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Give MOOCs a Fair Chance

Change is badly needed to make higher education more affordable for more students. One promising way to do so is through the use of massive open online courses. Until recently, students who enrolled in MOOCs received a certificate of completion - not academic credit for their work. But that is likely to be modified if Coursera, a MOOC provider, can convince the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for higher education, that its free online courses are worthy of college credit ("Free Online Courses to Be Evaluated for Possible College Credit," The New York Times, Nov. 14).

I used to be skeptical about online education because I viewed it as intrinsically inferior to traditional education. But after delving into the issue, I've come to the conclusion that as long as certain conditions are satisfied MOOCs deserve college credit. First, they should be initially limited to lower division or introductory courses, where classes in brick and mortar schools at that level tend to be large. Online courses would provide the opportunity for more individual attention. Second, students should have to take an identity-verified, proctored exam. This would prevent, or at least minimize, cheating. Finally, the completion rate of MOOC students at the colleges or universities should be tracked. This would offer some feedback on how well the online courses have been integrated into traditional courses.

Purists will no doubt argue that MOOCs are another step toward diluting quality. It is a reasonable concern. But if the conditions I outlined above are met, I think the benefits outweigh the fears. The cost of a four-year degree continues to soar, with no end in sight. For example, tuition for California State University students has nearly doubled over the last few years. Even if only lower-division courses earn college credit, the savings in tuition alone would be significant. Let's not forget that living at home while taking such courses also means not paying for housing, meals and incidentals associated with dorm living. I don't think we can continue along the same line when a college degree is becoming indispensable. Apparently, marquee-name universities agree ("College of Future Could Be Come One, Come All," The New York Times, Nov. 20).

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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