Josh Kaufman

Bestselling Author, Business & Self-Education


Hacking Higher Education - Turning Online Courses into College Credits

Every now and then, I invite cool people to share their knowledge directly with my readers. Jay Cross, founder of The Do-It-Yourself Degree , is one of my students and a mentor to thousands of independent learners who are rapidly accelerating their college degrees with low-cost methods like credit by examination. Even though college isn’t the focus of The Personal MBA, this is handy information that can save you tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars, so I hope you enjoy this detailed “how-to" post on using Massively Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) to earn college credit. Here’s Jay.

Josh

Josh’s 2009 post on Hacking Higher Education via CLEP exams changed my life forever.

When I discovered it, I was in the same boat as many of today’s students. Close to graduating, but stuck waiting for my school to offer the classes I needed. I was staring down a two year journey to graduate…and it wasn’t because I couldn’t work faster. The school just wouldn’t let me! So I waited, stewing in frustration and searching for a way forward.

The CLEP hack was a new lease on life. After reading Josh’s post, I switched schools, studied my ass off and graduated in four months. Along the way, though, it stopped being about my own degree and became a personal crusade to help others. As an experienced writer for companies like TurboTax, I used my research skills to launch The DIY Degree and push credit-by-exam to its fullest potential…

  • Discovering four additional exam formats. (CLEP is just the beginning…)
  • Cataloging 150+ exams by format, subject, credit classification, passing score, cost, and whether they are graded or pass/fail.
  • Investigating the customized “challenge exams" your school can create for non-CLEP subjects.
  • Batching similar exams together for rapid credit accumulation.
  • Identifying self-paced online courses for students who aren’t good test-takers (or “math people.")
  • Coaching students ranging from recent high school grads to middle-aged IT employees to the VP of a globally-recognized software giant.

Today, I’m thrilled to share the next generation of degree hacking: turning Massively Open Online Courses into real college credit. If you want to supplement your self-education with a credential (without mortgaging your future) this post is for you.


Higher education is abuzz about the potential of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to make college less expensive, more customizable, and location independent for future students.

The wheels are in motion:

If these experiments succeed, students will someday be able to earn MOOC credits in every subject imaginable. This is great news for independent learners, but like most things in academia, it could take years to become a mainstream credit option.

In November 2012, The Chronicle of Higher Education warned students not to expect any immediate relief:

[Coursera co-founder] Ms. Koller stressed that the new arrangement is merely a pilot project, and that the courses have to pass muster before they win admission to ACE Credit… “I don’t want people to say, ‘Can I get credit for my MOOC tomorrow?’" she said. “The answer is No. We haven’t even started assessing these MOOC’s."

Although four of Coursera’s offerings earned ACE recommendation in February 2013, widespread credit redemption is still a long way off for most courses.

Fortunately, there is a way to turn MOOCs into credits right now.

Portfolio Learning Assessment: The MOOC Credit Path of Today

With a little planning, students can use a strategy known as Portfolio Learning Assessment (PLA) to apply their MOOC learning toward graduation.

PLA lets you create a portfolio demonstrating college-level mastery of a subject. Your portfolio gets reviewed by school evaluators and, if it matches the caliber of classroom instruction, you get credit toward graduation.

Despite general assumptions, PLA is not a way to get easy credit on the honor system. You cannot simply claim “life experience" and leapfrog a course without proving anything. Rather, PLA only awards credit for documented, college-level learning.

Luckily, this is precisely what MOOCs—which are modeled after real courses from prestigious universities—provide! In the process of completing one, you obtain the kinds of credible documentation a credit-granting portfolio calls for:

  • Graded assignments
  • Course projects
  • Noncredit certificates of completion
  • Transcripts of forum posts or group discussions (in peer-to-peer MOOCs)
  • Statements of accomplishment (in professor-led MOOCs)

Turning MOOCs into credit with PLA is not a fantasy or theoretical ideal. It is possible right now using existing processes. As Chari Leader Kelly, vice-president of leading PLA organization LearningCounts.org, recently told Inside Higher Education:

“We are set up to do that. The infrastructure is there."

Let’s explore how it works.

Getting Started: 6 Steps to MOOC Credit via Portfolio Learning Assessment

I spoke to Chari in preparation for this post to learn more about the step-by-steps. Although LearningCounts.org is not the only PLA facilitator, they offer a proven path for MOOC credit conversion and serve as a solid example.

STEP 1: Enroll in a college that offers Portfolio Learning Assessment. Here is a list of schools that use LearningCounts.org to administer their PLA programs. These colleges are set up for this process and ready to walk you through it. A $500, three-credit course on portfolio development is required as a starting point.

STEP 2: Target which course(s) you want to earn portfolio credit for. Your portfolio needs to show that you accomplished the learning outcomes of a specific course at the college you attend. Since PLA is not as cheap or automated as other credit paths, it pays to amortize the cost and effort by creating a portfolio for several subjects at once (say, a cluster of computer science courses.) LearningCounts.org allows up to 12 credits in a single portfolio. In any case, list out the exact names and numbers of the courses you are targeting from your school’s course catalog.

STEP 3: Identify MOOCs that offer learning outcomes similar to those courses. The biggest consideration that Chari stressed to me was the importance of learning outcome equivalency. You might want to earn portfolio credit for Excelsior College’s “Operating Systems" course, for instance, but that does not necessarily mean a MOOC in this subject covers the same material. If the PLA evaluator decides your MOOC was too shallow or introductory, you can be denied credit.

To avoid this, locate a syllabus like this one for any course you are considering. Then compare it with the course description of the MOOCs you want to use and make sure they are at least roughly similar.

Pay special attention to any final exams or projects in the syllabus. These tell you the level of achievement required by the course and serve as an “upper bound" on how much you need to know to earn credit. If your school’s “Intro to Marketing" course requires a marketing plan as the final project, for example, you want a MOOC that shows you how to write one.

STEP 4: Inform an advisor about your portfolio plans. It is critical to share your portfolio plans with a PLA advisor. They are the arbiters of what you will receive credit for, and their stamp of approval will motivate you through the portfolio creation process. They can also confirm your portfolio credits will count toward your major, rather than being recorded as electives.

I suggest using some variation of this email script when you are ready to seek advisor approval:

Hi [NAME],

I have decided to use Excelsior’s Portfolio Learning Assessment program to earn credit for college-level mastery gained from Massively Open Online Courses.

Here is the Excelsior course I want to earn PLA credit for, with a link to the course description:

ELEC-201: Digital Electronics (3 credits)

Here is the Coursera MOOC I expect will impart comparable mastery:

Digital Signal Processing

It is my intention to successfully pass this MOOC and apply my documented learning outcomes (work exercises, test scores, letters of completion, etc.) toward the construction of a credit-granting portfolio for the Excelsior course listed.

Can you confirm my plan will lead to the credits I am seeking, or help me correct course if not?

I really appreciate your help. Thanks so much!

- [YOUR NAME]

This script makes your plan clear and allows the advisor to approve or correct as needed. Continue a back-and-forth dialogue until you get the green light.

STEP 5: Take your MOOCs and document your learning along the way. If and when you get advisor approval, it’s time to actually take the MOOC. Crucially, however, you should approach the course with the desired learning outcomes in mind and gather evidence of those outcomes as you go. If you are targeting credits for an “Object Oriented Programming" course, and you write a software program during your MOOC, keep it. If it’s a professor-led course, request a statement of accomplishment at the end. If it’s a peer-to-peer course, record your forum transcripts. Save any graded assignments, tests, or papers. These materials will prove college-level mastery and become the bedrock of your portfolio.

STEP 6: Develop and submit your portfolio for evaluation. Finally, it’s time to consolidate all of your documented learning outcomes into a structured portfolio that proves you achieved the required outcomes. Although every school has different requirements for the length and layout of a portfolio (and your advisor can help you with this) they virtually all require a summary of the knowledge you will be demonstrating.

CAEL’s how-to book on PLA, “Earn Credit For What You Know", offers the following as an example for how you might introduce an evaluator to your portfolio:

Course: Web Design

Experience: My experience related to designing Web pages is best described by the following building blocks:

Understanding the client/server system and the Internet.
Using HTML to create graphs and charts and to format pages.
Using web-authoring software to create animations and effects.
Refining webpages to be user-friendly.
Creating a company Intranet.

Your advisor will assist you in expounding upon your summary and organizing your learning outcomes for the PLA evaluator. The evaluation itself costs $250. Once your learning is deemed college-level, you earn credit as planned.

Breaking Down The Costs

Paying $500 for a portfolio development course and another $250 to have your portfolio reviewed might seem steep, but consider the alternatives.

Here are the average costs of earning 12 credits according to DIY Degree’s Cost-Per-Credit Calculator :

  • Private, 4-Year University, $1,137
  • Public, 4-Year University, $316
  • Portfolio Learning Assessment, $62

Despite the up-front costs, PLA saves you hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a per-credit basis. Best of all, if your school does not limit the number of credits obtainable from PLA, you can create multiple portfolios to amortize that initial $500 fee across even more credits.

What About Credit-By-Examination?

Nationally standardized exams like CLEP and DSST offer an even faster credit path for MOOC learning. Priced at just $80-$100 apiece, they are also more cost-effective.

Unfortunately, the subjects covered by these exams are mostly the lower-level, “gen ed" courses (like English 101 or Intro to Computers) mandated by all majors, rather than the advanced, upper-level subjects needed to complete a specific one.

PLA offers a fast and cost-effective credit path for subjects that lack standardized tests. An example would be a course like “Object Oriented Programming" which has no test but is required for computer science majors. With PLA, you could take a MOOC instead and earn credit from a portfolio of your learning outcomes.

For MOOCs in general education or business subjects, credit-by-exam is the way to go. If you are targeting upper-level courses, PLA is the slightly more expensive, but superior, alternative.

Who Should Use PLA for MOOC Credit Conversion?

Portfolio Learning Assessment is for self-motivated, independent learners who are not afraid to prove what they know, including:

  • Adults with a lifetime of work experience in a subject they need college credit for.
  • Younger students who would rather take MOOCs than brick-and-mortar courses.
  • Anyone who wants to earn a degree without breaking the bank.

What Does This Mean For Self-Learners?

I always encourage students to develop an internal locus of control over their college career by using the best accelerators currently available instead of waiting for uncertain future reforms. I also support putting effectiveness before ego by doing what works even when it is not “the normal way."

While it would be nice to not have to use circuitous workarounds like this, MOOC conversion via PLA offers one of the highest returns on investment available in today’s college system—and a practical way to graduate faster.

Even if you already have a degree (or never wanted one) this is still a victory for you. Every step colleges take in this direction supports a future when what you know trumps how you learned it, and the collapse of antiquated barriers is something we can all celebrate!


Jay Cross is the founder of The Do-It-Yourself Degree , where he helps thousands of independent learners who rapidly accelerate their college degrees with low-cost methods like credit by examination.


Published: May 3, 2013 Last updated: May 3, 2013

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