07/23/2013 04:28 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

No MOOC Takers for Cheap College Credit

During the last few months, I've discussed the often loud, sometimes angry debate over whether students should receive real college credit for finishing a MOOC. But what if such credit were offered, but no one decided to take it?

There are actually a number of different mechanisms by which students could potentially earn achieve some form of credit for MOOCs. But as this recent story indicates, even with some of these mechanisms already in place, there don't seem to be many (or any) student takers for MOOCs for credit, even though the economics driving those offerings ($89 for a credit worth more than $1000) seems sound.

Some earlier professional experience left me completely unsurprised by this low level of interest. For years ago, some partners and I put a program we had developed to teach and certify digital literacy skills through the same American Council on Education (ACE) credit equivalency process many MOOCs are currently going through.

This process created a pathway whereby students who had passed our certification could have their results registered on an official ACE transcript which could then be brought to an institution of higher education that had the option of accepting the ACE recommendation and adding credit to a student's actual college transcript.

This would give students the chance to obtain credit for cheap and/or opt out of mandatory technology courses covering material they already could prove they understood through our exam. And unlike some MOOC courses which seem to threaten existing programs, our certification was being introduced into school situations where there were not enough slots for teaching this subject matter (meaning educators looked favorably on third-party alternatives to close the gap between mandatory computer literacy requirements and limited resources to teach the subject).

But despite how much sense this all made, our ACE program (like the recent Colorado State University MOOCs-for-credit project linked above) was greeted by chirping crickets.

For as it turned out, the steps needed to get from A (taking our exam -- which was not free) to Z (getting a college to give you credit for the experience) was non-trivial. Getting your ACE transcript was a highly manual process (with a dollar figure associated with it). And once you had this transcript, getting a college to understand what it was (much less accept it) often involved work by students to sell their institution on both on ACE accreditation generally, and the worth of our program specifically. And students could expect more fees from their institution, which meant "free credit" was already climbing into the hundreds of dollars (less than thousands, but still significant -- especially when you add the additional logistics involved with making this all happen).

I mention this to explain why the highly limited uptake on offers now in place to allow students to use MOOCs to cut down their tuition bills seem to be triggering student indifference vs. widespread institutional disruption.

Now it may be that this lack of interest is just a result of MOOCs being so new, and the programs needed to turn them into credit still few, far between and largely unknown. Or perhaps hostility towards MOOCs is being played out behind the scenes by institutions and faculty interested in protecting their most valuable asset (control over how one obtains a degree).

But I also suspect that many people are only looking at the most obvious economic arguments supporting MOOCs for credit (that they allow you to get something worth more than a thousand bucks for less than a hundred), and ignoring the other fees, steps and ambiguities that add significant friction to the market for any alternatives for obtaining college credit.