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.