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MOOCs for Credit: A New Phase in Prior Learning Assessment?

AUDIO | MOOCs for Credit: A New Phase in Prior Learning Assessment?
As the University of Maryland University College prepares to offer credit to MOOC students who can demonstrate their learning, the importance of MOOCs for the prior learning movement comes to the forefront.

The following interview is with Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). UMUC recently announced they will award credits to students of six Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) who can clearly demonstrate their learning. In this interview, Cini discusses the reasoning behind this decision to award higher education credit to these students and shares her thoughts on how successful this move will be for the institution.

1. Why did UMUC decide it would grant credit for the completion of MOOCs?

I want to clarify, we’re not granting credit for the completion of all MOOCs or any MOOCs. Very specifically, right now, it’s six MOOCs that have been evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE). And this is really just part of what we’ve been doing for 30 years, and actually more probably like 40. As an adult-serving institution, we are very aware and respectful of the fact that students learn in many different ways and in many different places and some of that is college-level learning. So, it could be on the job, it could be from extensive reading, extensive travel — and MOOCs are just another way that students can gather and learn college-level material, but what we need to see is the demonstration of that knowledge, so that’s why I’m trying to be very specific about this. They have to show us that they actually have the knowledge.

2. How will the university determine which MOOC completers are worthy of academic credit?

Let’s start with the six courses that we are really targeting. … There are six courses that the American Council on Education has evaluated and we will award credit … for these six courses — Introduction to Computer Science from Udacity, Introduction to Physics from Udacity and four others — and, in all cases, students must demonstrate their competency by taking a standardized external examination offered at a proctored testing center. And, so, if the students pass, then we will grant them transfer credit.

3. UMUC is one of the first institutions in America, and the first in Maryland, to offer credit for competency gained from MOOCs. Is this movement to award credits indicative of the increasing quality of MOOCs themselves, of an increasing recognition of the importance of prior learning, or something else entirely?

We don’t really get into the quality, necessarily, of MOOCs because Coursera and Udacity each have their own approach and then edX has its own approach. What we look at is demonstrated learning. … We’re doing prior learning assessment, which I think is really more about a way of honoring more prior learning that students bring to us. We don’t ask students a lot about the inputs, like, “Did you learn it at this kind of an organization or at this kind of an organization?”

The fact that they learned something at an organization, and can show us that they have learned the same amount that we would require in an FOR (a for-credit or credit-bearing class) is really the key. So, I think, to answer your question simply: this is more about broadening prior learning assessment than anything else.

4. These six MOOCs that ACE has identified for credit worthiness are the ones UMUC has decided to award credit for. Will UMUC go alone in the future in determining whether there are other MOOCs that are worthy … of credit or is that something ACE is going to continue to determine over time for institutions such as UMUC?

The answer is, probably both. ACE, I believe — I don’t know this to be a fact — but I believe they will continue to evaluate, and do credit recommendations for, various MOOCs because they do that with all kinds of training now. And we have long followed the ACE credit recommendations, so the more of these that they do, the more we will sign on and grant credit if students take that proctored exam and show us that they actually have that knowledge.

At the same time, we have a very robust prior learning assessment portfolio program where students bring their prior knowledge to us and they take a course and they learn to develop a narrative about what they’ve learned as well as provide us with artifacts so they’re actually showing us what they’ve learned.

We also have a course challenge program. I could imagine that a student might come to us having taken a MOOC that doesn’t have a proctored final exam, and they might go through the prior learning assessment program and earn credit that way. And I would also think that if there’s a course that has a number of students coming to us — a MOOC — we would consider putting together our own final exam that if the students take it in a proctored fashion and can show us what they know that we would grant credit.

I think there’s a couple of different strands that we’re looking at, but we haven’t made final determinations yet.

5. The University of Colorado’s Global Campus has a similar program but, after a year, has not had a single student apply for academic credit for the completion of a MOOC. How do you expect students to respond to UMUC’s offer to award credit for display of knowledge from a MOOC?

Interestingly, when we first announced this, the number of students calling to ask about it went up dramatically. But when they found out about what they needed to do and the very specific six courses — I don’t know for sure — but I can’t tell you that we even have one student who’s in the pipeline.

Colorado did this about a year ago … and that was before the ACE credit recommendation came out for the six MOOCs. I think as ACE does more of the evaluations, and as we all become more familiar with MOOCs and how to access students’ learning, I think we will get students. I don’t think it will be a large number.

Now, I could be wrong, but my understanding of MOOCs right now is that most of the students who are taking them already have an undergraduate degree and so they wouldn’t be as interested necessarily in earning more college credit.

But that could change in the future, so I think it’s a wide open question.

6. What impact do programs such as this have on higher education accessibility for adults?

I realize that this makes headlines because everybody is very interested in MOOCs, but, honestly, we see it as just one more way to respect and honor adults’ ability to learn outside of the traditional college classroom. And they already do that and we have very rehearsed ways of making sure that we measure that learning to make sure they still meet the standard that a student would meet if they take the course with us.

So, this expands accessibility for adults and … it’s not the first — and it certainly won’t be the last — way that we help to expand accessibility for adult students.

7. Is there anything you’d like to add about this program that UMUC is putting into effect and the importance of the increasing recognition of prior learning?

What I want to reemphasize — because people do seem to get confused at times — the headline of, “We are granting credit for MOOCs” can cause alarm among some faculty because the implicit assumption there is that we will just give credit because somebody sat through a MOOC.

We don’t do that. And we don’t do that for any prior learning. … We really make sure that we measure your college-level learning, whether that’s a MOOC or an experience on the job, or even wide reading in an area, [we make sure] that … you’ve met the standard. And that’s really what’s important for us to make sure we measure in the students.

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