Monday, 15 April 2013

What are certificates of completion worth?

Most Massive Open Online Courses offer certificates of completion to students. In the seminal Stanford AI Class, participants received a PDF certificate signed by the professors, Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, with the grade point average and percentile.

While it is always nice to have something to show for one’s hard studying, what are these certificates of completion really worth?

Here are the main issues to keep in mind when thinking about their value today and going forward:

  • Brand:

“Contingent on academic performance, you will get a Statement of Accomplishment stating that you completed this course. However, no certificate will be given from Wharton / Penn and successful completion of this course does not make you a Wharton / Penn alumnus.”

There is a limit therefore to the value of brick and mortar brands on MOOC certificates.

  • Academic standards:

Coursera’s model is based on partner universities using its platform. The courses on offer range from 4 weeks quizz based courses targeted to a wide audience, to 12 weeks courses with much heavier workload.
Platforms with carefully curated and mostly in-house content such as Udacity offer less variability (course difficulty is also clearly identified as Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced).

  • Distinctions:

As with traditional brick and mortar universities, Udacity offers different level of certification depending on the academic achievements of the students (from a Certificate of Accomplishment to a Certificate of Accomplishment with Distinction to a Certificate of Accomplishment with highest distinction).

Since its courses are asynchronous, Udacity’s certificates of completion can be earned by taking a series of automated tests at any time. Course staff sometime have a hard job policing the forums to avoid any leaks between students and other temptations to cheat.

  • ‘Verified certificates’:
To address the risk of cheating and/or identity fraud, MOOC platforms are increasingly prepared (for a fee) to verify students’ identity and provide proctored exams.
From $30 to $100 per course, Coursera’s signature track now offers students in a small selection of courses the opportunity to obtain a verified certificate of completion (the student’s identity is verified via photo ID and unique typing pattern).
Udacity has partnered with Pearson VUE since 2012 to offer proctored exams through Pearson’s extensive international network of test centers.

  • Transferability of credits:

Coursersa has worked with the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service to approve five of its online courses for credit.
Udacity is offering some courses in partnership with San Jose State University. For a $150  enrollment fee, students can earn credits transferable within the California State University system.

  • Recognition by potential employers:

Back in 2011, Sebastian Thrun offered to put the very best students from the AI class in touch with some of Silicon Valley’s most exciting companies. Now, both coursera and Udacity plan to generate significant revenue via career placement.
The fact that Google, Nvidia and Autodesk (amongst others) have co-created courses with Udacity also goes to show employer’s pragmatic approach to identifying and hiring talent.

  • Extra-academic criteria:

Perhaps not surprisingly, even in the online world, companies wish to look beyond just good grades. Indeed, companies recruiting via Udacity’s Career Placement Program have expressed interest not only in the students’ academic track records but also in their contribution to the course forums.

In conclusion, we will probably see a world with traditional degrees (at traditional prices) for residential students, fee-based ID-verified online courses and free online courses.
In any case, whilst there still is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the value of MOOC’s certificates, they are as central to the future success of MOOC platforms as they are to the motivation of students.

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