Seal of the United States Department of Education
Seal of the United States Department of Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It hasn’t generated a huge amount of comment so far (probably because it doesn’t reflect any new structural or financial reality), but the US Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague Letter that encourages higher-ed institutions to submit “direct assessment (competency-based) programs” for consideration for federal funding under Title IV.

Consider this, from the closing paragraph of that letter:

Competency-based approaches to education have the potential for assuring the quality and extent of learning, shortening the time to degree/certification completion, developing stackable credentials that ease student transitions between school and work, and reducing the overall cost of education for both career-technical degree programs.

What is a “competency-based program”? To suspicious ears, it may sound like academic credit for life experience, a staple offering of diploma mills. In fact, as the letter explains, the phrase refers to “programs that use direct assessment of student learning . . . in lieu of measuring student learning in credit hours or clock hours (emphasis in original). In other words, the question is neither, “Did this student successfully complete three hours of Physics 101” (the traditional measure in higher education) nor, “Does this person’s life experience suggest a mastery of the kinds of knowledge taught in Physics 101?” (the question asked, usually perfunctorily and fraudulently, by diploma mills), but rather, “Has this student demonstrably learned what is taught in Physics 101?”

It’s interesting to note that nowhere in this letter does the agency mention MOOCs by name. But it opens with the following statement:

Over the last several years, some institutions of higher education have developed new and creative program models in which students are provided with the means to acquire the knowledge and skills at an individual pace to demonstrate achievement of specific competencies identified as necessary to complete a program and earn a degree or other credential. . . . An increasing number . . . are not offered in credit or clock hours, and many of the institutions offering such programs want them approved for participation in the title IV, HEA programs.

Not all such programs are MOOCs, of course. But it seems likely to me that MOOCs are what the DOE had in mind when issuing this letter — and even if they aren’t, that fact is pretty much immaterial. What will matter is not whether this message is intended to encourage institutions to apply for Title IV grants to underwrite MOOC development, but whether those institutions respond to it by actually doing so. More explicitly, the letter also encourages colleges and universities to establish specific programs that assess and certify the learning results that are produced by MOOCs and other nontraditional education programs. According to a recent story in Inside Higher Ed, DOE officials have already announced plans to approve such a program (the first of its kind) at Southern New Hampshire University, making it eligible to apply for Title IV funding. Other institutions, including Capella University and Northern Arizona University, are reported to be in talks with the DOE as well.

If these initiatives are successful, and it’s difficult to see what serious roadblocks remain for them, this will mark the beginning of a completely new chapter — maybe a new book — in the history of colleges and universities. Having always been both the providers of higher education and the certifiers of its outcomes, they will now have a growing role as certifiers and (inevitably) a diminishing role as providers. Those who, until now, have had no choice but to take on ruinous debt in order to achieve certified knowledge will subsequently be free to pursue knowledge in whatever way works best for them, and then have it certified (at much lower cost) by a college or university. Given the enormous number of people who need both such knowledge and such certification, and given how few of those people can afford to acquire it through the traditional channels (a point made trenchantly by Joe Esposito’s recent Scholarly Kitchen post), the ramifications of this development are both exciting and challenging. If the rise of the MOOC hasn’t caught our attention yet, it had better do so soon.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


17 Thoughts on "Another Door Opens (Quietly) for MOOCs"

The test will be when a person who is certified gets a job and the employer finds out just what the certification is worth.

The largest roadblock will be staffing a course. Who is going to respond to say 3,000 students or for that matter 100 on line students out of 3,000? Who will maintain a dialogue with the students? Surely, answer one to student one who then posited question two would have to be answered by the same person in order to maintain a constant trend of thought.

I saw an article (I think in the NYT recently) that Harvard is recruiting alumni to staff a MOOC in the humanities. I believe the article said that Harvard will offer a refresher/training for alumni who took the particular course long ago.


Isn’t home schooling a type of “competency-based program”? That is, home-schooled children get a high school degree by proving that they have mastered a range of subjects taught in high schools through taking tests in those subjects. So, why not extend this to higher education? Instead of actually attending Princeton, I might instead have learned enough on my own (using MOOcs and other resources) to pass tests administered by Princeton faculty to qualify myself for a Princeton degree. Sure would have saved a lot of money!

Sandy: If memory serves you do not earn a Princeton degree via enrolling in and completing a MOOC curriculum. You do get a certificate of competency for each course which is not a course completion or for that matter a grade or any credit hours.

In home schooling one is assigned a teacher whom you can call if you have a question. You take tests and pass a course with a grade for which you get credits toward graduation. Further, one must complete the courses for a specific grade, i.e. 10th within a specific time frame.

Home schooling is certainly one precedent, Sandy. MOOCs are basically correspondence courses in digital form and a wonderful thing, but not new in principle. Also I once heard that in France you can get a degree simply by passing tests but I have no idea if it is true. It always sounded like a good idea to me. But as Harvey points out the real question is how the job market values these degrees? Only time will tell but I am sure there is a place for them. It is just not likely to be the same place as a Uni degree. The job market is fairly smart that way.

Interesting indeed! Testing for certification requires a physical presence to verify identity. Certification is at the course level and presumeably the certifying institution charges a fee. So this is potentially a significant new income stream. As Joe points out this may or may not decrease enrollment in the long run. It also increases the cost of MOOCing for a degree. Thus there are enough nonlinear variables to make the future unpredictable. That be the fun part.

I fully agree students completing a degree must demonstrate competencies in critical areas. However, a good college gives you more than specific knowledge, it gives you an approach to life and learning.

It is many years since I earned my engineering degree, and I’ve long forgotten many of the details of my classes. But my school taught me an approach to engineering and science, a philosophy, a way of thinking, that has served me well through a long career. I’m not sure how you convey this type of knowledge in online courses.

It will be interesting to see how the new ways of learning work out.

Well said Ken. I worry that this is just yet another move toward further entrenching standardized tests as the goal of our educational system, further supporting the teaching of students to take and pass tests, rather than teaching them how to learn.

I do not see this as being about teaching to tests. How else do you certify someone has having learned the MOOC content? You cannot just give them an online test. It is a verification issue.

The trend lately has been to focus more and more on those verification tests though, rather than the more important goals of education, as Ken notes above. Elementary schools no longer teach art, science or history, instead choosing to devote all of their class time to drilling for the standardized tests that determine their funding. Where I live, elementary school children get a mere 18 minutes, twice a week for recess/physical education. Since these funding levels are determined by multiple choice tests on English and Math, that’s what the children learn, how to take multiple choice tests. This is reinforced by the community because better test performance means better school funding which means better real estate values for the district.

I’m not sure I want to see this same degeneration, this same drift away from what I see as the true purpose of education applied to the higher education system as well. It’s not an inevitable outcome of what’s proposed here, but it strikes me as a likely path that will be taken, given how we’ve handled things at other educational levels.

Surprisingly, in Texas where I now live, there are signs of pushback against this trend: the legislature has just passed a law that will reduce the number of required standardized tests for high school graduation from 15 to 5.

I described the K-12 regulatory transition you are referring to some time ago:

While I have concerns about it I make no judgement against it. But that is not the point here. The procedural issue seems quite clear. If we are going to grant MOOC-based certificates and degrees how do we determine that the student passed the courses? How except by testing them? Paying people to take tests is a well known form of cheating so testing them in person is an obvious solution. Colleges can do this and get paid for it. If you are suggesting that we give people degrees without ever testing them then that is a proposal that needs to be defended. Or are colleges doing that now?

Whether MOOCs provide a good education is an entirely different issue. So is overtesting. There is research indicating that K-12 students now spend around 15% of their time taking tests. Many give a test at the end of every class. The good or bad of this has nothing to do with certifying college level MOOCs.

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