News that Arizona State University and edX have archived 10 of their 14 Global Freshman Academy courses raises questions about the viability and purpose of credit-eligible MOOCs.
When it launched in 2015, the Global Freshman Academy was marketed as a low-cost way for students to complete their first year of college by taking open online classes backed by the ASU brand. Yet only 1,750 out of 373,000 people who enrolled paid to receive college credit for finishing a course and fewer than 150 pursued full degrees at ASU, reports Inside Higher Ed.
Now, only four Global Freshman Academy classes remain active, and ASU is shifting its focus to Earned Admission, a program designed to help transfer students and employees at Starbucks and other partner companies qualify for admission to the university by passing online classes.
The lackluster credit procurement rate may be due to the fact that online courses are “not a good way to hook in” freshmen, says Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. She suggests that first-year students may need more academic and social supports and wraparound services than a la carte MOOCs provide.
It’s not the first time students seemingly have rejected opportunities to gain college credit for MOOCs. Yet some observers say it’s still too early to dismiss the value of credit-eligible MOOCs outright.
“They’re promising, but we’re still learning,” says Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer of the American Council on Education. “If there’s affordability with enough support provided and enough flexibility, it’s a lower-risk way to engage” with higher education.
Mixed Record on MOOCs
MOOC providers including edX, Study.com, Coursera and StraighterLine offer some classes that are eligible for college credit, either thanks to approval from a particular institution or entities such as the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service and the National College Credit Recommendation Service.
For example, edX has offered 28 credit-eligible undergraduate courses in partnership with ASU, Charter Oak College and North Shore Community College and 270 credit-eligible MicroMasters classes with 32 institutional partners.
Many such courses are available for free but charge fees to students who want to use them to earn credit. Through edX, nearly 200,000 people have completed a credit-eligible course, according to a spokesperson, but the organization is not able to provide information about what proportion of those students also paid for ID verification and credit.
Over the past decade, researchers have tried to figure out whether MOOCs are effective in helping people attain more access to higher education. In 2013, the American Council on Education recommended colleges accept for credit 12 specific MOOCs offered by Coursera and Udacity. A pilot study of these “revealed a lack of student interest in applying for credit,” with no students requesting it from participating institutions, according to a 2016 paper published in Models of Open Education in Higher Education.
Some education leaders speculated that the poor response rate was due to the barriers institutions created to conferring credit, like making students pass rigorous evaluations for their MOOC classes. In contrast, the Global Freshman Academy system was supposed to be simple and student-friendly.
And yet, only 0.47 percent of people who enrolled paid to receive college credit for completing a course.
Despite this figure and now having fewer classes available, the Global Freshman Academy “remains a core part of innovation strategy” for edX, says Nina Huntemann, senior director of academics and research at the nonprofit, who credits the partnership for helping spread the concept of credit-eligible MOOCs across the higher education ecosystem.
Arizona State University did not respond to requests for comments in time for publication. (See a statement submitted by ASU on Sept. 20 below.)
Not every edX user comes to the platform seeking college credit, Huntemann says, but some are interested in earning it, a fact that inspired the nonprofit to create its MicroMasters courses that some graduate programs accept for credit.
For other students, credit eligibility may serve primarily as an indicator of the value of a course, even if they don’t take advantage of the credit option. ASU’s endorsement may signal something important to users, just like it does to other colleges that accept Global Freshman Academy courses for transfer credit, Huntemann previously told EdSurge.
“Coming from an accredited institution that is highly regarded, that points to quality,” she says.
Can credit-eligibility accomplish more than simply distinguish one MOOC from another?
Soares, of the American Council on Education, thinks so, but more so at the graduate-degree level: “The master’s seems to be where demand and supply is coming together,” he says. Citing retention problems in online courses, he thinks MOOCs need to build in meaningful milestones that encourage students to persist.
Leah Belsky, senior vice president for enterprise at Coursera, also believes credit-eligible MOOCs have promise.
“This is actually going to be a significant future trend, largely because I think we’re entering into a world where sub-degree credentials can be meaningful,” she says.
For-credit MOOCs can serve as alternative admissions criteria, or “performance pathways,” for students who have unimpressive grades or test scores, like in the ASU Earned Admissions system, Belsky says. They can allow students to sample college-level work without committing large sums of tuition dollars to a full-time degree program. Universities can use them to supplement their own offerings even for traditional, residential students.
And they can provide job-skills training to people who may not have time, money or interest in more formal higher education while still keeping that option open for the future. For example, people who complete the Google IT Professional Support Certificate can get credit for it toward a bachelor’s degree from the University of London and Northeastern University.
“The way I would judge success is not, ‘Do people pay for credit?’" Belsky says. “It’s ‘Did it attract people to learn who may not have otherwise done so?'”