Penn's course a leader in new online move

Posted: February 08, 2013

The University of Pennsylvania is at the forefront of what may be the first significant move to make Massive Open Online Courses count for credit, officials announced Wednesday.

The American Council on Education - a national higher education umbrella group - has given its credit endorsement to five open online courses taught by professors at Penn, Duke University, and the University of California, Irvine, and offered by Coursera, a California-based online education company that has been a pioneer in the courses, or MOOCs.

Penn's course is "Calculus: Single Variable," taught by Robert Ghrist. It has proven wildly popular, with about 48,000 students taking it from around the world this semester. The course "builds upon high-school-level knowledge of calculus, using hand-drawn graphics and animations in emphasizing conceptual understanding and applications," according to Penn.

It's the first time that ACE has given credit recommendation to MOOCs. The organization since 1974 has evaluated courses outside traditional degree programs for credit recommendation.

"It's a way for a student to use their learning that they've gained in a MOOC and possibly apply it somewhere in our postsecondary system toward a degree," said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at ACE.

Less than a year ago, Penn announced it had joined a group of top U.S. universities that would begin offering some courses online free through Coursera. Its first courses went online last summer and have attracted 550,000 students.

Students who want a chance at college credit for the five online courses will have to verify their identity when signing in and submitting homework, and take a proctored final exam via a webcam. Coursera will charge between $100 to $190 for the exam and verification process - a lot less than students would pay for taking a class on a campus.

"This is just one option that could make college education a lot more affordable for students," said a Coursera spokeswoman.

If students pass the exam, they will get an ACE credit recommendation, which each university can accept or reject. About 2,000 of the more than 3,600 accredited colleges and universities in the nation have agreed to consider - not necessarily accept - ACE recommendations.

ACE reviewers are university faculty with expertise in the discipline and teaching practices.

MOOCs are shaking up the world of higher education. "This is an important first step in ACE's work to examine the long-term potential of MOOCs and whether this innovative new approach can engage students across the country and worldwide while helping raise degree completion, increasing learning productivity, and deepening college curricula," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of ACE.

The other courses sanctioned by ACE are: precalculus from UC-Irvine; introduction to genetics and evolution and "Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach," both from Duke; and intermediate algebra from UC-Irvine for vocational credit. The courses are described as college entry-level studies.

Coursera was founded last year by two Stanford University computer-science professors who wanted to open access to top education to people around the world.

Edward Rock, Penn's director of open course initiatives, was pleased to participate. Students could get credit recommendation for Ghrist's course this semester.

"We view this as an experiment," Rock said. "We chose the course we chose very carefully. It's a really great course, and it's a gateway course. There must be a million kids in the United States who take calculus every year. If we can produce a really high quality gateway course on Coursera, we can help a lot of kids."

Penn has offered a dozen noncredit MOOC courses since the summer and plans to add more.

Penn hasn't decided whether it will accept the ACE recommendation for its own calculus course. That will be up to the university's math department, which will evaluate Coursera's exam and testing procedures to see if they meet Penn's standards, Rock said.

"They want to wait and see what the rollout is," he said. "Coursera says it's going to be reliable, and there will be proctoring, and the math department says, let's wait and see."

The math department grants course credits to students who get a 5 on the advanced placement test or who pass a test created by the math department, he said.

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.