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MOOC Credit Watch – Q&A with the National College Credit Recommendation Service

 

When I learned about the work of the National College Credit Recommendation Service, I was keen to talk with them, because the Albany-based organization will probably be among the first to evaluate MOOCs in a serious way for college equivalency.

Their recommendations may influence if or when non-traditional students will some day be able to use MOOCs to complete degrees and get through the enrollment bottlenecks and institutional barriers that limit access to college today.MOOC credit watch I first noticed NCCRS when seven colleges and universities recently agreed to accept Saylor.org’s free online courses for credit based on the NCCRS recommendation.

The organization, which is affiliated with the Regents of the New York State Education Department, is often mistaken for a regional accrediting agency. (I’ve made the mistake myself.) They are quick to clarify they don’t evaluate colleges for accreditation.

Instead, NCCRS evaluates training and education programs from outside the traditional college setting and forms recommendations about what can be translated into college credit equivalencies. Their work is similar to that of the American Council on Education, which made news last winter by agreeing to evaluate a small number of Coursera courses and potentially recommend them for college credit.

It turns out NCCRS is watching MOOCs closely and has some surprising observations. The Director, Tina Grant, agreed to an interview and shares her thoughts about the future role of MOOCs in higher education.

 

McGuire

How do universities treat your recommendations in practice? For example, if a student takes a class from someplace that has your recommendation and they go to their local university, what happens?

Grant

Hopefully, what would happen is they would get a transcript from the organization who sponsored their nontraditional learning and they would present that to the registrar or department head who would take that into consideration. The school would look on our website for the course information, learning objectives, credit recommendations and consider accepting that if fit into the student’s program of study.

A lot of times, as you’re probably aware, colleges, to consider transfer credit, require a transcript from a regionally accredited college. So our organizations have the opportunity to have their nontraditional learning experience transcripted on an Excelsior College transcript through our affiliation.

McGuire

And Excelsior is regionally credited?

Grant

Yes.

McGuire

So it’s primarily or exclusively nontraditional organizations that you’re working with?

Grant

I guess that depends on your definition of nontraditional, which seems to be losing its meaning, but we generally work with any entity that is not a regionally accredited college or university who’s offering education or training programs. It used to be more municipalities and workplace training, and now with all these startup organizations like Saylor it’s really branched out.

McGuire

Are you presently evaluating any MOOCs?

Grant

We are not, although Saylor courses are MOOC-like. They just haven’t reached the massive potential at this point. However, our colleagues over at the American Council of Education have evaluated five traditional MOOCs, which sounds like an oxymoron. In some ways I’m glad they took the initiative on that, and, of course, they’re understandably under scrutiny for that.

McGuire

What would it take for a MOOC to get NCCRS recommendation?

Grant

I don’t consider MOOCs to be really that different from online learning. The only big issue with a MOOC is the massive part and the open part because of the test security.

In order to receive college credit recommendation the assessment has to validate the learning. That’s just the way that our education system is set up. So the proficiency exam at the end of it would be really what the credit recommendations would be attached to.

That means that we have to know the test was secure. There are lots of systems in place to address this now, but it’s never been brought to this scale before.

So, they would have to make sure the tests aren’t being copied and spread all over the globe so that anybody can pass the test in order for us to validate a MOOC experience for credit recommendation. Proctoring options, remote proctoring. The same sort of criteria we’d have for any learning experience.

McGuire

One sense in which MOOCs are open is that anyone can join regardless of their ability to pay. I assume that doesn’t matter to NCCRS. The fact that people don’t have to pay isn’t an indicator of the quality of the course.

Grant

No, it’s funny. Our society attaches that. We don’t trust anything that’s free, which is part of the Saylor issue. Saylor has these wonderful courses that, if you ask me, might be a better way to go than a MOOC, and they’re free, so people go, “Huh, how could that be?”

McGuire

The other sense in which they’re open is that there is no admission criteria. Does it matter to NCCRS that anybody can sign up for a MOOC without having to apply for admission?

Grant

No. That doesn’t limit the credit recommendation process. Usually, and this happened when we were evaluating Saylor courses, our evaluators would suggest a prerequisite. For a student to be successful at this course, they would need to have taken such and such course beforehand or need to have this knowledge beforehand.

So we would make that recommendation, we would put that on our course exhibit, we would urge the organization to put that in their materials to help guide the students, but essentially if the student can pass that exam at the end of the MOOC successfully with all the student verification and test security issues in place, really it matters very little what they came to the table with.

McGuire

You mentioned exams a few times and that’s not the only way college classes indicate completion. Are there other ways these nontraditional organizations get your recommendation, aside from having an exam at the end?

Grant

Yes. Some of our more traditional organizations offer assignments throughout the course just like a classroom-based course would and there’s a lot of instructor interaction and feedback, and some of the assessments are more authentic, not necessarily an exam. They might be a portfolio or a project they used. Absolutely. As an educator, to me, that’s preferable to an exam.

McGuire

It’s very early days with MOOCs, but what do you make of their reliance on peer review as a primary way of doing assessment?

Grant

Clearly the jury is still out, and I assume there’s research being done on that peer grading model. I think for us to assign credit recommendations, if that’s what students were interested in, the peer grading probably wouldn’t fly at this point until there’s more evidence that it can be substantiated as  a credible way to assess students.

McGuire

Is NCCRS actively looking at MOOCs and anticipating when you’re going to be asked to evaluate them for credit recommendations?

Grant

Yes, I am anticipating we’re going to be asked to. I follow the MOOC movement very closely. Probably too closely. I was just saying I need to stop doing it on weekends. There’s so much to read and there are so many different opinions, and it’s been kind of fun. But yes I’m assuming that we will be asked to. The time is ripe.

Personally, I think MOOCs are going to eventually fit in as a model. I don’t think they’re going to take over the world of higher education and I don’t think they’re going to replace brick and mortar institutions. I think they’re a wonderful option with or without credit.

Obviously in their pure form they were developed without credit in mind, and they were developed not to take over the academy but to offer learning globally to people who wouldn’t have access to it. Our society has morphed them into ways that they can be capitalized on and to fit them into the traditional mold.

McGuire

From where you’re sitting, what are you noticing about them?

Grant

Once MOOC-type learning is sanctioned by employers, they will no longer be forced to fit into a traditional mold to have any weight. I’m waiting for the badges concept to take hold as the currency that employers will look for instead of a degree. When that happens, MOOCs won’t need credit recommendations.

I think that what’s not really being talked about is that they’re going to become very commonplace. They’re just going to be an accepted way that people learn and how we figure out how to quantify that learning or qualify that learning is really the issue. A lot of people think they’re such a threat to faculty, but I don’t see them that way at all. I think it’s just another way to utilize the knowledge that faculty members have.

McGuire

Let’s talk about prospective students. What advice do you have for someone who’s considering signing up for MOOCs? How should they approach it or choose between them?

Grant

I think first of all they need to decide whether it’s something they want to do just for knowledge’s sake or if they’re looking specifically for pathways to college credit. They need to find out if they want to do a self-paced class similar to the Saylor experience or an instructor-led MOOC.

Then they’ll need to find out if the organization that’s sponsoring the MOOC offers a pathway to credit if they’re interested in that. Finding out who created the MOOC is important. Was it created by a professor or a group of professors or at least peer reviewed by a group of professors?

I would tell students to look into badges. There’s a lot of talk about badges going on. I don’t know of any that are actually being attached to MOOCs right now, but I think that’s an interesting angle.

I would tell a student to look for a MOOC that allows them to give feedback so they can make the MOOC better from a student perspective. Look for MOOCs where there’s a feedback loop.

Lastly, use MOOCs in tandem with other options. There are all kinds of creative ways to have a do-it-yourself degree and MOOCs are one option that might fit into a plan of study.

McGuire

Have you seen any actual examples of people using MOOCs in a plan of study or do-it-yourself degree?

Grant

Most of the ways I hear about that happening are information from MOOCs being mapped to assessments that already exist like proficiency exams. For example, someone might be taking a MOOC and be looking at a CLEP exam that might align with or the UExcel exam from Excelsior or an exam from Thomas Edison State University. I think that’s happening right now.

 

Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.