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Universities Try MOOCs in Bid to Lure Successful Students to Online Programs

Since massive open online courses exploded into the public consciousness, college presidents have been trying to figure out how to use higher education’s most hyped innovation to deal with one of its greatest challenges: enrolling and graduating more students at a time of rising costs and declining support.

Academic Partnerships, a company that helps traditional institutions build online programs, believes it has found a way. And it involves awarding academic credit to students who take MOOCs—at no charge.

The company announced on Wednesday that it and a group of its public-university clients were planning to recast certain conventional online courses as MOOCs in the hope that the free courses could serve as a tool for recruiting students into their online degree programs—in particular, students who are likely to succeed.

Academic Partnerships is calling the new program MOOC2Degree. The particulars will vary by institution, but in general each participating university will allow students anywhere in the world to take an online course free. If a student then decides to enroll at the university, the university will count the credit hours earned in the MOOC toward a degree without charging the student. Universities typically charge students several hundred dollars per credit hour, and courses typically carry three credit hours.

Randy Best, chairman and chief executive of Academic Partnerships, talked about the program’s goals in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “We believe that it turns the MOOC … into a practical tool,” he said.

The company says a number of its clients are planning to offer MOOC2Degree courses, including the University of Arkansas system, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing, the University of West Florida, and Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar, and Utah State Universities. (Another client, Arizona State University, says it plans to participate but will charge students who enroll there for credits earned in its MOOCs.)

In trials at several of those institutions, where prospective students were offered the opportunity to take their first online course free, 72 to 84 percent of the participating students ended up signing up for a second course, Mr. Best said.

Elizabeth Poster, dean of the Arlington nursing college, told The Chronicle that she expected thousands of students to register for a course that the college plans to offer as a MOOC.

The assessments for that course, an elective in the college’s online R.N. to B.S.N. program, will be just as rigorous as those in a conventional online course, said Ms. Poster. But the college will not be able to afford to provide as much individual support to students who enroll in the MOOC, she added.

For example, in its current online courses, which enroll up to several hundred students, the college provides academic “coaches” who oversee cohorts of 30 students each. If registrations shoot into the thousands in the MOOC version of the course, the college will not be able to scale up its support infrastructure accordingly, said Ms. Poster. “We can’t offer exactly the same resources, because it’s just not possible,” she said.

Lawrence Johnson, interim provost at the University of Cincinnati, also expressed doubt that the university’s MOOC2Degree courses would be able to provide students with the same level of individual attention, even if the assessments and the professors were the same as those for a typical online course.

Ideally, the MOOC2Degree effort will not only enable the universities to promote their online programs while reducing the cost of degrees to students, Mr. Best added in an interview, but it will also help the universities identify students who are well equipped to complete their online courses.

Retaining and graduating students has been especially challenging for online programs—in part because online students tend to be working adults, and also because some students do not take well to the medium. Universities tend to lose money on dropouts.

MOOC2Degree is designed to give students a risk-free way to try out a course before committing to an online program, Mr. Best said. But the program also aims to give its university clients a risk-free way to try out students before admitting them, he said.

Online education has given rise to sophisticated tools for quantifying student performance—not only how well they do on tests, but also how active they are in discussion forums and how frequently they engage with learning tools and materials that are embedded in the online-learning platform. Academic Partnerships has been investing in those tools on behalf of its clients, Mr. Best said.

By the time a MOOC student applies to enroll at a participating university, he said, admissions officials—and, later, instructors—will already know something about their habits and abilities.

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