The American Council on Education has agreed to review a handful of free online courses offered by elite universities and may recommend that other colleges grant credit for them.
The move could lead to a world in which many students graduate from traditional colleges faster by taking self-guided courses on the side, taught free by professors from Stanford University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and other well-known colleges.
In what leaders describe as a pilot project, the group will consider five to 10 massive open online courses, or MOOC's, offered through Coursera for possible inclusion in the council's College Credit Recommendation Service. That service has been around since the 1970s and focuses on certifying training courses, offered outside of traditional colleges, for which students might want college credit. McDonald's Hamburger University, for example, is among the hundreds of institutions with courses certified through ACE Credit, as the service is known.
Last year, a provider of low-cost online courses called StraighterLine became one of the first online institutions to win inclusion in the recommendation service.
ACE also announced on Tuesday that it will set up a Presidential Innovation Lab that will bring together college leaders to discuss the potential of MOOC's and new business models for higher education. The lab is supported by an $895,453 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as part of about $3-million in new MOOC-related grants announced Tuesday.
The review process by the council will be "similar to the way regional accreditation works," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of ACE. Professors will look at the content, teaching methods, "evidence of student engagement," and other elements of MOOC's to see if they appear equivalent to that taught by an accredited college, she added.
To pass the council's test, Coursera will make a few changes in the courses for which it seeks certification. For instance, ACE requires an "authentication of identity," said Ms. Broad, meaning that Coursera must have some kind of proctored examination or other way to prove that students are who they say they are.
For the courses in the pilot project, Coursera will form partnerships with online proctoring companies that use Webcams and special software to monitor tests remotely, said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera. Students hold up their ID's to a Webcam during an appointed exam time, and an employee from the proctoring company checks them to verify identity, and then watches students take the test to make sure they aren't cheating.
Meanwhile, the proctoring company uses software to monitor the students' activity to make sure they aren't just Googling the answers. Ms. Koller expects the cost of the proctoring to be less than $30 per exam.
The remote-proctoring strategy differs from an identity-verification system used by other providers of MOOC's, including edX, a nonprofit started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Udacity, a start-up company competing with Coursera. Both of those organizations say they will use a series of testing centers run by Pearson, which will require students to travel to a test center to take final exams in person, if they want a certificate of completion.
'Next Generation of AP Courses'
Ms. Koller stressed that the new arrangement is merely a pilot project, and that the courses have to pass muster before they win admission to ACE Credit.
"I don't want people to say, 'Can I get credit for my MOOC tomorrow?'" she said. "The answer is No. We haven't even started assessing these MOOC's."
Even if ACE recommends the courses, it is up to individual colleges to decide whether to grant transfer credit for them. So the next question becomes, Will colleges welcome such transfers?
Tristan Denley, provost at Austin Peay State University, outside of Nashville, said that if MOOC's proved an equivalent replacement for traditional courses, he would expect his institution to embrace them.
"It is already the case that about half of the graduates from Austin Peay State University did not begin with us. They bring transfer credit," he said. "So we are not averse in any way to transfer credit—this is just another source of that."
Josh Jarrett, deputy director for postsecondary success at the Gates foundation, said that "MOOC's may be the next generation of AP courses." Many students already arrive at campuses with credit they earn by passing Advanced Placement tests in high school, and MOOC's may simply prove another way for students to get a jump on college.
Many of the grants by the Gates foundation concerning MOOC's are focused on the use of free open courses as a supplement to traditional courses, rather than a replacement for them.
For instance, another Gates-foundation grant announced Tuesday, for $1,440,900, will support researchers from Ithaka S+R, a group that speeds development of information technologies for higher education, to study the effectiveness of MOOC's used in a "flipped classroom" model. In that model, students at traditional campuses watch lecture videos for homework and use class time for discussion rather than lecture.
In that way, Mr. Jarrett said, MOOC's may turn out to be a high-tech replacement for a textbook.
"We think in the short term the blended, flip-the-classroom model is going to be the one that's most effective for first-generation, low-income students, the kind of students that we work for," he said.
The Gates foundation also announced Tuesday the names of nine institutions that will receive grants to develop remedial and introductory classes. Those institutions include Cuyahoga Community College Foundation, Wake Technical Community College, and Ohio State University.
The foundation also announced a grant of $269,000 to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to consider a consortium of colleges that would jointly build MOOC's and other digital course materials.