A recent move by a leading United Kingdom learning platform to issue academic credits toward a degree for students who complete open online courses could signal a forthcoming trend in the U.S. market.
FutureLearn, a social learning company owned by The Open University, announced this week that students taking some of its massive open online courses, or MOOCS, will have the opportunity to earn course credits toward degrees, including MBAs, as well as professional qualifications and certifications. Students will be able to earn up to 30 credits, in some cases, through the initiative.
The company is partnering with nine higher education institutions in the venture, said Matt Walton, head of product for FutureLearn.
“It’s the beginning of the unbundling of higher education and making it more accessible to more people than ever before,” he said.
Typically MOOCs are known for providing free open content to anyone, often from well-respected universities. For example, edX, a collaboration between Harvard University and MIT, offers hundreds of online courses that feature university-level material on everything from computer science to chemistry, to anyone in the world who wants to study those subjects.
The difference with FutureLearn’s new venture is that at the end of taking a MOOC, learners can then decide to buy a certificate to prove their completion, and if they choose, to take a final assessment that would allow them to purchase the course for an academic credit, Walton said.
“It’s a freemium model,” he said.
In addition, instead of just being an assortment of MOOCs on a variety of topics, the courses available for academic credit are organized into a more formal progression, he said.
This has the potential to bring in significant revenue for a MOOC model that has been traditionally free. FutureLearn’s largest MOOC has had 440,000 learners, while a more typical free course offered by the company has about 20,000, Walton said. Students from the United States are among the top five territories for any given FutureLearn course, he said.
Here in the U.S., teachers are increasingly turning to MOOCs for professional development and to improve their pedagogical skills. MOOC provider Coursera offers about 60 courses focused on teacher PD and estimates 7.5 million people have enrolled in those courses.
There are some movements on the MOOC horizon in the U.S. toward awarding academic credits. For example, in a partnership with Arizona State University, edX features a series of eight freshman-level courses in its Global Freshman Academy.
Students who take the courses don’t need to have SAT scores or survive the admissions process. But if they pass the MOOC class, they can purchase the credit, which opens up a transcript at ASU, said Rachel Lapal, a spokeswoman for edX. The credits are equal to those that on-campus students earn and can be transferred to other universities that accept traditional ASU credits.
In addition, in October edX launched MicroMasters with MIT, a series of five courses focused on supply chain management. Those who successfully complete the MOOCs with a verified certificate ($150 per course), earn a MicroMasters credential and may apply to MIT’s supply management master’s program on campus. The MicroMasters credential will count as a semester’s worth of work toward the Master’s at MIT, she said.
Walton, of FutureLearn, said he sees these kinds of efforts as an extension of what MOOCs are already providing. “There’s flexibility in how people might decide to pay and how they choose to engage,” he said. “There’s a benefit to learning with people from all over the world with different perspectives and experiences.”