The following interview is with George Siemens, associate director of the Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. As Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continue to grow in popularity, a debate has surfaced over whether these courses should be worth academic credits. In this interview, Siemens sheds some light on the debate, shares his thoughts on how MOOCs stack up against traditional lectures offered by universities and explains how the debate is more far-reaching than the acceptance of this new educational medium.
1. Why are so many institutions grappling with the idea of granting credit for MOOCs, especially those being delivered by the major providers such as Coursera and Udacity?
I think there’s a variety of factors that contribute to this. Probably the biggest is that the education system, as we’ve experienced it, historically at least, is unbundling at some level. And so, no longer do we get the exclusive source of our learning, that which happens in the classroom. I mean, we end up with a variety of different experiences that span different tools and different technologies in different spaces. So what MOOCs have done, on one level at least, is opened up where we get our instruction from. The open education resources would be going back to the late ’90s, early 2000s, were the first instantiation of that.
But even then universities would say, “People come to us because of the quality of our teaching and the networking you experience. So, that’s fine if we give content available for free because content isn’t really the only reason why students are here.”
And, with the development of open online courses, that argument is challenged because suddenly it’s not just the content that’s being given away for free, but it’s also the teaching and the instruction of faculty members. So as a result of that, with education unbundling in a variety of ways where it’s content, teaching and learning and, now, accreditation being the third leg, all of a sudden universities are looking at, “How can we still give learners credit for what they’ve done outside of our course environment or even outside of our classes?” So, if the student took a course through Coursera on statistics, do they still need to take that exact same course at that university or is there a way for that university to look at the learning that students have done in other spaces and then give them formal credit? Once the accreditation problems of universities have been solved, it’s really sort of that Holy Grail target for education reformers.
And I think that’s why universities are saying, “The biggest value that we now play is validating and providing employers with a secure or a trustworthy designation that students who got a bachelor’s degree with us actually know their stuff and are employable based on the type of degree they receive with us.”
2. In your opinion, do you think these courses, in their current form, should be worth academic credits?
I would change that a little bit and say that: “Do I think that the courses being taught in universities these days are worth academic credit?”
When you have a lecture hall where you have one faculty member with 500 students — or even 200, even 100 students — then the experience of learning in that kind of a setting is not going to be substantially better than what’s happening in a MOOC. In many cases, what’s happening in a MOOC is actually going to be a better experience because there are opportunities for learners to connect with each other in forums or there are opportunities for students to review and revisit certain types of lectures that they may be struggling with or having difficulty with. So, I think in that regard, if we’re comparing a university course that has 100-plus students with MOOC, then I say that equation is pretty much equal. There needs to be a way for the university to still validate that the student learned what they took in a MOOC in the same way we want to validate through exams or through essays that they’ve learned what happened in a classroom.
Now, if your comparison model is something that’s more like one faculty member to 20 students — that changes the relationship. Obviously, in that kind of a context, the faculty member will be able to individually interact with each of the students or each of the participants in the course. In a MOOC, in a 200-plus lecture hall, that personalized lecture just isn’t there.
3. What are the biggest changes today’s MOOCs must go through in order to be generally accepted as worthy of academic credit across the higher education space?
Interest is the biggest factor. Any type of degree or any type of credit is really a statement of trust. And economically, if you see a system in where, let’s say, investors have trusted a currency for a period of time and then all the sudden they lose confidence or trust in that currency, that country could literally spiral into economic chaos once the investors and international governments lose trust in that currency.
I think the same holds true when we start talking about academic credit. So, if you come to an organization and you have a credit from a well-ranked university, that’s a statement of trust. And so, when an employer hires you on the premise of that credit, what they are really saying is that they trust that institution has a strong enough reputation, has sufficient controls in place, that by providing their stamp on a transcript, that we can trust that.
What needs to happen from the MOOC provider is we need to see much more rigorous approach to validating what students have actually learned. And it’s not that this is new, either, if you consider what’s happened with prior learning assessments and commissioned historically or even challenged courses or challenged exams. The methods for validating learning that comes outside of the classroom, namely what happens in a corporate space or through volunteering or through just personal interest, those methods are already in place in many universities.
The biggest change that has to happen is not with the MOOCs, as such. It’s with universities building a rigorous process that allows the system to validate learning that happens anywhere, whether that learning comes from a MOOC or volunteering or work-based learning.
4. You’ve seen change that needs to happen, not so much being at the MOOC-level but at the institutional-level in terms of developing that rigorous assessment model. What do you think would be involved with that assessment model in order to create a “catch-all” system that would rank and rate any prior learning that a student completes?
Well, it’s probably the model of capturing everything that a student learns; we’re not quite there yet because we’re not capturing the depths of data of what an individual does and it’s not being connected meaningfully. So, currently, we have various learning profiles and let’s say I’m a student taking an MBA at a university, but simultaneously I’m employed in industry and when I’m taking my courses at the university, the learning there is expected to be applicable to my work setting. Maybe I can apply those ideas and make a difference in my organizational setting.
But the real effort isn’t given in trying to connect those two elements. So, what I mean with that is, people don’t go out and say, “Okay, so you learned this here from this university setting, this from a work setting,” those different learning attributes aren’t connected meaningfully.
What that essentially means is that as a learner the bridge between learning that happens outside of a classroom just hasn’t been built well by universities. There’s some challenges [in finding] that technical solution, should we have a lifelong learning ID the same way that we have a health card in a certain country or a certain province or state, or in the same way that we perhaps have a social insurance number?
So, that kind of a challenge that allows us to capture learning and connect it meaningfully, so we understand what a student actually knows; that’s probably a bigger challenge than is going to be addressed by a single university. Long term, this notion of a learning passport may need to be seriously considered.
Short term? Just using existing processes that are in place at any university around recognizing prior learning or around being able to take advantage of learner experiences and independent study or other types of activities; those, I think, the university can just respond to short term by being able to develop some kind of a process for being able to get credit for that.
Long term, though, I think we just need to do a better job of collecting data about learning across different spaces.
5. By the same token, what kinds of changes need to happen at the institutional level in order to make more space for the possibility of granting credits for MOOCs?
Well, at this point, I think it’s acceptance; probably the biggest one. Faculty generally seem to view learning that happens outside of their environment as not being on par with what happens in their own institution. I’ve seen this certainly with students who have taken courses in online systems or students who perhaps have taken courses at a university that might have a lower ranking than the particular university where the student is trying to transfer their courses over to initiate a new program. So, quite often, a student may have to take remedial or just supplementary courses to make sure the university is comfortable with what they already know or are aware of.
So, I think the biggest change — really as we’ve talked about — is this growing recognition of prior learning and building some kind of a system that allows the tracking and validation of learning across multiple spaces. This is at some level, I guess, what the Mozilla badges initiative is attempting to do as well, recognizing that it’s easier to give a stamp on a granular skill or activity than it is to give on an entire course. Those two approaches (and there’s some momentum around the badging movement that may have applicability to universities in the long run) but at this point it’s still more of a peripheral activity that really hasn’t taken off. I can’t say of any university that I’m aware of has made a significant investment in trying to integrate badging-alternative accreditation into their university model.
And to a degree, getting to your question, what has to happen is that universities and school systems really need to begin broadening their perspective on what is learning and what is the role of a university in a society where learning can happen in many, many different areas. And perhaps one of the most critical roles of a university is providing that validation or that stamp that says, “This student is competent in this subject area, even though they didn’t take all of those courses with us or even though they didn’t take their entire program with us, we can still give a validation or stamp of competency on that student’s performance.”
6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the debate over whether or not institutions should be granting credit for MOOCs or what the future might hold for this topic?
I think the final point I would add is that, at some level, the question is much broader than MOOCs specifically.
For me, the big question is, “What is it that universities have to do to start recognizing learning in many different spaces and not just in the classroom?”
And, right now MOOCs are sort of the current flavor of that conversation but it’s important to recognize that really, it’s a broader discussion. In the past, where a university might play sort of that brokering role to information access or to knowledge access — when lectures are freely online with video, the content, curriculum resources, even interactive simulations and other activities are freely available online for students to access, the brokering role of a university in provisioning information changes.
More primary a role for the university would be that they start recognizing or providing a way to comment on a student’s competence. So, this notion that we’re shifting from teaching heavily and assessment to the teaching can now happen in numerous areas, numerous websites, MOOCs or just life learning, and then the role of the university becomes more and more about validating the quality of what a student knows and providing that stamp of approval.
This interview has been edited for length.
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