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You Can Now Earn Real College Credit From Online Education Provider Coursera

Free courses from 33 top global universities + an online exam from a third party + a small fee = a radically cheap alternative to college education for millions of students.

This morning, Coursera, the "massively open online course" or MOOC platform founded by two Stanford professors, announced that they’d be partnering with ACE, the American Council on Education, to offer a path to college credit for select courses.

Coursera currently offers over 200 free courses consisting of video, multiple choice tests, and exercises graded by computer, and in some courses peer-graded papers, combined with social features like forums. About 1.6 million people have signed up to take a Coursera course; along with its competitors Udacity and edX, Coursera’s MOOCs are roiling the world of higher ed with their potential for disruption.

This announcement takes the disruption one step further. The venture-funded company licenses the content from 33 top global universities including Stanford, Penn, Brown, Berkeley, Princeton, and more; writing about the the company last fall, these university presidents were quick to establish that they wouldn’t be awarding credit for offerings on Coursera lest they compete with their own business model.

However, ACE, has been independently certifying courses for college credit since 1974, charging nominal fees ($40 for a transcript). They award college credit for Microsoft software certifications, for example. Starting early next year, anyone who successfully completes one of the selected Coursera courses will have the chance to take a proctored exam over the web from ACE, pay a small fee, and earn credit that could be accepted at up to 2,000 universities nationwide.

The move comes in the midst of a struggle in the ed-tech movement over business models and openness. The issue is this: beginning with MIT’s Open CourseWare in 2001, the world’s greatest public and nonprofit universities started offering access to some of their professors’ lectures, notes, and other materials online for free. The stuff was under Creative Commons license, meaning anyone could use it or re-use it as they saw fit; but the material—45-minute, amateur-recorded lectures, years-old problem sets—often just sat there, as hard to find and underutilized as books moldering in the library stacks. That changed last January when Stanford’s open online AI course, based on short, snappy videos and quizzes, went viral, with over 200,000 signups. Enter the venture capitalists. That same educational material, funded by taxpayer money and private philanthropy, that used to be available to anyone for free is now being served on a platform that makes it easier to use, but places restrictions on its reuse and may have fees associated with it in the future. Now MOOCs may be very, very popular, but they’re not really open anymore.

A similar kerfuffle was raised a couple of weeks ago when Flat World Knowledge, a publisher of Creative Commons-licensed textbooks, announced that they would no longer offer free online access to their materials; David Wiley, one of the originators of open content licensing and the "openness advisor" to Flat World Knowledge, was caught off guard by the decision.

Bloggers coming out of the open content world have accordingly been raising concerns about everything from the fine print of Coursera’s licensing agreements to the pedagogical soundness of multiple choice quizzes and peer grading to the term MOOC itself. MOOCs were pioneered, and the term coined, seven or eight years ago by ed-tech figures like George Siemens and Stephen Downes who were consciously committed to free and open-source content and software, and a new wiki-style of learning enabled by the web where everyone teaches everyone else, dubbed "connectivism"; the corporate MOOC is not only much bigger but far more conventional and commercial. Is openness dead, or will it come back to fight another round?