MOOCs combined with prior learning assessment equals college credits

by Grace

MOOCs (massively open online courses) combined with the established practice of prior learning assessment (PLA) may become a more common way to earn college credits, even at traditional schools.  The growing interest in this combination is occurring as the push toward college for all is escalating and college costs are skyrocketing.

Prior learning assessment is a process used by colleges and universities around the world to evaluate learning acquired outside the classroom for the purpose of assigning academic credit.

Loosely defined, there are four primary methods of assessing learning outside the classroom: through student portfolios; ACE credit recommendations based on corporate or military training programs; reviews conducted by individual colleges; and exams used to verify “learning achievements.” Those exams include the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), Excelsior College Exams and the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests….

Skepticism is understandable.

Not everyone in higher education is ready to shower prior learning with roses. The practice remains controversial in many circles, particularly at more selective colleges that are unwilling to accept credits for experiential learning, sometimes even when ACE (the association to which virtually all of them belong) makes those credit recommendations. More than half of colleges accept some form of prior learning credit, however.

Prior learning assessment is a “shallow measure,” says Johann Neem, an associate professor of history at Western Washington University who has written critically of prior learning. By conflating an education with certification, prior learning fails to take stock of the sophisticated thinking and original ideas that come from real college-level learning, he says.

The bulk of PLA credits awarded today seems to occur at community colleges or online schools.  In one example, restaurant managers attending McDonald’s Hamburger University receive an average recommendation of 23 college credits.  This seems appropriate in the acquisition of a vocational-like business degree, but how does that translate to other fields of study?

The entry of prestigious professors

Many traditionalists in higher education, particularly at selective colleges, have been skeptical of prior learning assessment. But that may be more difficult when the learning occurs with the tutelage of professors at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. And MOOCs might also make contributions to how prior learning is measured.


Here’s how the process could work: A student successfully completes a MOOC, like Coursera’s Social Network Analysis, which will be taught this fall by Lada Adamic, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. The student then describes what he or she learned in that course, backing it up with proof, in a portfolio developed with the help of or another service, perhaps offered by a college.

Generally those portfolios contain a broad array of demonstrated learning, like work experience and training, volunteering or even the voracious reading of a history buff. But MOOCs, such as those from Coursera, EdX, Udacity and Udemy, likely will be part of portfolios in the near future….

… if the final product passes muster with a CAEL-affiliated faculty member with discipline-specific expertise, the student could qualify for a credit recommendation that matches up with an equivalent course from a regionally accredited college. That credit recommendation, say for three credits in a course on social media, would have the backing of the American Council on Education (ACE), which runs the most established credit recommendation service.

With that document in hand, the student could then enroll in one of the many colleges that accept ACE’s recommendations, or the scores of colleges that have agreed to participate in That means the student, having taken a free online course, taught by a professor from the University of Michigan and taken by tens of thousands of people around the world, could walk away with three credits from Argosy University, the University of Maryland University College or George Washington University, to pick a few partner institutions.

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