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Diploma disruption: credentials offered for massive open online courses

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Soon, individuals participating in some online courses from major universities will have something to show for their successful completion of the work besides internal knowledge. In a step toward the credentialing of massive open online course-based education, Coursera announced it will be offering certifications of completion for a small fee. It is also seen as a way to build more financial sustainability into the emerging MOOC business model for higher education.

Coursera, one of the leading private MOOC platforms, announced that students will be offered the opportunity to earn Verified Certificates for select courses for a small fee, which it said will range between $30 and $100. The company said it will also offer students who cannot afford the fee the opportunity to register for financial assistance.

MOOCs are global, online courses -- usually extensions of existing on-campus courses -- offered to any student with an internet connection. A recent survey by Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board finds that about three percent of education institutions now offer or participate in MOOCs, but close to one out of ten are planning such engagements.

The MOOC and online models are disrupting the higher education sector, which has seen spiraling tuition costs, putting educational opportunities out of reach of many students. The online education model offers ways for students to put together their own educational programs at low or no cost, while still connecting with instructors and resources at leading educational institutions.

While still not the same as a full-fledged diploma, students of these online venues are increasingly able to demonstrate enhanced proficiency and knowledge in certain skill areas to potential or current employers. In an economy which needs employees with advanced skills, MOOCs and other online courses offer a cost-effective and highly adaptable model for training and retraining. Eventually, assembling a set of credentials in key skill areas may be just as effective as pursuing a traditional four-year or post-graduate diploma.

Hopefully, the market forces that helped create the MOOC and online education phenomenon will keep a cap on the credentialing fees now starting to be offered.

Coursera's credentialing option, called Signature Track, is available on a course-by-course basis and aims to verify the identity of the students doing the work. Though it does not include credit toward a degree program, Signature Track provides students with a more meaningful certificate that proves their success in a rigorous online university course.

Initially, Coursera will pilot Signature Tracks for five courses, including UCSF's Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, UCSF's Clinical Problem Solving, Duke's Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, Georgia Tech's Computational Investing, Part I, and Illinois' Microeconomics Principles. Eventually, Coursera plans to offer Signature Track for a large majority of its courses. Free access to Coursera's online courses will remain available to all students.

Students will have up to two or three weeks from the eligible course's start date to decide if they want to participate in its Signature Track. After deciding to participate, students will create a Signature Profile by first taking two photographs with their webcam: one of themselves and another of an acceptable photo ID document. Next, students will create a biometric profile of their unique typing patterns by typing a short phrase. When a student submits work in the course, they authenticate their identity by typing the same short phrase, which is then matched to their recorded samples.

Upon successful completion of their course, students will receive a Verified Certificate issued by both the participating university and Coursera. Students will then be able to electronically share their detailed course performance, in a verified format, with anyone they designate via their personal Course Records page on Coursera.

Currently, some of the universities participating on the Coursera platform include Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Duke University, University of California San Francisco, Georgia Tech, and University of Edinburgh.

Coursera has also forged an agreement with the American Council on Education (ACE) to evaluate credit equivalency of a subset of courses on the platform. Along with the opportunity to pursue ACE CREDIT recommendations, Signature Track will expand students' ability to receive recognition for their online coursework.

(Photo: Stanford University Office of Media Relations.)

— By on January 14, 2013, 1:17 AM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure