April 25, 2014

An explanation of how ACE accredits MOOCs

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ACE2 Book, P. (2103) ACE as Academic Credit Reviewer–Adjustment, Accommodation, and Acceptance WCET Learn, July 25

Over the next few weeks, WCET will publish a series of blog posts on Massively Open Online Courses. This, the first in the series, provides a detailed explanation of how ACE (the American Council on Education) assessed five Coursera courses.

ACE represents the presidents of U.S. accredited, degree-granting institutions, which include two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities.

Pat Book, the author of the post, is a Former Assistant Vice President at the American Council on Education, and led the process for assessing the courses.

Highlights from the process

For those of you who wonder how the accreditation process works in the USA, this is fascinating reading. Here are some highlights from Pat Book’s post:

ACE finds itself in the awkward position of advocating for the best interests of their institutional members while at the same time serving as a shadow accrediting body distributing the ACE imprimatur (defined by those very member institutions) to a host of newly emerging for-profit ventures whose mission and goals are very different.

Reviewing academic courses taught by faculty at top tier universities was a new venture for ACE as its CREDIT recommendation service was not designed for nor … ever had been deployed for this type of review.  ACE leadership was anxious, as was Coursera, to address the major topic of discussion last year about whether or not MOOCs were credit-worthy.

The initial courses subject to ACE review were selected by Coursera in consultation with their partner universities (which included the University of California at Irvine, and Duke).  Coursera and the partner universities chose courses that were already offered on campus or were using content similar to an on-campus course.

All five courses reviewed received credit recommendations based on ACE’s review criteria.  The five courses received math and science recommendations, one at the developmental math level, that is, three-credits of pre-college, three at the lower division baccalaureate level, all three credits, and one two-credit recommendation at the  upper division baccalaureate level.  Faculty reviewed all course exhibits including learning outcomes, competencies, and assessment methods.  Faculty made suggestions regarding perquisites and offered other notes.  While ACE has recommended academic credit, it is up to each university or college to review these credit recommendations and determine how they may align with their general education requirements or degree programs.  There is no guarantee that any university of college will accept the ACE credit recommendations.

 ….it seems like a foregone conclusion that the courses Coursera self-selected for review would be highly likely to receive an ACE CREDIT® recommendation.  They were courses developed by faculty and already reviewed for credit in their university system in some cases and just being offered in a new delivery method albeit to a massively scaled audience.

The review process doesn’t evaluate learning outcomes, but is a course content focused review thus obviating all the questions about effectiveness of the pedagogy in terms of learning outcomes. 

 MOOCs currently serve largely an international audience who already hold college degrees and have reasons other than degree attainment motivating them.   The jury is still out on the value for the vast majority of American students who need developmental education and/or are seeking affordable access to college credentials.


First, thanks to Pat Book for making this process transparent. We are better informed about the meaning of ACE’s accreditation for MOOCs as a result.

My concern though is that ACE accreditation misleadingly suggests that Coursera courses have been approved by the American post-secondary system (represented by ACE). In fact what the ACE accreditation does (as explained by Pat Book) is merely accredit courses from institutions that are already accredited. However, it seems that a commercial organization (Coursera) has consequently received enormous marketing value for almost no cost (the article makes it clear that reviewers are paid almost nothing to do the reviews.)

More importantly, the article makes it clear that the MOOCs were accredited solely on the quality of the content. This though does nothing to address the main criticisms of MOOCs: that they employ unsuitable pedagogy for online delivery, and that the student assessment process is fundamentally flawed. ACE accreditation in essence does nothing to assure learners that they might actually be able to complete successfully such courses, or that if they do so their certificate will be transferable for credit within regular programs.

I think that we really need to squash the idea that Coursera MOOCs offer a meaningful, radical alternative to conventional higher education, and focus on their value as educational broadcasting, notwithstanding their important value in forcing many elite institutions to take much more seriously for the first time the potential role of credit-based online learning.

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