The University of Maryland University College expects to be among the first wave of schools this academic year awarding transfer credit to those who have taken — and can prove they learned from — certain "massive open online courses," known as MOOCs.
The school, which targets working adults with its own online classes, and six others nationwide have agreed to track student progress as part of a research study gauging how well the MOOCs, which are relatively new to the education world, prepared the transfers for a more traditional learning experience.
It's all part of a broader effort to get beyond the hype surrounding MOOCs to determine whether the classes have the potential, as some have said, to transform higher education in the same way the Internet revolutionized publishing, retailing and journalism.
The hope is that they'll provide alternative — and less expensive — means to get a degree. A three-credit course might cost several thousand dollars at a traditional university, while the same class offered as a MOOC would likely be under $200.
Still, some worry that the classes, which are usually free, can never provide the same quality of education or variety of experience that a bricks-and-mortar school offers.
UMUC has agreed to grant credit for six courses that closely match its own introductory offerings. But to get the credit, students will have to prove that they know the material. That can be done one of two ways: by taking a paid version of the course for $150 or less, which includes proctored exams, or by going through a rigorous "prior learning assessment" process at UMUC, which measures competency in a topic. No students have signed on yet.
"I don't want anybody to think we're giving away credit," said Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at UMUC.
A college education has never been more important for socioeconomic success or more expensive, President Barack Obama said last month in announcing his plans for education reform, which include a challenge for schools to come up with less expensive ways to deliver an excellent education.
He highlighted MOOCs — which frequently follow a format of short, online video lectures, assignments and quizzes — as possible game-changers. And U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that they have "become one of the most significant catalysts of innovation in higher education."
Last spring, Georgia Tech announced plans for a MOOC master's in computer science that will cost less than $7,000 to complete, compared with more than $40,000 for out-of-state students who pursue the same degree on campus. So far, it appears to be the only MOOC degree out there, despite an intense focus on the online classes by university officials across the country.
College board members and trustees are pushing institutions to investigate MOOCs because they're worried that they will be left behind if they don't, education advocates said.
"For the first 40 years of my career, very little changed in higher education, and now, wow, things are really hopping," said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield. "It's just amazing to me. I'm just infatuated with all of this."
Schroeder is helping to conduct the university study that UMUC, the country's largest public university with 97,000 students worldwide, is participating in, along with three other public schools (Central Michigan and Western Carolina universities and the State University of New York Empire State College), two for-profit schools (Kaplan and American Public universities) and one private school (Regis University).
The study, which is also looking at the demographics of students and the teaching methods MOOCs use, is one segment of a multi-part project. It was developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is sponsoring several studies on MOOCs — including one pairing the online courses with traditional classroom instruction at the University of Maryland, College Park — and the American Council on Education, a higher education advocacy association based in Washington.
The council has thus far evaluated and recommended for transfer credit 10 MOOCs, all in the math and science fields. It's up to individual universities whether to accept the recommendations.
Granting credit for certain MOOCs is in line with UMUC's mission. The school delivers most of its own classes online, though in a much more selective and intimate way than MOOCs, which typically enroll anyone who's interested and can have tens of thousands of students at once.
At UMUC — which has its headquarters in Adelphi and has locations throughout Maryland, Washington and Virginia — students must be admitted to the school and meet prerequisites for many classes, which are capped at 32 people for undergraduates and 25 for graduates. Since the 1970s, the school has granted credit to adult students who can prove they know course material from prior experiences, typically gained in the working world.
Adding MOOCs was a natural, Cini said: "It's just what we do; it's how we approach education. ... We see this as a key part of our mission to provide adult students a quality education at the lowest cost that we can offer."
At UMUC, a three-credit calculus class would cost Maryland residents $750 and nonresidents nearly $1,500. A three-credit calculus class from Coursera would run $100.
UMUC announced its intention to grant credit this summer, but as of last week, no one had taken it up on the offer.
None of the other schools in the study appeared to have students lined up either, Schroeder said.
"We anticipate during the fall term at this point those universities will start hearing from students," Schroeder said.
The first MOOCs came on the scene about six or seven years ago, Schroeder said, part of a movement to have open educational resources free for use by anybody. Today's MOOCs are not open in that sense; the materials are copyrighted, and the courses usually have start and end dates. The "open" today stands for open enrollment.
There are three main players, with a combined 6 million students: for-profit companies Coursera and Udacity — which have collectively raised more than $80 million in early funding — and the nonprofit EdX developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, which have put $30 million apiece into the effort. The American Council on Education has recommended MOOCs from these organizations only for credit.
Coursera, which was founded by two computer science professors at Stanford University, is the biggest, with 4.5 million students. It partners with top schools around the world — more than 80 so far — and draws from their talent for its more than 400 courses.
The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland have developed MOOCs published by Coursera.
Four of the MOOCs for which UMUC will grant credit are produced by Coursera and taught by instructors from Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California.
The two other MOOCs that UMUC will grant credit for are offered by Udacity, which also has roots at Stanford. It has about a million students and uses content experts, often professors, to develop its 28 courses. It also "holds auditions" and "hires on-air talent" to teach in the videos, Schroeder said. Neither Coursera nor Udacity responded to requests for comment.
In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced a partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University to offer online classes, but a school official told Inside Higher Ed this summer that they decided to "pause" the project to take a "short breather" because of disappointing student performances.
More than half of those taking MOOCs already have a college degree and are often looking for continuing education to advance their careers or as enjoyable "leisure learning."
Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education, falls into the latter category. She's taken three MOOCs, all in the humanities.
For a degree-seeking student, MOOCs might offer a way to "try something new, to test the waters," Sandeen said. They offer a way to brush up on material and study skills and could reduce the cost of a degree, she said.
"I see a lot of possibilities in different ways," Sandeen said.
UMUC's credit-worthy MOOCs
•Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine (Udacity)
•Introduction to Physics (Udacity)
•Introduction to Genetics and Evolution (Coursera)
•Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach (Coursera)