Credentials for online courses

Do I get a credit?

The short answer is no, because I am not looking for one.  At my age I enroll in online courses out of interest and for free. I dont write the assignments, answer the quizes or fulfill the requirements that will earn a certificate. This is not the case for students looking for a degree qualification and a job.

 Following are a few facts published by the Babson Survey Research Group:

  1. In 2013, of the 21.3 million students enrolled in higher education in the US, one-third is enrolled online.
  2. Since 2003, annual growth in online enrollment has varied between 35% and 5%, higher in the earlier period when it was starting.
  3. Sixty-six percent of university chief administrative officers think that online education is critical to the long term strategy of the institution.

Another number frequently quoted is that only four to ten percent of those who enroll in online courses actually complete them, presumably meaning that they get some type of certificate. Many like myself take them out of interest and because it costs nothing to enroll.

What is a university degree ?

It represents certification by the university that the person has completed a particular course of study, and is recognized as such by potential employers. Universities are given the right by governments to issue degrees and diplomas. The value of the degree (or course) varies with subject matter (medicine, law, engineering, arts, social science), as well as with the reputation of the institution granting the degree. Thus a graduate in history, engineering or business from Oxford, Stanford or the Sorbonne may receive an intial salary higher than that of graduates from state and local universities in their respective countries. The market is responsible for this outcome and there is nothing surprising about that.

What happens when a person receives a certificate as a result of taking a MOOC? It depends in part on who is offering the instruction. (The term was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and now with the National Research Council of Canada.) In the US, three of the firms offering MOOCs are Coursera, Udacity and edX. Each business was started mostly by academics going into business and then arranging for courses to be offered online. There is no one format for how the courses are priced and staffed, but the firms try to make them equivalent to a university course so that they are attractive to students. Others are entering the field and there are many varieties of the online experience. The Kahn Academy offers a different type of instruction for free.

The question is whether a certificate issued by a private firm, received as a result of someone taking an online course given by a PrincetonUniversity professor, for example, is the same as a similar course taken by someone enrolled at Princeton. The answer is no, but the online course does have value as a certificate of accomplishment. An employer will treat the MOOC certificate as a screening device, and may take the person on as an employee on a probationary basis to find out what knowedge the person has. Over time, firms, instructors and online courses will gain reputations (good or bad) for their worth and be rewarded accordingly by employers. 

The MOOC certificate will probably remain valued less in the labour market than the equivalent university course, but the former’s value over time will depend on the experience of employers. In the meantime employment contracts are sufficiently flexible to allow testing to occur, giving opportunities for employees to showcase their skills however acquired. Students will benefit if their costs of education are reduced, a topic for a future posting.

 

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