The new industry of large-scale online education will garner an important measure of academic respectability Thursday when the American Council on Education announces that four courses of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Coursera organization are worthy of college credit — if anti-cheating measures are enforced.
It is now up to colleges and universities to decide whether to allow their students to replace traditional courses taught in classrooms with low-cost online courses that enroll many thousands of students worldwide and involve little direct interaction with instructors.
Yet the news that that the four courses, including a pre-calculus class from UC Irvine, passed ACE muster is viewed as a reputation and financial boost for the emerging industry of massive open online courses, or MOOCs as they are known, offered by Coursera and others.
Coursera is a for-profit clearinghouse for online and videotaped courses developed and taught by professors at well-established colleges.
Besides the UC Irvine course, ACE is recommending that other colleges accept two classes from Duke University, in genetics and bioelectricity, and a University of Pennsylvania calculus class. A UC Irvine algebra course is being recommended for pre-collegiate remedial or vocational credit.
Dean Florez, a former California state senator who is president of the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, an organization that seeks to widen access to online learning, described the move as a huge step in national higher education. He said he hoped that it will encourage state colleges and universities in California and elsewhere to move more quickly into online education, especially for entry-level courses that are now so overcrowded that students have trouble enrolling in them, delaying graduation.
The ACE approval comes just three weeks, Florez noted, after San Jose State launched a partnership with Udacity, another prominent online education group, to create for-credit courses. Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing for more online education as a way to cut costs and widen access at state campuses.
"The biggest implication of this is that it will help a lot of working adults who do not have college degrees to take the first steps to earn one," said Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer science professor who is one of Coursera's co-founders. High school students seeking college credits are another likely group, he added.
Coursera offers 217 courses taught at 33 colleges, and Ng said ACE will review more courses soon. He said it was too early to predict how many colleges might grant credit.
UC Irvine math instructor Sarah Eichhorn, who co-teaches the two approved courses with Rachel Lehman, said she was delighted with the announcement. The instructors adapted the courses from existing online ones previously offered mainly to UC Irvine students.
Now, through Coursera, about 40,000 people signed up for the free pre-calculus class, although only about 10,000 are watching the videos. Such online classes, Eichhorn said, represent "a wake-up call for our standard model of education."
It is usually free to take a course through Coursera and other similar groups, including Udacity and edX. However, Coursera charges students $30 to $99 for a completion certificate for a class taken under surveillance monitoring that includes individualistic typing patterns to prove a student's identity. For an additional $60 to $90, a student will be eligible for the ACE credit by taking final exams proctored through webcams. A portion of those fees will go to schools such as UC Irvine that created the classes.
Those anti-cheating measures are important, said Cathy Sandeen, ACE's vice president overseeing online education. "We want to have a credible means for authenticating the identity of the student and proctoring the exams," she said.
In the past, ACE has recommended degree credit for other online courses and organizations. But this is the first time the group has endorsed classes from large, wholly online organizations with open enrollments, Sandeen said. ACE was paid for the course reviews and students can also pay for a transcript service from the council.