On MOOCs and Accreditation

Recently Udacity, one of the major MOOC providers, announced that, in a shift in focus, it is eliminating certificates of completion for non-paying students. The free students can still look at materials and take part in activities, but if they want anything to show for it, the only option is to pay $150 a month as a verified student. The basic pdf certificates of completion that used to be made available to anyone, paid or free, that worked through the material and passed, are being phased out.

This is a mistake, a move 180 degrees in the wrong direction in the ongoing development process of a model for MOOCs and accreditation. In reality, not only should the free students be able to keep gaining some sort of certification in recognition of their efforts, but further moves need to be made to start accrediting these online courses with the universities giving the courses. MOOC consortiums actually need to be leaning harder on schools to make meaningful accreditation available to students rather than taking away elements they were already offering.

Now, don’t get me wrong; the new features Udacity is rolling out to those students paying the extra money are great steps in the right direction- added human support, and grading of submitted work by professors and others with subject expertise rather than peer grading with rubrics. This is great stuff, and if it helps the resulting certificates get taken more seriously in the marketplace, that is great. All of this helps to further the legitimacy of the online medium as a way to get university level education and continuing professional development.

But that’s no reason to throw the free students under the bus. Fine, Don’t let the free students be able to get the assignments graded by profs and TAs. This is expensive, and if someone doesn’t pay for it, it’s probably an unsustainable model, given all the other costs of putting on a nice MOOC.

Let the free students stay graded by peers. But offer them the ability to verify their identity with their webcam and a typing sample, as with the Signature Series on Coursera. (Note: the enhanced Signature Series certificates on Coursera are only available to paying customers, but the prices – $50 a course for courses that can take up to a few months, are much more accessible than the Udacity prices of $150 per month)

The technology for this sort of verification is already developed, so it doesn’t really cost the provider anything extra. And then give the free students a certificate for their efforts. Maybe that certificate is going to have a second rate market value compared to the paid certificates based on professor or TA grading. But at least they will have something of value to take away.

Yes, I realize that the paying students are the ones that pay the bills and keep the lights on. But MOOCs are a big deal in the first place because of the mass of free students. That is what is driving the traffic, the buzz. These millions of students are freely choosing to spend their free time in higher studies rather than vegging in front of the TV. Educational institutions should love this, and should want to encourage it.

The fact of the matter is that MOOCs blew up as an idea because of a promise, explicit and implicit, made to people. MOOC consortiums actively sold the idea that people could not only expand their knowledge, but also expand their opportunities through hard work in these online courses. The barriers to access to higher education would be lowered. If these masses of students lose faith in that vision, the whole thing will collapse. The numbers will shrink. With smaller overall enrolment, there will be correspondingly fewer that will stick around to pay for it. Part of that mass of free students eventually takes the plunge to pay for some sort of extras like an enhanced certification or a proctored examination. The free education generates paid education by helping to support a vibrant platform. The numbers also generate buzz and perceived legitimacy of the educational platform as a place to get meaningful education and training. This perceived legitimacy is key to attracting people to spend actual money on a course.

If you let the less well off students get certification and / or credit if they are willing to (1) do the work and (2) verify their identity for exams and assignments, they will be able to use that credit in professionally meaningful ways to help get into fruitful careers. Given a fruitful career path, these students can have the means to later become paying students in the future as they continue their professional development.

This is the sort of social welfare outcome that people in higher education say they want, right? Then make it happen. This should be the sort of thing both Liberal-minded (give to help the less fortunate) and Conservative-minded (remove barriers to let people raise themselves through their own determined effort) academics and administrators should be able to get behind.

Yes, it is the paid students that keep the bills paid, but understand that people are going to pay for it. If there is meaningful, professionally usable certification and credit available, working professionals will pay for it. It’s like with digital file sharing. It still exists, and is booming, but with reasonable and convenient means available to get access online, people pay for the content.

And if you demonstrate social responsibility by making perhaps lesser but still meaningful and usable credentials to those who can’t afford it, then those who can pay will be even more driven to support you. Because you will have proved your worth as an organization to get behind.