04/19/2013 01:43 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2013

Credit for MOOCs

One of the hot topics regarding MOOCs and other forms of online learning (massive or small, free or otherwise) is whether or not taking such courses should count for actual high school or college credit.

California recently mandated that schools who shut out students for lack of space in traditional classrooms must allow them to take equivalents online courses for credit (with Florida flirting with similar legislation).

Buried in these decisions is the assumption that online and classroom learning experiences are equivalent in terms of the amount of material taught, and the level of mastery obtained by students at the end of a session.

But, as I've been documenting at my Degree of Freedom blog, the nature and amount of learning varies considerably from one online course to another. And while I've definitely had learning experiences that rivaled courses I took in college years ago in terms of rigor and scope, my One Year BA project has demonstrated that each of these new learning options needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

Even as we come to grips with what these new teaching solutions teach, however, pathways are emerging for obtaining official (or unofficial) credit for taking and passing MOOCs and other types of online courses.

The need to determine equivalency between a class taught by one institution and another (regardless of whether those classes are virtual or brick-and-mortar) is not new. Students taking classes at summer school or exchange programs, for example, will often want those classes to count towards graduation requirements at the primary college or university in which they are enrolled.

Sometimes of this equivalency is handled via reciprocal relationships between institutions (such as US colleges and universities that maintain exchange-school relationships with specific schools abroad). But since 1974, the Consumer Reports of course equivalency has been the American Council on Education (ACE) and their CREDIT program.

Organizations that apply for ACE accreditation need to submit substantial documentation describing the scope of what's taught in a course and host a team of academics who scrutinize course material for several days before providing a credit recommendation that other schools can use as the basis for determining local credit equivalency.

MOOC providers are in the process of putting several of their classes through the ACE process, which means that even now there are ways to take a course for little to no cost that can count towards a college degree.

Students also have the ability to obtain college credit via various credit-by-exam options which allow students to pass respected, professionally developed exams (such as the College Board's CLEP program and other exams accredited by ACE ) in order to earn credit and/or place out of lower level courses once they enter college.

While most MOOCs focus on specialized subjects (such as computer science or some of the liberal arts I've been studying) that don't necessarily correspond to a CLEP (or equivalent) exam, even without MOOCs, existing credit-by-exam and ACE-accredited courses offer students a pathways to either (1) cut down their number of tuition-paying years needed to obtain a degree or (2) place out of lower-level courses so they can spend their college years studying more difficult or diverse subjects.

And as we wait to see whether more courses get approved for credit (and whether colleges choose to accept these new learning models as equivalent to what takes place on their physical campuses), other systems are emerging such as independent educational portfolios that allow students to show off what they've learned on their own directly to employers (or other people they'd like to impress).

But as formerly non-credit courses move towards "counting" (i.e., substituting for credits towards graduation that can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars), something I call the "Credit Paradox" emerges. For when courses have no monetary value, students' main incentive should be to learn the material (making cheating or plagiarism both dishonest and idiotic since they would involve committing time specifically to not learning from a course you enrolled in specifically to learn from).

But as the external value of a MOOC increases (either as a cost-saving alternative to expensive brick-and-mortar college tuition, or as part of an alternative credential respected by employers), suddenly cheating on a MOOC moves from irrational (since cheating students are only cheating themselves) to rational (since it offers a shortcut for obtaining something for nothing).

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