The Credentialing Contradiction at the Heart of MOOCs

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Writing in the September 11, 2012, edition of Inside Higher Education, David Touve, a professor at Washington and Lee University, discusses the credentialing contradiction inherent in the massive open online course (MOOC) projects of various elite universities. He makes the compelling point that, based on the assurances  given by the projects and their participating institutions about the academic quality of the MOOCs they offer--that the courses give participants access to learning content and experiences of a quality and rigor comparable to the courses that regularly matriculated students take--the fact that MOOC students can at best earn a certificate of completion while "official" students receive degree credit for completing a course highlights some major disconnects in our thinking about online learning and learning assessment:

  1. Touve notes that if two students demonstrate mastery of the same course content but receive degree credit in one case and no actual credit in the other, where the primary distinction between them appears to be whether they have been officially admitted to the institution or not, then it seems that the basis for awarding credit isn't learning outcomes but rather the validation of the student as worthy of credit via the institutional admissions process.
  2. I would argue that an additional distinction exists between the MOOC and official student in this context--the mode by which they learned. Even with online courses and programs that lead to official credit and degrees, a bias against online learning as not "real" learning seems to persist across the academy. So, when that learning mode is extended to something even less like a traditional, campus-based course, the doubt about whether the demonstrated outcomes are truly valid grows even more. Issues of student identity verification and academic integrity, i.e., how do we know that the person enrolled in the course is the person actually doing the work, represent conceptual barriers that even the institutions most loudly promoting MOOCs have yet to overcome, as reflected by the different standards they apply to demonstrated learning in the one case and not the other. And this despite the fact that institutions engaged in providing fully online learning have demonstrated a variety of effective practices for ensuring academic integrity in their courses and programs, such as learning analytics, project-based learning, and e-portfolios.
  3. Following a slightly different thread, Touve asks whether the learning MOOCs provide primarily rests in content mastery, where the distinction between non-credit bearing MOOCs and credit-bearing courses might then derive from the higher order learning competencies beyond content mastery that we generally ascribe to the traditional college learning experience (e.g., critical thinking and analysis, communication, collaboration). Given that many MOOCs rely on peer engagement and assessment to support the individual student's learning process, this may be an even tougher row to hoe than the question of what traversing the official admissions process, or not, has to do with the learning outcomes two different students demonstrate.
  4. But again, at least some of the difficulty seems to resolve to whether or not we can see with our own eyes the learning process taking place in real time, demonstrating a broad lack of awareness within the academy of the degree to which learning analytics may allow us to see with our own eyes whether learning is taking place in online learning settings in a much more objective, evidence-based fashion than we ever could before.

In the end, Touve's question about the nature of the learning MOOCs provide and how that relates to what currently defines a valid learning experience worthy of a college degree is the crux of the issue. He argues that the credentialing contraditiction MOOCs present highlights the extent to which the higher education community and our major stakeholders are still wedded to an input-driven view of what constitutes valid, degree-worthy education, as opposed to a more objective, outcomes-based view that actually relates the awarding of a credential to the learning achieved. I find his points highly persuasive. I would add, though, that lingering and arguably inaccurate perceptions about the degree to which online learning can have academic integrity pose an equally difficult challenge to firmly establishing, once and for all, online learning as providing a valid higher education experience.