In what could be a major step toward bridging the gap between massive open online courses and the credentialing system that they are supposed to "disrupt," the American Council on Education on Thursday endorsed five MOOCs for credit.
Two of the approved courses, "Introduction to Genetics and Evolution" and "Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach," come from Duke University. Two others, "Pre-Calculus" and "Algebra," come from the University of California at Irvine. The last, "Calculus: Single-Variable," comes from the University of Pennsylvania. All five are offered through Coursera.
The council, an association that advises college presidents, operates a credit-recommendation service that evaluates individual courses. If a course passes muster, ACE advises its 1,800 member colleges that they can be comfortable conferring credit on students who have passed that course.
Whether colleges take the council's advice, however, is an open question. "Ultimately, the degree-granting institution decides what credits to accept," said Cathy A. Sandeen, the council's vice president for education attainment and innovation.
In other words, the council's endorsement alone does not mean students can expect to save money by redeeming their Coursera certificates—evidence that they have passed its courses—for credit toward a traditional degree.
But if some colleges follow through, the council's recommendations could go a long way toward straightening the crooked path from free college courses to valuable college credits. Simplifying that process could make the economic significance of MOOCs more tangible.
"This could make it much easier for students to get credit for MOOCs, and they don't necessarily have to figure out the complicated, back-roads way of doing so," said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a research organization in Washington. "Making it easier is a big step toward making it happen at scale."
What MOOCs Will Mean
Any hypothesis about how MOOCs might "disrupt" the American higher-education system inevitably will turn on the willingness of colleges to grant credit for courses for which students do not pay tuition. And when it comes to inviting free online courses into the world of mainstream credentialing, institutions might prefer to act conservatively for fear of undermining their own bases of revenue.
Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, said some of the company's university partners have been wary even of submitting their own MOOCs for consideration by the council's credit-recommendation service. "For students to receive credit, even if that credit is sponsored by a different institution—that's a big step," said Mr. Ng. "I think it's still so new that a lot of us are getting used to the implications and what this means."
ACE has positioned itself to lead the inquiry into what MOOCs will mean to higher education. The council has gotten funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study how the courses could be used to improve access and college completion, and it is currently reviewing courses from Udacity, another MOOC provider, for possible credit recommendations.
The approval of the first Coursera MOOCs is "an important first step in ACE's work to examine the long-term potential of MOOCs" to deal with issues such as "degree completion, increasing learning productivity, and deepening college curricula," said Molly Corbett Broad, the council's president, in a written statement.
But the second step, in which colleges begin accepting MOOC certificates for credit as if they were Advanced Placement scores, is equally important—and there is no guarantee that colleges will do so.
'A More Rigorous Process'
John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, said his institution would not accept transfer credits from a Coursera MOOC, notwithstanding the council's recommendation.
Excelsior, a pioneer of "competency-based" learning, is sympathetic to the notion of granting credit for learning that occurs outside the traditional classroom. But Mr. Ebersole said he was not impressed by Coursera's assessment methods.
"We would hope that ACE would support a more rigorous process, as is the case with other forms of noncredit instruction, whereby those seeking credit would complete a psychometrically valid assessment in a secure testing facility," Mr. Ebersole said.
The council said it had confidence in its process for approving the courses for credit. Each course was reviewed by two independent faculty members, who looked at a number of aspects, including the tests and anticheating measures, which, in this case, involved a remote monitoring service called ProctorU.
"Our reviewers," said ACE's Ms. Sandeen, "found their controls and techniques to be sufficient."