Certification in MOOC’s (Week 2, Ed Startup 101)

Not that I am not aware that we are already on Week 3 of Ed Startup 101; clearly I have some catching up to do! I missed the introduction as well, so I will take a brief stab at it here. My story is a simple one: four years out of college and one mistaken career path in investment banking later, I have decided to pursue my passion in education and all the possibilities that come with the digital medium.

The ed-startup trend (or problem, really) that I want to discuss a bit more is certification for online/electronic learning, including the concept of badges and the recent debate over certification for the MOOC’s from prestigious universities. Many feel that online learning cannot truly be taken seriously until this is resolved. All of these systems struggle to come up with a way to certify, prove, or at least signal, the learning you have done through online and non-institutional sources. The current solutions fall into four camps:

1. As-is “virtual” certification (badges, Coursera’s certificates of completion)
2. Institution-affiliated certification (MITx, which indirectly borrows the name of MIT, even if it’s made clear that it’s not an MIT credit)
3. Proctored-exam certification (edX in recent announcement of partnership with Pearson)
4. Community-instituted certification (Udacity’s course accepted as transfer credit in Colorado State)

Despite the seeming variety of “solutions,” it’s clear that none of these are perfectly adequately nor imaginative. All of these solutions are merely virtual extensions of how we conduct grading in real life, but should this be how we think about it at all, given that we have the potential to create a different learning model? 

Solutions 1 to 3 are all still virtual extensions of how we approach grading in ” real life,” but in the last solution we encounter a bit more creativity and a glimpse into how things could be approached differently. Community-instituted credit, such as that given by Colorado State to Udacity’s CS101, highlights the potential to partner non-traditional avenues with traditional institutions. There is a lot more that can be done with that— the likes of Udacity could have teams dedicated to lobbying community colleges or other universities to accept their classes as credit. For Udacity to have the proper incentive to do this, perhaps a fee could be involved in obtaining the certification that would allow for such transfer of credit.

In the above, the credit is still given by an institution that grades and has “credits” in the first place. But could this not be extended to other partner institutions, such as corporates or community programs that might appreciate the relevant skill set? Could a “credit” given not be an academic credit but some form of testament by professional organizations? Trusted partners that believe in the rigor and content-worthiness of what one gets out of an Udacity course do not need to be academic institutions. We can involve many more local groups to help us validate and harness the communities of learners that have popped up. What exact shape or form this would look like is still a question to be explored.

We could be much more imaginative about how we validate and exemplify our learning. I love the Udacity High School Challenge, for example. Even though there is no formal academic credit involved, I am sure that many of the high school students who took such initiatives impressed the people around them. It is through the doing, not the grading, that they are able to exemplify their learning. Could we possibly re-imagine our process by encouraging people to build up a digital portfolio that is self-evident, rather than rely on third-party certification? Perhaps we can have local demo days that showcase what people have built throughout their courses. Perhaps we can have an online journal that publishes the essays written— with the vetting done by the community of peers. Or, perhaps, we can set up a mentoring system that involves people who have taken the course before; they say that the best way to test your learning is through teaching, and there could be a mentor evaluation by the students. The possibilities are endless if we are willing to retire our attempt to mimic the old classroom model.

Why do we still insist on imposing our old model of learning, when clearly what we are facing is a brave new world?



  1. Jazz, it’s exciting to read this post for so many reasons! First, I’m really glad you’re pursuing your passion now and not waiting for a “better time” that may or may not ever come. Second, I think the idea of professional or community organizations validating learning is a great way to move beyond the 20th-century credential model. It recaptures something very old (the master-apprentice bond) and brings it in to the kind of meaningful community that’s the hallmark of the 21st century.

    Whenever I can finally write my post (or posts??) about my #edstartup idea(s), I’d love to know what you think. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your thoughts on my “space” related posts at my EdStartup course blog.

    Looking forward to the conversation!

  2. Hi– thanks for the thoughtful comment! I am indeed more and more excited about the community idea. I think the answer is that these virtual classrooms need ways to boost up their physical presence and partnerships with “on-the-ground” organizations. I think it is a revelation that is already dawning on them slowly, so I would be excited to see how it all unfolds next.

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