James Ferguson
© James Ferguson

If the first chapter in the evolution of massive open online courses (Moocs) was written in the US, it may well be in Europe that they make their next significant advance.

This is the view of Hannes Klöpper, co-founder and chief academic officer at Iversity, a Berlin-based Mooc platform that launched in October 2013. Mr Klöpper argues that the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) presents an opportunity to transform Moocs – free, standalone courses – from academic novelty to meaningful qualifications.

The ECTS is a standard for comparing student attainment and performance in higher education institutions across Europe. Under the system, students can transfer credits for study already completed towards an appropriate equivalent degree in any of the 53 countries that have ratified the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

Should European universities start awarding students credit for attainment in Moocs, Mr Klöpper says that the ECTS provides a legal basis for mutual credit recognition.

Mr Klöpper says that this sets Europe apart from the US. No national mechanism for credit transfer exists in the US and students must demonstrate the eligibility of their credit to university admission boards, which retain the right of refusal.

“The ECTS shifts the burden of proof to universities to prove that course credit is not relevant,” says Mr Klöpper.

“Credit from other accredited institutions must be accepted by default [and] any refusal must be justified.” Moreover, he adds, universities are not permitted to make students resit work for their credit to be recognised. “The incentive structure and legal framework work in our favour.”

Michael Gaebel, head of the Higher Education Policy Unit at the European University Association, says there is no legal obstacle to Moocs playing a role in the European credit market. “The question, if universities start doing this, is under what conditions [they do so].”

Credibility is paramount, says Stephen Jackson, director of reviews at the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education in the UK. “It is only by demonstrating learning outcomes that credit should be granted.”

Ensuring the quality of the Moocs learning experience, and of student achievement, remains a major concern. “At the moment, certificates [for completing Moocs] do not specify any level of attainment,” says Mr Jackson.

Coursera and edX, leading US-based Mooc platforms, have introduced optional certification on some courses. For a fee, students receive a certificate, but no credit, upon completion.

A major hurdle to the awarding of certificates – let alone credit – is verifying the online identity of participants. To tackle this, Coursera has introduced technology to identify students enrolled on its “Signature Track” certification option.

Simon Nelson, chief executive of Futurelearn, the UK-based Mooc platform, although unconvinced about remote invigilation, says that “new forms of authentication are clearly helpful for gaining credibility”.

To bypass the identity verification issue, proctored – or supervised – assessment may offer a solution.

“Proctored exam centres could take us very quickly to the point where universities can award credit for Moocs,” says Jeff Haywood, chief information officer at the University of Edinburgh, which offers courses through Coursera and Futurelearn.

Indeed, Iversity has opted for traditional in-person exams to assess students enrolled on pilot for-credit courses.

Coursera, meanwhile, is experimenting with online proctoring. Students enrolled on five Moocs sit online exams with live supervision. These Moocs have been approved for credit recommendation by the American Council on Education (Ace).

Students are not awarded credit by either Coursera or the university offering the course, but can present their Ace credit recommendations to more than 2,000 US universities and colleges. However, the decision whether to accept them as credit towards a degree programme rests entirely with each admissions office.

Although autonomous university systems may stifle credit transfer in the US, Mr Klöpper anticipates that the ECTS will create credit federations among European universities. “Arguments against mutual recognition of credit came from mistrust of other qualifications,” he says. Moocs, by contrast, are transparent in the sense that they are open to public scrutiny. Course quality will be largely self-regulated, he says, as universities wish to uphold their reputation and brand.

Prof Haywood, however, identifies a potential limit to the role that Moocs, in their current form, could play in any credit market. Despite the provisions of the ECTS, he says it will ultimately be up to individual universities to decide if the content and structure of a given Mooc can count towards any of their degrees.

The main challenge, says Prof Haywood, is that the content and workload of a Mooc does not align with degree-level work. He cites Edinburgh’s first six Moocs, delivered on Coursera, that are each only five weeks long. “You need a set of Moocs that can be strung together to form something useful,” he adds.

There are also many competencies – verbal, interpersonal and team-working skills – that Moocs currently cannot develop in students, says Martin Boehm, dean of programmes at IE Business School, Spain. “Top schools will reject this credit . . . it would be dangerous to accept lower standards.”

However, like any prior experience, the completion of a Mooc will factor into an impression of a candidate. “Moocs are a demonstration of additional commitment,” says Mr Nelson.

Mr Jackson warns that while hurdles remain, employers may lend Moocs status by independently recognising them. “If employers are willing to take a badge, then you might bypass the system. Moocs are potentially very subversive to existing practices and institutions.”

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