Coursera, the venture-funded startup founded by two Stanford professors that has enrolled 2.5 million students in free online courses created in partnership with 33 prestigious universities, announced yesterday that five of its courses will become eligible for actual credit toward a real college degree. The move comes in the midst of the most embarrassing week in the company's short history, as one of its courses, with 41,000 students, had to shut down amid technical glitches.
The first set of credit courses, all introductory level, includes two math courses from the University of California, Irvine; two science courses from Duke University; and Calculus from the University of Pennsylvania. Each includes videos, texts, assignments to be completed and graded automatically online, and participation in online discussion forums. Getting college credit won't be free, like Coursera's other courses, and will take some extra steps.
Students must pay a fee to enroll in Coursera's "Signature Track" and have their identities verified; their exams will be proctored by a third party; and then their grades must be submitted to the ACE Credit recommendation service, a system that works something like the AP exam to verify college credits earned outside a normal college course. ACE Credits are accepted, nominally, at 2000 institutions nationwide, although getting them approved for transfer credit can take jumping through some bureaucratic hoops. The total cost to students: $100-$190 for two or three college credits.
Opening up more chances to try introductory courses for a low cost could be a great way to improve college graduation rates, which are low and flat even as student loan debt and default rises. Algebra, in particular, has been identified as the biggest stumbling block for would-be college-goers, to the point where some have argued for getting rid of it as a requirement. But giving less confident learners the option to try a self-paced, multimedia course–maybe once for free, for practice, and then again for credit–might help more people.
By introducing this set of freshman-year courses, on quantitative topics offered almost everywhere for low-cost credit, Coursera is indicating the likely future direction for MOOCs, arguably the most-hyped development in higher education over the past year. (Udacity, the other big MOOC platform is also pursuing $150 credit courses, through a partnership with San Jose State.)
The announcement comes as another Coursera course–ironically, titled Fundamentals of Online Education–was forced to shut down and #foemooc briefly became the laughingstock of the edtech Twittersphere. Apparently the course's instructor was not aware that Google Doc spreadsheets, which can only be edited by 50 people at a time, are not the best way to host a signup sheet for discussion groups for a class with 41,000 enrollees.
Many of the folks enrolled in the #foemooc course were educators themselves and extensively blogged about their poor experiences. The #foemooc stumble gave fuel to a growing backlash of academics such as Cathy Davidson at Duke and Siva Vaidhyanathan at the University of Virginia who are questioning the business models and pedagogical soundness of these courses. There are obviously still kinks to be worked out, and it may turn out that highly theoretical, qualitative courses will never work as well in the MOOC format as bite-sized, highly structured, quantitative topics like math.
But even as that debate rages within the walls of prestigious universities, the facts on the ground are that millions of people worldwide want low cost access to quality college courses that will lead to a degree that will get them a job, so they will be willing to try what Coursera and Udacity are offering.