Debate How to Define Merit.” Inside Higher Ed, January 18, 2013.

———. “Public Universities Move to Offer MOOCs for Credit.” Inside Higher Ed, January 23, 2013.

Kolowich, Steve. “American Council on Education Recommends 5 MOOCs for Credit.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 7, 2013, sec. Technology.

———. “At Educause, a Discussion About OER,” November 8, 2012.

———. “Coursera Strikes MOOC Licensing Deal with Antioch University.” Inside Higher Ed, October 29, 2012.

———. “Experts Speculate on Possible Business Models for MOOC Providers.” Inside Higher Ed, June 11, 2012.

———. “Site-based Testing Deals Strengthen Case for Granting Credit to MOOC Students.” Inside Higher Ed, September 7, 2012.

———. “SUNY Signals Major Push Toward MOOCs and Other New Educational Models.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, March 20, 2013.

———. “Top-tier Universities Band Together to Offer Credit-bearing, Fully Online Courses.” Inside Higher Ed, November 16, 2012.

Lederman, Doug. “ACE Deems 5 Massive Open Courses Worthy of Credit.” Insisde Higher Ed, February 7, 2013.

Lewin, Tamar. “Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit.” The New York Times, January 23, 2013, sec. Education.

Milliron, Mark David. “Reflections on the First Year of a New-Model University.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1, 2012, sec. Online Learning.

Mozilla. “Introducing Open Badges 1.0.” The Mozilla Blog, March 14, 2013.

———. “Introducing Open Badges:” Mozilla Open Badges. Accessed May 7, 2013.

“Mozilla Launches Digital Badge Standards.” Inside Higher Ed, March 15, 2013.

“Mozilla’s Open Badges Project.” MozillaWiki, 2013.

Nelson, Libby A. “Did State of the Union Create Opening for Competency-based Programs and Other Innovations?” Inside Higher Ed, February 14, 2013.

———. “Obama Calls for More Attention to Price, Value, Accreditation in State of the Union.” Inside Higher Ed, February 13, 2013.

New, Jake. “Mozilla Releases Long-Discussed Software to Offer ‘Badges’ for Learning.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, March 14, 2013.

Pannapacker, William. “Cultivating Partnerships in the Digital Humanities.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2013.

Peer 2 Peer University, and The Mozilla Foundation. “An Open Badge System Framework: A Foundational Piece on Assessment and Badges  for Open, Informal and Social Learning Environments.” University of California Humanities Research Institute, March 1, 2011.

Rees, Jonathan. “Essays on the Flaws of Peer Grading in MOOCs.” Inside Higher Ed, March 5, 2013.

Rivard, Ry. “Amendments to California Outsourcing Bill Give Professors More Say, but Faculty Remain Wary.” Inside Higher Ed, April 22, 2013.

———. “California Academic Leaders Oppose Outsourcing Plan.” Inside Higher Ed, March 28, 2013.

———. “Duke Faculty Reject Plan for It to Join Online Consortium.” Inside Higher Ed, April 30, 2013.

———. “Florida and New York Look to Centralize and Expand Online Education.” Inside Higher Ed, March 27, 2013.

———. “Researchers Explore Who Is Taking MOOCs and Why so Many Drop Out.” Inside Higher Ed, March 8, 2013.

“Semester Online.” Accessed March 20, 2013.

Tate, Pamela. “Course-by-course Approval of MOOCs May Not Be Wise.” Inside Higher Ed, February 14, 2013.

Tilsley, Alexandra. “Dartmouth to End Use of Advanced Placement Scores for Credit.” Inside Higher Ed, January 18, 2013.

Willis, James E., John P. Campbell, and Matthew D. Pistilli. “Ethics, Big Data, and Analytics: A Model for Application.” EDUCAUSE Review, May 6, 2013.

Young, Jeffrey R. “American Council on Education May Recommend Some Coursera Offerings for College Credit.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 2012, sec. Technology.

———. “‘Badges’ Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8, 2012, sec. College 2.0.

———. “California State U. Will Experiment With Offering Credit for MOOCs.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 15, 2013, sec. Technology.

———. “Coursera Announces Details for Selling Certificates and Verifying Identities.” Wired Campus, January 9, 2013.

———. “New Platform Lets Professors Set Prices for Their Online Courses.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12, 2012, sec. Technology.

[1] Kevin Carey, “Into the Future With MOOC’s,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2012, sec. Commentary,

[2] Jeffrey R. Young, “‘Badges’ Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8, 2012, sec. College 2.0,

[3] Arne Duncan, “Digital Badges for Learning,” September 15, 2011,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation, “An Open Badge System Framework: A Foundational Piece on Assessment and Badges for Open, Informal and Social Learning Environments” (University of California Humanities Research Institute, March 1, 2011).

[6] Young, “‘Badges’ Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas.”

[7] Carey, “Into the Future With MOOC’s.”

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