Too Mooc or Not?

By Buchanan, Walter | ASEE Prism, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Too Mooc or Not?


Buchanan, Walter, ASEE Prism


Online courses fit well with competency-based education.

The Bard of Avon knew the power of the written and spoken word, but it's safe to say he could not have imagined how it would be spread by the Internet. In higher education these days the next big thing appears to be MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. A MOOC can be delivered by one instructor to thousands of students all over the world, for free. Even Shakespeare would be impressed by that.

In this era of rising student debt, my focus as ASEE president is to determine how ASEE can help students see the value of engineering and engineering technology education - and get it in a cost-effective manner. My initial Prism article stressed encouraging and exciting young students about mathematics and science, to ready them for technically rigorous engineering courses in college. But once at university, students should be able to afford their education and not graduate with massive debt. In my last article, I discussed how students can achieve this through enrollment at a lower-cost two-year school before transferring to a four-year institution. Good advising, the ability to transfer credits, and courses that prepare students for the four-year school are all key to this pathway.

Distance education can also play a part in saving money, but the real question for MOOCs is whether they can also deliver effective education. MOOCs fit well with competency-based education, which makes no distinction between knowledge obtained from an online course or through prior learning. A pioneer of this concept is Excelsior College. Begun in 1971 as Regents College, part of the State University of New York, it was the first U.S. college to award degrees based on proof of prior learning. The school became an independent nonprofit in 2001 and gained its current name.

At the center of the Excelsior mission is the idea that what you know is more important than where or how you learned it. Excelsior has designed a student-centered model that is highly responsive to the needs of career-oriented adult learners. It integrates transfer credits from approved sources, courses from Excelsior and other institutions, and credits earned through assessment exams and evaluation of prior learning.

Excelsior College President John Ebersole is passionate about providing open educational resources to help adult learners overcome barriers. Nonetheless, he remains cautious about MOOCs. After the American Council on Education (ACE) recommended in February that institutions grant credit for five Coursera online courses, Ebersole told the Chronicle of Higher Education that given Coursera's current assessment methods, his school would decline to do so. "We would hope that the ACE would support a rigorous process, as is the case with many other forms of non-collegiate instruction, whereby those seeking credit would complete a psychometrically valid assessment in a secure testing facility. …

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