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Put MOOCs to the test

With all the hoopla about whether universities should give academic credit for what students learn in online courses (MOOCs), people seem to be missing the point that we already have a widely-accepted mechanism by which students can get credit for material learned elsewhere: the Advanced Placement (AP) tests. If MOOCs are doing such a great job, why aren't they publicizing AP-test success rates for their students?

No, seriously. I'm open to the hypothesis that a student could learn as much or more in a well-produced MOOC than in a typical large-lecture/computer-graded introductory course. But let's see the data.

Professor Char Weise writes:

"I am also a parent who is going to be paying college tuition for his oldest child in a couple of years. I am being made keenly aware of the cost-quality tradeoff, and I'm seeing a product that sacrifices only a little on the quality end while having major benefits on the cost end. As a parent, I'm intrigued. As a professor at a liberal arts college, I am terrified."
...and suggests...

"Another approach would be to outsource the introductory courses in economics and other disciplines [to MOOCs]. We already do this to some extent by accepting credit for our introductory courses for courses taught at high schools or other institutions including community colleges. A student who gets a score of 5 on the AP economics test gets credit for Econ 103 and 104... I can imagine a time when the standard program of higher education involves a student spending a year (maybe less) accumulating a year's worth of college credit for introductory courses by taking MOOCs and then enrolling in Gettysburg's (or a similar institution's) excellent and prestigious three-year bachelors' program."
Outsourcing introductory classes, which few professors enjoy teaching, would free us to teach more-interesting, advanced classes. Offering credit for MOOCs on advanced topics without a widely-accepted standard test is more problematic than continuing to offer credit for high AP-test scores. If we had data showing that grades in introductory MOOCs were highly predictive of AP-test scores, that would give me some confidence in their grading, but advanced classes typically call for reasoning and analysis skills that are harder to test. Also, advanced classes are more likely to benefit from small-group interactions with the professor. Take Bill Hamilton, for example. (You knew there had to be an evolution angle here somewhere!) According to this excellent biography by Ullica Segerstrale, he was a terrible lecturer in introductory classes, but did a great job on smaller advanced classes.


Ultimately, it comes down to the student and what he/she makes of a course, regardless of whether it's a university course or an MOOC. Educators like to debate this topic as if the student were some passive receiver who can't tell whether the material being presented is good or not. Give the students some credit. Some will learn better with in-person lectures and some learn better independently online.

MOOCS are just another learning option, and to ask whether they are more effective for all students would be to overlook the fact that they are more effective for some students.

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