Moocs-for-credit partnership sees slow start on completions

Less than 1 per cent of those enrolled on Global Freshman Academy courses eligible for credit, but university involved says it is ‘positive first step’

December 21, 2015

Less than 1 per cent of the learners in the massive open online course partnership between Arizona State University and edX are eligible to earn credit for their work, according to enrolment numbers from the inaugural courses.

The partnership, known as Global Freshman Academy, was announced this spring with great fanfare. University officials and fans of the effort said that the new way of delivering education (in addition to traditional online and face-to-face options) might be a way to get new students excited about and enrolled in degree programmes.

The initiative launched this autumn with three credit-bearing Moocs – Human Origins, Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy and Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe – drawing a total of 34,086 registrants.

Despite the added incentive of credit for completers, for each Mooc only about 1,100 learners remain active in the course throughout its seven-week duration. Of those learners, 323 now have the option of paying ASU an additional fee to receive credit, the enrolment numbers show.

The number of learners who opt for credit may be even smaller. To be eligible, learners first have to pay $49 (£33) for an identity-verified certificate and earn a grade of C or better. Because of how the Moocs are structured, learners can complete all the lessons and assignments and view their final grade before deciding whether to pay for a transcript from ASU. Learners have a year to make up their minds.

The university has agreed to charge the Mooc learners no more than $200 per credit hour. Credit from the first three Global Freshman Academy Moocs costs $600 per course. Learners are not required to continue their studies at ASU, but are free to transfer the credits to any college that will accept them.

ASU has not shared how many credit-seeking Mooc learners it hopes to enrol – if such a goal exists. Speaking to Inside Higher Ed in April, Philip Regier, university dean for educational initiatives, said that there were “a lot of uncertainties” around that number. He added that he expected “maybe 25,000” to register for some of the Moocs. The astronomy Mooc, the largest of the first three, attracted 13,423 registrants.

A spokesperson for the university, in response to whether the results are satisfactory, said, “ASU’s goal is reaching learners who want access to high-quality college-level education. The Global Freshman Academy charts a new path in access to higher education, and the results of the inaugural courses are a positive first step for the GFA.”

Low completion rates are nothing new to Moocs. In fact, a completion rate in the low double digits – even in the high teens – can be seen as a success.

Mooc researchers, however, have argued that completion rates don’t matter as much as they do in traditional online and face-to-face courses. The open structure of Moocs, they say, allows learners to register for a course but only focus on a handful of units. In other words, a low completion rate can mask the fact that many learners got something out of the Mooc, even if they didn’t finish it.

“In open online learning, completion numbers provide only one small perspective on peoples learning experiences,” Justin Reich, executive director of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab, said in an email. “It would also be worth learning more about the experiences of the 3,300 or the 34,000. Did they have good learning experiences? Are they more familiar with ASU and its faculty? What public interests or institutional interests were served by offering the course?”

Reich has previously explored the demographics of the learners who registered for Moocs offered by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the two institutions behind edX.

His recent research, which appeared earlier this month in Science, found that Moocs “can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status”. The results build on earlier findings about Moocs, which have suggested that Moocs cater more to older learners with previously earned degrees instead of the learners ASU is targeting – high school students, international students and students considering community college, among others.

“I'm not surprised that few people took advantage of the credit option in the first run – thats been common across certificate experiments in Moocs,” Reich wrote.

“A trajectory over time will be more useful than a snapshot. If these numbers stay very low, it will be harder to justify continuing the programme than if they grow quickly and if the programme gets more accepted and recognised.”

ASU plans to expand its lineup of Global Freshman Academy Moocs until learners are able to complete their freshman year online. The university will add “at least eight new courses” next year, the spokesperson said, including algebra, English composition, technological, social and sustainable systems, and health and wellness.

“These numbers show it's not an immediate breakthrough revolution in recruiting and enrollment, but that's fine,” Reich wrote. “It may still be worth exploring if this is a viable alternative path either for recruitment of students already likely to go to college or bringing new students into higher ed.”

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