Massive open online courses are forcing institutions to consider how to offer course credit and verify student identities.
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What kind of credit should be given a student half a world away, one who never set foot on the campus and who experienced school as a mix of self-guided instruction, "personalized" online classes and computerized grading?
Some observers -- notably those offering commercial, computer-mediated instruction outside the traditional college and university system -- say it's time to rethink educational credentialing in secondary education.
"The idea of a noncollege offering credit was controversial until 2012," said Burck Smith, CEO at Straighterline, an online service offering introductory courses. Burck was one of the speakers at "Rebooting Higher Education: Leveraging Innovations in Online Education to Improve Cost Effectiveness and Increase Quality," a day-long conference at UCLA earlier this month on the impact of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online, computer-mediated instruction on higher education in California.
Although Straighterline is not accredited, its course credits have been accepted at some 300 colleges, Smith said.
Smith believes the current regulations regarding which institutions can confer degrees on students need to reformed. College and university business models today require "keeping other providers out," he declared during the UCLA event.
Although thorny questions around accreditation raised by Smith will continue, a number of services even now are trying to answer a related question: How to verify the identity of a network-connected student.
Last year, for instance, Colorado State University's Global Campus said it would give three transfer credits to students who both complete "Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine," a free course offered by Udacity, and take a proctored test.
To obtain the credits, the school is requiring students take a proctored test administered in a Pearson VUE facility. Peason VUE, which announced a similar arrangement with edX, offers proctored testing at about 4,000 sites worldwide. Both Udacity and edX charge a nominal fee for the optional proctored tests.
But proctored tests are just one way to verify an online student's identity.
Earlier this month, Coursera, the largest provider of (MOOCs) in the United States, announced a program to verify students. The "verified certificates" from Coursera rely on photo IDs, submitted via webcam, and typing a sample phrase. The two are combined to create a biometric profile that is checked when students submit work and tests.
Called Signature Track, Coursera's system is being launched for five courses from four universities, specifically a nutrition health class from the University of California, San Francisco; a computational investing class from Georgia Tech; a microeconomics course from the University of Illinois; and an introductory Duke class on genetics and evolution.
The price of Signature Track depends on the course, but will range from $30 to $100, Coursera said.
Critics note that even if the Signature Track works as advertised, it does not ensure that the "student" on the other end of the test isn't in reality someone else, or even more than one person. Indeed, the verified certificates will not count toward a degree.
Meanwhile, Coursera and other MOOCs are working with the American Council on Education (ACE), which is evaluating credit equivalency for these courses.
ACE's College Credit Recommendation Service, started in the 1970s, certifies training courses offered outside of traditional colleges. In 2011, StraighterLine became one of the first online institutions to be included in the ACE program.
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