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Although Moocs like to speak of creating their own communities, living on a virtual campus is not the same as having to turn up to lectures and coming face to face with an institution’s teachers and administrators.
As Moocs attempt to carve out their own educational space, they face one obvious problem in their battle for credibility. How can an employer tell if a candidate who claims to have taken a course really has done so?
Leaving aside the application and interview process – which should in theory separate the capable from the incompetent – Mooc providers acknowledge this issue by offering various levels of certification. These can be as basic as ‘honour codes’, which are little more than affirmations of the ‘trust me, this was all my own work’ variety.
But Mooc providers have realised the need for more stringent authentication. Coursera, edX and Udacity, for example, all offer verification certificates based on webcam photographs of a student, in some cases backed up by copies of official documents such as passports or driving licences.
Course administrators will periodically ask a student to reconfirm their identification by webcam throughout the course.
Some Mooc providers have created additional checks. Coursera beefs up its “signature track” verification with a typing exercise intended to establish a student’s unique typing pattern, while Udacity goes a step further by scheduling a live interview at the end of each module.
“Certification is a big thing for students,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “We are going to see more and more uptake in terms of Moocs being recognised by universities.”
He cites the American Council on Education, with close to 2,000 higher educational institutions as members, which has included an edX circuits course on its college credit recommendation service, one of the non-curriculum courses considered worthy of official credit.
“Moocs will not supplant university education – where you have an admissions process, where students work with professors on research and become imbued with the campus philosophy – but I do expect to see more and more learners with online credentials,” Mr Agarwal adds.
According to Julia Stiglitz, head of business development and strategic partnerships for Coursera, certification “emerged out of students wanting a higher level of authentication for their studies, so that they could feel confident sharing them with employers”.
Increasingly, social networking sites such as LinkedIn are being used to link to and promote verified certificates.
However, these higher-level certificates come with a catch: they cost money. With a typical price of about $50, this may not matter so much with individual courses, but with the shift to the more rigorous model of a series of linked subjects taken over several months, the cost of multiple documents can quickly reach hundreds of dollars.
“Even $25 is a lot of money in rural India,” says Mr Agarwal, “and cost is definitely a factor [in participation].” But, he adds, there is an upside. “There is a huge positive correlation between cost and dropout rates. With honour codes, Moocs have a completion rate of 6 to 7 per cent. When you pay, you have some skin in the game, and completion rates go up to 60 per cent plus.”
Ms Stiglitz says the presence of a Mooc certificate on a CV demonstrates that a prospective employee is “the type of person who is entrepreneurial in their approach to their education.”
She adds: “Moocs are operating in a different space [from universities]. Not every 18-year-old knows what he or she wants to do. Not every 18-year-old knows the demands of the market, or which way certain industries are going to go. Moocs help you keep up to speed and stay relevant.”
In fact, employers may be relatively uninterested in certificates other than as a conversational starter in an interview or something to catch the eye on a CV.
John Wastnage, policy manager at the British Chambers of Commerce, says: “Businesses are less concerned about qualifications than they are with . . . what someone can add to the business.” Completing a Mooc “demonstrates a desire to learn, that a person is motivated and has time management skills – all things employers are looking for.”
Mr Wastnage views the evolution of Moocs as the world of education “catching up with how employers see skills and qualifications. It’s about what you can do and what you know . . . Moocs might be disruptive to the education system, but they represent the changes that need to happen to it.”
“[Today’s] concept of a degree is antediluvian,” says Mr Agarwal. “Learning needs to be continuous – unbundled in time and space. Your credentials should be your university course, plus Moocs, plus work experience.”