MOOCs: Making the Most of What You Learn

GUEST COLUMN | by Mika Hoffman

Excelsior College imageAmong the newest trends — some might say the hottest — in higher education is the emergence of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Though the content in these courses is provided by some of the more prominent names in higher education, MOOCs are essentially the latest iteration of open educational resources (OER) that are freely available to anyone, anywhere, anytime at the click of a mouse. The excitement surrounding these highly scalable courses has as a lot to do with the providers of the courses (brand-name institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, University of Virginia) and with the level of interactivity and feedback exchanged among participating students.

Rather than sitting alone watching a lecture or reading an article, students in MOOCs can chat, complete assignments with and receive feedback from each other.  Although this makes for a valuable addition to a student’s learning toolkit, a drawback is the lack of substantial, direct interaction between professor and student. Unlike the students enrolled in a “traditional” classroom model, those using MOOCs do not benefit from having faculty who can evaluate the level of learning they have achieved and award college credit. So, while MOOCs may represent the next generation in intellectual growth, students employing any form of OER must deal with a problem that all independent learners face: how to prove that they actually learned anything, let alone something that is college-level equivalent.

The answer can be found in academically sound credit-by-examination programs that already exist.

Earning credit by examination for knowledge gained outside the classroom has been around for quite some time. There are several recognized programs designed by testing professionals that could be taken by anyone to gain college credit: CLEP, AP, DSST, Excelsior College Examinations, and, more recently, UExcel. The program offered by my college, Excelsior, has its origins in the early 1970s when it was founded on the philosophy that “What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.” Excelsior College Examinations were created as a means for independent learners to demonstrate that what they know is college-level equivalent and appropriate for the credit to be awarded.

Developed collaboratively by faculty, subject matter experts and professional psychometricians, examinations in these programs are administered in secure testing centers with very strong identity verification and proctoring measures in place. This assures that the person who is taking the test is the person who is claiming the credit. Additionally, virtually all these exams are machine-scored so, unlike oral examinations or portfolio assessments, they can be easily scaled to accommodate the large numbers of people we hear about who are taking advantage of MOOCs to expand their academic horizons.

It should be acknowledged that there is not an exam for every MOOC that is out there.  However, the range is broad enough that just about any general education requirement, and quite a few in specialized subjects, can be met through credit-by-examination and MOOCs as study sources. Credit earned through any of the exam programs listed above is generally accepted by most colleges and universities in the same way they take credit in transfer from each other.

MOOCs do represent a significant educational innovation that can make the learning process more engaging. Often students can learn as much or more through online interaction with their peers studying the same subjects as those who participate in a typical campus-based course. Within a MOOC peers may grade each others’ work and provide valuable feedback that helps students to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. While all of this can enrich the learning process, it doesn’t provide recognized evidence of the learning that has taken place.

To milk a MOOC for all that you can get out of it, use a recognized credit-by-examination program to provide proof positive to your school, employer – or yourself – that what you really learned what you studied.


Mika Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Center for Educational Measurement at Excelsior College. She came to Excelsior from the Department of Defense, where she served as the Dean of the Test Development Division at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, managing the high-stakes Defense Language Proficiency Testing program.  She earned a B.A. with High Honors from Swarthmore College, an M.A. with Distinction in the Teaching of Foreign Languages (French) from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and a Ph. D. in Linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Write to:


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