October 1, 2014

Research from the Michigan Virtual University on a connectivist MOOC

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 MVU MOOC report

Ferdig, R. et al. (2014) Findings and reflections from the ‘K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century’ MOOC Lansing MI: Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

We are now beginning to get some in-depth research or evaluations of MOOCs. This one is from a team at Kent State University that developed a five week ‘connectivist’ MOOC aimed principally at three distinct audiences: high school students interested in becoming teachers, preservice teachers, and inservice teachers in the K-12 system.

I provide here a very brief summary of the report (as always, you should read the report for yourself if my summary gets you interested). Italics are direct quotes from the report.

Goal of the MOOC

How can we get teachers to think more deeply about reinventing education?

MOOC design

facilitators take on the role of connecting people around an idea for the purpose of bettering our understanding of the
idea. A connectivist-based MOOC draws on the extensive number of participants as well as the existing open repository of content to develop an experience. Participants are both teachers and learners in a process – not a product.

The course was designed around four principles often associated with teaching in the 21st century: connected learning, personalization, collaboration, and reflection.

Core technology

Coursesites by Blackboard provided the basic platform for content and discussion, supplemented by the use of participants’ social media networks and technologies. In addition participants were asked to create an ‘artifact’ to represent their learning.

Use of partners/co-facilitators

Kent State provided core facilitators for the MOOC, but they also invited other co-facilitators from schools, colleges and universities both in Michigan and from several other states.


Badges and continuing education units were given for successful participation.

Main results

Participants (data at time of enrollment, i.e. all participants)

Start of course: 673; end of course: 848; mainly from Michigan and surrounding states, although 12 were international

School teachers: 42%; k-12 students: 23%; post-secondary students: 16%; 19% other (inc. school administrators, university faculty); 80% female.

Participants’ response to the MOOC (168 participants who completed a post-course survey)

Most participants who responded enjoyed the MOOC, with in-service teachers enjoying it the most. Th main criticism (especially from the k-12 students) was the amount of work involved in following the MOOC.

Very active participation in the online discussion forums (within the Coursesites LMS)

There were over 6,000 actual posts (comments) and over 65,000 ‘hits’/looks over a five week period, from just over 300 of the participants – but almost to-thirds did not participate at all.

Types of participation

Lurkers (i.e. did not participate in LMS discussion forums – they may have participated through social media): 63%. There were accounts created in Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and blogs related to the course which indicated active social media connections both for registered participants and with those who had not registered for the course but were interested. However, these numbers were relatively small, and hard to measure.

Passive participation was defined as doing the minimum amount of work required to complete the course. Some of the passive participants were K-12 students forced to complete the MOOC for a class requirement.

There were also preservice teachers and inservice teachers who could be described as passive participants. These participants often completed the course; however, much like the high school students, their posts were limited to one or two sentences per posts. Their comments were also superficial, for example, “Nice job” or “I like what you did.”

Active participants participated in four ways:

  • informing personal practice
  • sharing the MOOC with their communities
  • leadership within the MOOC community
  • critical colleagues

The authors’ main conclusions

The seeking and sharing of digital media highlights that people want to form and engage in communities, and the growing interest in MOOCs shows this is true of educational communities as well….

Learning takes place in communities; depending on the implementation, technology has the capability to create and sustain the communities’ learning and practice….. Evidence in this report suggests that such activities can lead to positive outcomes, particularly as they relate to getting teachers to think more deeply about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

My comments

Even though (or perhaps because) this is a self-evaluation, this is a very useful report. I was fascinated for instance that this course ended with more participants than when it started, due to the ‘publicity’ of social media connections during the course itself.  It was interesting too that some of the participants in this MOOC were not necessarily willing participants – being forced to participate as part of a formal credit program. This seems to me to go against the whole purpose of a connectivist MOOC.

More importantly for me, the report highlights some of the ways research can be conducted on MOOCs and also some of the challenges. The study identifies the importance, from a research perspective, of having some kind of platform that can gather student data and track student behaviour, such as levels or types of participation. However, given the importance of social media for connectivist MOOCs, some way of accurately tracking related social media activity is critical. It seems to me that this is a problem that appropriate software could solve (further development of gRRShopper?), although privacy issues would need to be addressed as well. (Perhaps the spy agencies can help here – just joking!)

I agree completely with the authors when they write:

Researchers have already provided ample evidence that asking if a technology works is the wrong question. A more appropriate question is: under what conditions do certain types of MOOCs work?

Another even more pertinent question is: What prior research into credit-based online learning applies – and what does not apply – to different kinds of MOOCs? This might save a lot of time re-inventing the wheel, particularly for xMOOCs. I am getting sick of hearing from research on xMOOCs that immediate feedback helps retention – we have known that for nearly 100 years. We do need though for instance to assess the importance and most useful roles, if any, of instructors/facilitators/subject matter experts in MOOCs, and whether MOOCs can succeed with reduced ‘expert’ participation. This report suggests almost the opposite – connectivist MOOCs work best with a wide range of facilitators – but what are the hidden costs of this?

Finally, I also agree with the authors that completion rates are not the best measure of success for MOOCs. This MOOC does seem to have raised some interesting questions for participants. I’m just curious about their answers. Despite the very good work done by the instructors/researchers of this MOOC, I am still left with the question: what did the participants actually learn from this MOOC? For instance, what would an analysis of the student ‘artifacts’ have told us about their learning? Unless we try to answers questions about what actual learning took place then it will remain difficult if not impossible to measure the true value of different kinds of MOOC, and I think that would be a pity.

In the meantime, this report is definitely recommended reading for anyone interested in doing research on or evaluating MOOCs.

Contact North on How to Design an Innovative Course

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Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Anon (2014) How to design an innovative course, Sudbury.Thunder Bay ON: Contact North

As reported in Contact North’s Online Learning News:

There is a lot of pressure these days on faculty and instructors to be ‘innovative’ in their teaching. But exactly what does being innovative mean? How do you go about designing and implementing an innovative course? What is the problem you are trying to solve? Will technology help? Learn a series of steps that can help you approach innovative teaching in a systematic way.


I found this article quite interesting. No author is given but they must be pretty smart to get this topic down to about 1,000 words….

Tracking online learning in the USA – and Ontario

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Babson 2012 enrollment graph Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Learning in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation

This is the eleventh annual report in this invaluable series on tracking online education in the United States of America. It is invaluable, because, through the consistent support of the Sloan Foundation, the Babson College annual survey provides a consistent methodology that allows for the tracking of the growth and development of online learning in the USA over more than a decade.

There is nothing comparable in Canada, but nevertheless I will use this post to try and draw some comparisons between the development of online earning in the USA and at least the largest system in Canada, that of Ontario, which does have at least some data. Also, Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a system wide initiative aimed at strengthening Ontario’s online learning activities. The Sloan/Babson surveys have important lessons for Ontario’s new initiative.


The survey is sent to the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of every higher education institution in the USA (private and public, universities and two year colleges), over 4,600 in all. Over 2,800 responses were received from institutions that accounted for just over 80% of all higher education enrollments in the USA (most non-responses came from small institutions, i.e. institutions with 1,500 students or less, who were far less likely to have online courses, as a sector).

An online course is defined in this report as one in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online as a normal part of an institution’s program. MOOCs are therefore considered a completely different category from the ‘normal’ credit-based online courses in this report.

What is the report about?

The scope of the report can best be described from the questions the report seeks to answer:

  • What is Online Learning, what is a MOOC?
  • Is Online Learning Strategic?
  • Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?
  • Schools Without Online Offerings
  • How Many Students are Learning Online?
  • Do Students Require More Discipline to Complete Online Courses?
  • Is Retention of Students Harder in Online Courses?
  • What is the Future of Online Learning?
  • Who offers MOOCs?
  • Objectives for MOOCs
  • Role of MOOCs

Main findings

This relatively short report (40 pages, including tables) is so stuffed with data that it is somewhat invidious to pick and choose results. Because it is short and simply written you are strongly recommended to read it yourself in full. However, here are the main points I take away:

Growth of credit-based online learning continues but is slowing

Sounds a bit like an economic report on China, doesn’t it? Allen and Seaman claim that a total of 7.1 million students are now taking at least one online course, or roughly 34% of all enrollments. (Note: ‘% taking at least one course’ is not the same as ‘% of all course enrollments’ which would be a better measure.) Online learning enrollments were up 6.5% in 2013, a slowing of the rate of growth which had been in the 10-15% range per annum in recent years. Nevertheless, online enrollments are still growing five times faster that enrollments in general in the USA, and most CAOs anticipate that this growth in online learning enrollments will continue into the future.

MOOCs are still a very small component of online learning

The number of institutions offering MOOCs rose from 2.6% in 2012 to 5% in 2103. The majority of institutions offering MOOCs are doctoral/research and there is a high proportion in the private, not-for-profit sector. This sector has been historically less involved in credit-based online learning.

Graph sectors with online learning

Less than a quarter of CAOs believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012, and a majority of academic leaders (64%) have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.

Sector differences

The report identifies some clear differences between the different sectors in the USA’s very diverse post-secondary education system. Small institutions (less than 1,500) and doctoral/research institutions are far less likely to offer online courses. CAOs from institutions not offering online learning tend to be more critical of the quality of online learning and far less likely to think it essential to their future.

Of the CAOs from institutions offering online courses, nearly one-quarter believe online outcomes to be superior, slightly under 20 percent think them inferior, with the remainder (57%) reporting that the learning outcomes are the same as for classroom delivery

What about Canada – and Ontario in particular?

I have long lamented that we have no comparable data on online learning in Canada. The government of Ontario did do a census of all its universities and colleges in 2010 and found just under 500,000 online course registrations, or 11% of all university and college enrollments, with online enrollments in universities (13%) higher than in two-year colleges (7%). If we extrapolate from the USA figures (highly dubious, I know) which showed a 16% increase in online enrollments between fall 2010 and fall 2012, this would put Ontario’s online enrollments in 2012 at approximately 563,000.

More significantly, the Ontario government survey provided hard data on course completion rates:

  • the median in the college sector for the 20 colleges that responded to the question was 76.1% with most institutions reporting results between 70% and 79%.
  • the median in the university sector for the 15 universities that responded was 89% with most universities reporting results from 85% to 95%.

Contact North did a ‘cross-country check-up’ in 2012. It concluded (p.14):

Using proxy data (estimates provided by a variety of different organizations and a standard measure of full-time equivalent student set at 9.5 course registrations per FTE), we can estimate that there are between 875,000 and 950,000 registered online students in Canada (approximately 92,105 – 100,000 full-time students) at college and universities studying a purely online course at any one time.

The problem though is that these are one-off studies. While the government of Ontario is to be congratulated on doing the 2010 survey, it decided not to continue it in the following years (or more accurately, it did not decide to repeat it.) The Contact North data is at best a rough estimate, again valuable in itself, but needs to done on a more systematic and regular basis across the country (Canada’s higher education system is devolved to each of 12 provinces with no federal responsibility or office for post-secondary education, and Statistics Canada has been cut back in recent years by the current Conservative Government).

However, there is now hope. The government of Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a collaborative Centre of Excellence that will be governed and operated by the province’s colleges and universities. It has a start-up budget of $42 million. One of the first things it should do is to repeat and expand the 2010 survey, to establish a baseline for measuring the province’s progress in online learning. The expansion should include also measurement of hybrid/blended learning (preferably using the same definitions as the Babson survey for comparative purposes.) To do this accurately, institutions will need to categorize the type of courses they are offering in their courses’ database, if they have not already done this to date. Without such a baseline of data, it will be almost impossible to assess not just the success of Ontario Online, but of online learning in general in Ontario.

I would also hope that as the country’s largest province, with probably the greatest number of online courses and enrollments, Ontario will take leadership at the national Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to get the survey it has developed adopted and administered by all provinces across Canada. Politicians and experts can huff and puff all they like about the importance of online learning, but if they don’t measure it, it’s all just hot air.

In summary, many thanks to Sloan and Babson College for their invaluable work. Ontario has done far more than any other province in Canada to identify the extent of online learning, and is poised to make an even greater breakthrough through its new Ontario Online initiative. However, systematic data collection is essential for measuring the success of any online learning initiatives or strategies.

Productivity and online learning: an summary of the main concepts

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productivity wordsThis is the first of two final posts in the series on whether online learning can increase educational ‘productivity.’ In this post I discuss some of the issues in identifying how online learning could lead to productivity gains in post-secondary education. In the second post, I will try to pull the main conclusions together

A list of all the previous posts in this series can be found at the end of this post.

Why this is a difficult topic

I have to say that this has been a bit of a hard slog. It’s not a topic that seems to fire the interest of most of the readers of this blog (at least in terms of the number of hits each post gets.) Nevertheless, I do believe that a hard look at the potential and limitations of online learning for improving the productivity of higher education is important. Politicians and, as Alex Usher calls them in his excellent blog, ‘techno-fetishist windbags who tried to make us all believe that …. MOOCs were an unstoppable wave of the future‘, often make at best naive comments about the ‘productivity’ of online learning, without really understanding what productivity means in educational terms, or explaining how the claimed productivity gains will occur. ‘Free’ to students of itself does not guarantee productivity gains, for instance, if the students are learning nothing or very little.

Another reason why it’s a hard slog is because little serious work has been done up to now on the topic of the productivity of online learning. Tom Carey’s and David Trick’s’s report for HEQCO is one of the few works on online learning that even raises the issue of productivity, and I think they would be the first to say that their report is very much a beginning of the discussion.There is almost no systematic research on the costs or ‘inputs’ of online learning, and certainly no cost research on some of the new forms of online learning, such as hybrid learning, mobile learning, OERs, or MOOCs (just because they are free to students does not mean there are no costs involved). In other words, we lack some of the really basic data needed for us to talk about productivity intelligently.

More importantly, though, while there is a large literature on the productivity of commercial companies or nation states, we don’t have a clear or agreed conceptual framework or definition of what productivity means in education, especially in terms of ‘output.’

Fears around ‘productivity’ in education

One reason of course for the lack of interest in productivity in education among educators is that the topic has undertones of commercialization. Many educators see education as a public good, which should be appropriately funded by the state, i.e. taxpayers, because the whole of society benefits from well educated people. Looking at costs or return on investment is ideologically disturbing for many of us working in education. But the real fear is that policy-makers and computer scientists will try to use ‘productivity’ in online learning as a way of eliminating instructors or teachers.

However, for me productivity in education can be put in very simple terms: is our society collectively (learners, taxpayers, parents, faculty, and other key stakeholders) getting the best bang for the bucks we are spending on education? If we can increase productivity we can educate more students to a higher level for the same investment. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?

Second, as we have seen from the posts so far, there is little at least immediately to fear from computers replacing faculty or teachers. Demand for post-secondary education far exceeds supply, but more importantly, there are extremely strong educational reasons why at least into the foreseeable future computers cannot do many of the really valuable things needed in teaching at a post-secondary level. Nevertheless, there are some things that online learning can do that could ease somewhat the financial stresses on the system, as we shall see, and we should be paying more attention to this.

Some key concepts and principles

I do not pretend to be an expert on productivity, despite a background in economics. Nevertheless, there are some basic concepts or ideas that need to be considered when trying to apply ‘productivity’ to online education.

Inputs and costs

Key terms in discussion of productivity in other contexts are ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’. Inputs in education can be measured in various ways, but cost is one convenient way of counting input. The time that faculty and learners spend on teaching and learning is also a key input factor, which could be converted into an equivalent cost figure. Investment in technology and the human support required to make it effective is another input measure. Although not without some problems, though, the measurement of input with regard to online learning is not conceptually difficult. It’s just that it’s not been done up to now.


It’s when we come to outputs that there are more conceptual difficulties. How do we measure output in education, and in particular how do we relate outputs to inputs? What is the best way to measure outputs in education? OECD and other agencies use measures such as participation rates, graduation rates, standardized tests, etc. but at a post-secondary level these measures are more difficult. For instance there is a lot of mobility across different sectors of post-secondary education, with almost as many students transferring out of universities into two year colleges or institutes of technology as the other way. Do we count people who transfer halfway as drop-outs? How is this tracked? Does online learning facilitate this mobility (I believe it does) and is this mobility a good thing (I believe it is)? Lifelong learners have different needs from high school leavers. How important are these groups relative to each other, and does online learning serve one group better than another?

Many of the conceptual issues around international national standardized testing such as PISA apply even more so to measuring outputs at a post-secondary level. For instance, how do you measure what students have learned and more particularly relate that to the mode of delivery such as classroom versus online? How for instance do you measure creativity, originality and critical thinking, and relate that to teaching method and/or mode of delivery? In particular, what if, as I believe, online learning lends itself to new or better learning outcomes that have not to date been targeted in classroom teaching? One example would be the development of 21st century skills, such as digital literacy embedded within a specific subject domain. Thus we need to be careful when measuring productivity through online learning that we are not under-measuring some of its unique advantages. Furthermore, if it could be shown that learners learn more quickly, or instructors have to spend less time teaching to get the same results, this too would be a valid way of measuring improvements in productivity.

At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that there is wide disagreement among educators about the nature of learning, so what may be a perfectly acceptable means of increasing productivity for one person may be totally unacceptable to another. In essence, there are likely to be strong disagreements about the definition of valid measures of output, and how to obtain such outputs, which makes the discussion of productivity in education all that more difficult. One way to deal with this of course is to ask people to state what they see as valid outputs, then try to relate the use of online learning to meeting such outputs in a more productive way.

Scale and scope

One way to increase productivity in industry is through economies of scale: a standardized product that can be replicated very cheaply. MOOCs are a classic example of this in online learning: the same content delivered to hundreds of thousands of learners, with almost no variation to take account of individual differences, tastes or requirements (and almost no delivery costs, for that matter, except where broadband Internet access is expensive).

Production line car engines

There are some difficulties though with this concept being applied in education, particularly regarding standardized products. Especially at a university level, there is an argument for variations in the curricula taught across institutions, for example. This is partly to do with freedom of expression and partly with the need for heterogeneity and diversity in the knowledge base. Many would agree that we would not want all Canadian universities teaching exactly the same content in all subject areas. However, there may be more agreement on sharing common core foundation courses between different universities or colleges, which online learning would enable, thus achieving some economies of scale. The HEQCO report in particular emphasised the opportunities for economies of scale that online learning offers, but then pulled back, arguing that scaling is more difficult if not impossible for the ‘learning that matters most’ (see below).

It is worth noting that ‘economies of scale’ are associated with an industrial economic model, but online learning is based on digital not manufacturing technologies. Economies of scope are more associated with post-industrial economies. Economies of scope enable many variations on a standard product to meet individual needs at a low marginal cost for each variation. An example from industry would be different models of cars built around a common chassis and/or engine. An example from online learning would be a core curriculum with many optional routes through the material, using adaptive technologies that respond to the inputs from individual students in different ways, depending on the needs of the learner.

Digital technology in particular allows for an almost unlimited range of ‘options’ at low marginal cost. Social media take this even further with the concept of the ‘long tail’ strategy of of selling a large number of unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each. Applied to online learning, it would mean mounting a course for which there was very little demand locally, but would have a large market world wide.  While there has been quite a lot of discussion about economies of scale in online and open learning, the potential for economies of scope have been less well understood or discussed.

© The Social Enterprise Blog, 2009

© The Social Enterprise Blog, 2009

Replacement of labour by technology

A key way to improve productivity in the business world is to replace high cost labour with lower cost technology. Post-secondary education certain has high cost labour, which constitutes a major part of total costs. There is great interest then among policy makers and politicians in the possibility of computer-based learning replacing high labour costs, which partly explains the excitement about MOOCs.

However, there will be no productivity gains by replacing labour (instructors) with technology (computer-based learning), unless outputs are maintained or improved. It is important then to examine carefully the current state of computer-based learning, to see which parts of teaching and learning can effectively replace human instructors. This means disaggregating the different tasks or roles of instructors, and looking at those outputs that can be achieved better through computer-assisted learning as it exists now or in the near future. There is also a deeper philosophical issue, which is whether certain aspects of teacher-learner relationships should be replaced by computers. Are there some parts of the educational process that needs to remain ‘human’?

Process design and management

Another productivity issue is the efficient design and management of the processes by which ‘inputs’ are turned into ‘outputs.’ In a car company this would be the manufacturing process. The more one can simplify and/or reduce the cost of ‘processing’, while maintaining or enhancing quality, the greater the productivity.

A key process in education is the method of teaching. If we consider for example the development of 21st century skills such as independent learning, this will be heavily influenced not just by the content being taught, but how the teacher designs and/or how learners conduct activities that enable learners to develop such skills. In online learning this is usually called course design. We will see that course design can be in fact a major factor in increasing the productivity of online learning.

Learning that matters most

Lastly, it’s important that any attempt to measure productivity in education takes account of the nature of learning, and the different views of what constitutes learning. For me academic learning is a developmental process through which learners develop increasingly deeper and more complex understanding, and above all a capacity for learning how to learn within a particular subject domain or discipline. This means pushing beyond the superficial presentation and reproduction of information to students understanding what a subject discipline is really about and behaving and thinking as a professional within that subject domain. This for me is the kind of learning that matters most, as Tom Carey has described it in the HEQCO report. My experience of teaching online leads me to believe strongly that this kind of teaching is not only possible but often achieved in online learning. The challenge though is to scale that kind of learning or rather to find ways of teaching online that enable such learning to be successful across large numbers at less cost.

Connectivism and the wisdom of the crowd

Lastly we need in any discussion of productivity in online learning to consider a newly emerging area, the impact of social media and in particular the impact of massive inter-connections and communications across the Internet, on learning and knowledge.

Some, such as George Siemens and Stephen Downes, argue that informal learning, through online communities of practice or ad hoc or informal online connections through social media, and self-learning through Internet searching and networking, has massive potential for reducing the costs of education by content becoming increasingly freely accessible on the Internet and by eliminating or dramatically reducing the need for professional teachers.

© Ann Helmond 2009

© Ann Helmond 2009

 The next step

These are all different ways to look at productivity within a system. It can be seen that it is not a trivial issue and given its complexity, focusing on the productivity potential of online learning  is unlikely to provide policy-makers with the clear, simple answers that they seek. But I still think it is a worthwhile effort to examine at least the potential for online learning to increase productivity, to clarify the issues in doing this, and to have a stab at defining those areas that look most promising, and perhaps even more importantly, identifying possible dangers in certain approaches to productivity.

So in the next and last post in this series, I will attempt to identify those areas where online learning offers the greatest potential for productivity gains in post-secondary education.

Your turn

I would really like to hear from readers about:

  • whether you agree or disagree with these concepts or whether you think I have misunderstood what productivity means in post-secondary education
  • whether this post is useful for you in thinking about the role of online learning in your institution

Previous posts in this series include:

There is also a CIDER webinar presentation on the HEQCO report available from here


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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.