The clearest path to college credit for massive open online courses may soon be through credit recommendations from the American Council of Education (ACE), which announced Tuesday that it will work with Coursera to determine whether as many as 8-10 MOOCs should be worth credit. The council is also working on a similar arrangement with EdX, a MOOC-provider created by elite universities.
Apparently, this is being funded by the Gates Foundation. This is on the top of the minds of MOOC providers (here is Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun). And my question for today is: why?
Actually, we know the answer: it is because it is believed that people are willing to pay for MOOCs if they can obtain with it a verified signal to future employers of their knowledge. Indeed, as we all know, the central function of Universities is to provide knowledge and the signal in one neat package: a degree. So applying the Shirky principle (that is, all institutions will move to defend the problem for which they are the solution), Universities will require accreditation for online courses to be counted for credit. And that means a system of verifying knowledge. And that means making the knowledge from MOOCs testable.
Now step back for a moment and think about how potentially tragic that is. Right now, we are told that hundreds of thousands of people with a thirst for learning have opted to spend their time with MOOCs when there was no accreditation path. One possibility is that they all have correctly forecast that there will be an accreditation path that they will undertake later based on their knowledge learned now. But that seems implausible and also somewhat risky. After all, let’s face it, you are primed for a test usually just after you have acquired knowledge rather than a year or two later.
The alternative is that they just wanted to learn. That means that when lectures are prepared, the professors involved don’t have to worry about what will be on a test and what is testable. They can just teach. And there is a difference. You can go on digressions, add potential sources of confusion and discomfort all without the potential come back of “is this going to be on the final.” Now the professors on CourseRA haven’t yet broken from their learned shackles of teaching what can be examined but the ones on Udemy seem to move on that path. That is just my assessment, you can all decide for yourselves. But my point is that MOOCs offer that potential. Think too of the non-academic contributions of Vi Hart and CGP Grey among others. This is pure knowledge people and it is what it looks like when there is no test involved. Think also about the radical teaching styles in Codeacademy, Treehouse, and LearnStreet; not to mention the Khan Academy which is in a league of its own.
Now, of course, it is fine to get all idealistic about what education can become before we have to think about business models. That is the other side of the accreditation coin. Accreditation is seen as the path to get students to pay for MOOCs. The freemium version of this idea has MOOCs offered free to anyone but if you want to be tested you have to pay. Sound familiar? Well, it is just like the University. But it is also part of the problem. It matches the appeal of particular MOOCs with the accrediting reputation of established institutions. And then it bundles them together. In the process, it sends a message to MOOCs. Want to get someone to pay for this, make sure you structure it so that it matches the accreditation processes of the established regime.
But there are some non-obvious assumptions at the heart of this. First of all, who is accreditation for? One customer is, of course, students who want the signal. But they want the signal because the signal is valuable to others who might pay them more if they have it: employers. By going down the accreditation path, MOOCs end up saying to students, we expect you to pay for this, with employers getting the benefit. And they do get the benefit. For them, if some vast amount of money, time and energy is going to be spent on sorting out who might be a good person to interview or hire, then what do they care. Spend away. It is all occurring for people before they are old enough to be useful employees anyway. What is more, so many employers spend their own time and energy, re-testing the graduates anyhow. They can just choose a smaller pool. And then they have to re-train them.
Second, and following right on from this, what if accreditation wasn’t provided as part of a MOOC? Employers will still want accreditation. They might just provide it themselves. Or possibly, they might require students to seek accreditation from an outside testing body. It doesn’t have to be part of the MOOC business plan. Actually, seen in that light, it is a risk to that business plan. If you are practicing price discrimination with a freemium, bundled premium product, then you are vulnerable to arbitrage and unbundling. Yes, charge too much for the test and perhaps others will provide the test more cheaply.
Third, the focus on accreditation moves away from one of the potential of the M in MOOCs. Here is Alex Tabarrok:
Educational productivity will also increase with online education because online education is inherently data-rich. Every video watched, every link clicked, every question answered or not answered, all can easily be collected and analyzed. Randomized controlled trials, which are very expensive in the offline world, become very cheap in the online world. Consider two methods of teaching a concept. Which works best? In the offline world, a randomized controlled trial might involve 50 students. In the online world, we can randomly assign one of two videos to thousands of students and then monitor their performance days or weeks later on exams or other material. Online education will allow us to learn about what works much more quickly than in the past.
That’s one part but the other is that MOOC providers will learn precisely what students are doing. How much time to they spend? How diligently do they pursue exercises? Do they participate in online forums? Are they helpful to other students?
Here is the big data potential. The very activity of students could be valuable to employers. What MOOCs could charge for is access to that activity and the ability to get in touch with certain people. It is like a dating service where people can look around but not touch unless they pay. (OK I’ll admit that turn of phrase didn’t come out right but you get my point.) MOOCs could give employers are window and information required for matching. And my bet is that what they will be looking for is not traditional test scores that may also be gamed but the softer skills, evidence of creativity and collaboration that you can’t just hire some substitute to do on your behalf.
So we should be very wary about accreditation. To be sure, it will happen. Someone will provide tests that are unbundled from MOOCs and allow students to send a signal. But do we want the MOOCs themselves to do this? We may not have a choice but I would call on any MOOC provider or contributor to a MOOC to think about whether they want it and whether instead there are better paths towards monetisation.