Published on 2013/09/05
A Student’s Guide: Leveraging MOOCs for Credit
As competency-based learning becomes more common across higher education, MOOCs provide students with a low-cost pathway to earn postsecondary credentials.

Gaining college credit for taking and passing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is a low-cost way to advance toward a college degree. MOOCs are essentially a non-traditional source of education. Prior learning assessments (PLA) are the key to being able to use MOOCs for educational credit. Learning from MOOC sources can support competency-based programs, proficiency exams and PLA portfolios. MOOCs can provide the learning material for tests or certificates of completion (and verified certificates), and can be used in the creation of a PLA portfolio. Proficiency exams and PLA portfolios typically cost substantially less for the same number of college credits that attending a college class would.

Before a student takes a MOOC and can expect to leverage learning into college credit, he or she must do some research on schools. If the student is already enrolled at a college or university, he or she needs to find out if the institution grants credit for prior learning. If the institution does, the next step is to find out if the school accepts credits from proficiency exams or PLA portfolios. With proficiency exams, the student should find out which exams are accepted before taking a MOOC to ensure the learning material will support the exam. With PLA portfolios, the student needs to determine the school’s process, which can vary. The student should ensure the MOOC learning materials align with the school’s course of study. Also, the student needs to know how many of these prior learning credits the school is willing to accept and apply toward a degree program.

If the student is not yet enrolled in a college or university but has started taking MOOCs, the research path is different.  If this student expects to use prior learning for credits, he or she should choose courses wisely. This student’s goal will be to find a college that readily accepts prior learning and has a higher acceptance limit on these types of credits.

Competency-based degree programs also rely on prior learning. For example, College for America, from Southern New Hampshire University, and the University of Wisconsin system offer competency-based degree programs. The program at College for America requires students to show mastery of 120 competencies through task completion. Competencies range from quantitative skills to information literacy, ethics, and social responsibility. It only makes sense that students take advantage of MOOCs for skills assessment preparation.

Proficiency exams test a broad range of knowledge or skill a person has in a particular field of study.  The purpose of these exams is for students to demonstrate prior knowledge and to earn college credits by passing the exams. The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) offers 33 exams, with subjects including American government, biology and Spanish. CLEP proficiency exams are accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities, with many accepting credit for 20 or more CLEP exams.

Some colleges and universities provide their own proficiency exams.  Excelsior College accepts credits from multiple proficiency exam companies and also provides more than 50 exams for credit.  Test preparation materials from Excelsior include a guide to using Open Educational Resources for study material. The guide identifies resources such as the Open Learning Initiative from Carnegie Mellon, Saylor Foundation, Hippocampus, Khan Academy and iTunesU as sites that provide learning material. More directly, the guide lists specific learning resources for the individual tests. For example, the listing for the Basic Genetics test includes specific courses from Saylor Foundation and Coursera.

Learning from MOOCs can also be transformed into college credit through a process involving PLA portfolios. PLA portfolios are documented collections of course artifacts. Artifacts include sample assignments, certificates of completion, course syllabi and learning reflection essays. The Council of Adult Experiential Learning’s LearningCounts program helps students produce PLA portfolios, reviews their completed portfolios and recommends it for college credit. LearningCounts is affiliated with more than 100 colleges and universities.

This is the first of a two-part series by Laura Medeiros providing a student’s perspective on the prospects and possibilities of MOOCs. To read the next installment in the series, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Peter Miller 2013/09/05 at 10:58 am

Great advice for students looking to gain credit for prior learning via MOOCs, portfolios, etc. I’m of the opinion that as long as a student demonstrates competence in the subject area, where/how the knowledge was obtained should not play a role in determining if that student should receive credit.

Oliver Wayne 2013/09/05 at 1:26 pm

This is a great introductory read about how to leverage prior learning for credit. I wonder if there isn’t a service out there that provides personalized advice to prospective students on how to get the most out of prior learning. Are advisors trained to handle these types of student requests? Should MOOC providers provide ‘educational pathways’ for MOOC students? It can be confusing for students to navigate on their own, as PLA is quite a new concept to many institutions.

Mika Hoffman 2013/09/10 at 8:50 am

A quick note: Excelsior College’s exams are available to anyone, whether or not they’re an Excelsior College student, and they’re accepted for credit at many colleges and universities.

Also, Oliver, I’d recommend as a service for getting the most out of prior learning. They have some useful automated tools but also actual people to talk to.

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