August 16, 2018

MOOCs move into credit-based higher education

Kolowich, S. (2012) MOOCs for credit, Inside Higher Education, October 29

This article reports on an interesting deal signed between Coursera and Antioch University. Antioch is a well-established private university with campuses in four different states, with around 4,000 mainly adult students. Under this deal:

  • Antioch University will pay Coursera for the rights to offer MOOCs from 33 universities for credit as part of its third year undergraduate program, focusing particularly on students transferring in from community colleges (the fourth year will be on campus)
  • Antioch will charge a lower tuition fee for these courses (closer to community college fee levels than public universities’)
  • Antioch will assign a faculty member to provide learner support for Antioch-registered students in each MOOC-based course, with about 20 students per instructor (as for on-campus classes)
  • Students will take an exam at the end of each course for credit from Antioch
  • Coursera will pay rights to the universities contributing MOOC courses to Antioch.

Inside Higher Education reports:

For Coursera, which is still building its MOOC empire with venture capital, the Antioch deal is a first step toward developing a product that it can sell to colleges: “self-contained” online course platforms, complete with built-in content and assessment infrastructure.

“It’s an LMS [learning management system] that’s wrapped around a very high-quality course,” says Koller, the co-founder. “It’s not just the box, it’s a course in a box.”


Although this is starting as a pilot, it provides a possible means to reduce the costs of US university education, while still providing learner support and credits.

It is also interesting that Antioch feels it will gain prestige from using MOOCs from other universities.

However, to date the model requires the faculty member to take on the learner support in addition to their regular teaching load. My own research suggests that over the long term, learner support costs are two to three times the costs for development (which is effectively what Antioch is paying Coursera for), so whether the business model makes sense for Antioch remains to be seen. It is though a low cost way for it to get into online learning.

Furthermore, learner support costs could be greatly reduced if the course content was developed following best instructional design principles for independent online learners, rather than canned lectures. So perhaps in the long run, quality in design may become an important ‘selling’ factor in MOOCs, more important perhaps than the name of the institution canning the lectures. I sincerely hope so, but then I’m just a silly old romantic.

In this case, the courses from Antioch will not be massive, will not be open, and will not be free. So when is a MOOC not a MOOC? Nevertheless it is an interesting model, and could provide wins for Antioch, the institutions providing MOOCs, and Coursera. Whether it’s a win for the students though remains to be seen.


Survey of the digital lives of professors

Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2012) Digital Faculty: Professors, Teaching and Technology 2012  Inside Higher Ed, Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.

Kolowich, S. (2012) Digital Faculty: Professors and Technology 2012, Inside Higher Education, August 24

This is a report of a survey of 4,564 faculty members, composing a nationally representative sample spanning various types of institutions; and 591 administrators who are responsible for academic technology at their institutions. An earlier report focused on faculty views of online education. This survey focuses on how digital technology is affecting the lives of faculty in more general terms. The Kolowich article is a fairly extensive summary of the report.

The report suggests that in general, faculty are fairly positive towards many of the digital developments in academia, such as ‘flipped’ classrooms which allow for more in-class discussion, and the growth of learning analytics (although not described as such in this report). There was also general support for the move towards e-publishing and e-textbooks.

One finding that struck me is that administrators consistently over-estimate faculty engagement with digital technologies such as an LMS.

Another finding that struck me is how relatively few e-mails faculty received from students, even when teaching online courses – rarely more than 25 a day.

There’s a lot of data in the original report and it is worth reading in full.

The challenge of converting MOOCs (or anything else) into college credits

Kolowich, S. (2012) The online pecking order Inside Higher Education, August 2

This article takes a careful and detailed look at different ways that students might convert MOOCs into formal university or college credits, using prior-learning assessment, e-portfolios or competency-based approaches. In the examples given, it’s possible but not easy or cheap. In other cases, it isn’t even possible.


For many, the point of doing a MOOC isn’t to get a university credit in the first place (water’s fine, thank you). For others, the argument is that a MOOC credit, if it comes from an elite institution, is better than a formal qualification from a middle ranking institution, in that it is more likely to impress an employer. This of course is a hypothesis that has yet to be tested, a least on a significantly large scale. But for many current MOOC learners, getting credit from conventional institutions for their MOOC study is irrelevant.

Second, one of the reasons for the success of MOOCs is precisely because currently it is so difficult to get credit for non-conventional learning in most of our universities in particular – or even worse, to be able to transfer credits from one institution to another in the same system. I’ve worked in a university where credit and non-credit students were taking the same courses for a post-graduate certificate online and the same exams, but non-credit students who got the same grades as the credit students weren’t allowed to transfer them into the masters program, because they didn’t have the qualifications needed for graduate school – even though they had demonstrated at least as much learning and knowledge. (Incidentally, this same university threatened to deny a student with a masters degree her Ph.D. after she had successfully defended her thesis because they found out that she did not have a bachelors degree – an error on the university’s part when she was admitted to the program. Only the personal intervention of the VP Academic and a special waiver from a Senate sub-committee prevented this absurdity)

I hope that over time, it will become less costly and easier to get credits for non-credit study, as governments press their institutions for more productivity in the form of less time to graduation.  MOOCs could, with luck, speed up this process, as students demand to know from their state congressman why a Harvard MOOC is not recognized at Hicksville State University.

However, this whole discussion seems to me to be somewhat absurd, being based on a false premise about what should constitute a formal education, namely a banking system where you earn enough credits to pass ‘go.’ We have built a degree qualification system that is now as complex and as questionable as derivatives in banking. The drive for more accountability in the form of standardization of learning outcomes or competency-based learning or recognition of prior learning is likely to make the situation even worse, with admission officers using tape measures and stethoscopes to assess whether a MOOC credit is the same as a continuing education credit from the same institution, and whether it is worth one or two semesters’ study at first or second year for credit programs. We should be measuring output – or even better progress – not input.

Of course we could establish an organization where entry to all programs is open and free, but further progress and qualification requires showing development or progress in learning. We could call it perhaps an open university – or haven’t I heard that term somewhere else?

The market for MOOCs

Kolowich, S. (2012) Who takes MOOCs? Inside Higher Education, June 5

Article about a survey of 14,000 participants in Stanford’s Andrew Ng’s course on machine learning. It should be noted that the response rate is around 14% of all those that enrolled. The most common reason was that participants were curious about the topic. Relatively small numbers said they were doing it specifically for career advancement.

One important result though was that the vast majority of participants were from outside the USA (a similar phenomenon reported by Coursera and Udacity with almost three quarters of participants from abroad:

It may turn out that MOOCs from elite U.S. institutions might pose the greatest disruptive threat to foreign universities, says Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University. “It’s a bigger play, perhaps, in Asia than in the U.S.,” he said.

Maybe: it would be interesting to see what the demographic is for other MOOC’s such as Change11 that are not from US elite universities.

Stanford profs explore new business model(s) for open learning

© eLearn magazine 2012

Kolowich, S. (2012) Massive courses, sans Stanford, Inside Higher Education, January 24

This is an excellent article about two of the Stanford professors, and another from the University of Virginia, who have created a start-up company with private investment to create MOOCs (massive open online courses). There will be no accreditation from a university, but the professors will issue their own certificates for successful completion. They are looking at a range of possible business models, including charging $1 an enrollment, or taking a commission for every graduate who gets a job placement through their organization – or payment by results.

This is a very American solution to open learning, combining open access with capitalism. It will be interesting to see if it works.

What this does remind me of is the very early days of medieval universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bologna, where students paid their professors directly, and travelled around to find the best professors – and where professors travelled to where the work was. I actually lived in a house half way between Oxford and Cambridge in Stony Stratford, on a road where 800 years before the professors had walked between the two universities. Now we have distance education where no-one needs to walk. Ah, progress.