Last winter, in an attempt to fight the doldrums of spending winter break in a city where snow rendered everyone homebodies, I began taking a free online course offered by the much sunnier University of California, Berkeley. While taking the “10-week” course, I learned about neuroscience and psychology through lectures and outside reading material.
It was a course that was just as academic as my Barnard classes—maybe even more so. Unfortunately, though, it won’t ever appear on my transcript. Barnard and Columbia don’t award academic credit for free online classes.
The class I took last winter break was a massive open online course, or a MOOC. MOOCs are free online courses offered through institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, and even our own university, Columbia. Yes, you heard that right—you can take free online classes offered by Columbia. Right now, edX, one of the leading MOOC providers, lists that Columbia offers classes on topics like the Civil War, and will be offering classes on data science within the month.
I’m not sure why it’s against University policy to receive credit for these classes. The free online class I took last year not only kept me intellectually engaged, but also added some structure to my break.
As I progressed through the course, I took quizzes to assess my learning. Since I was taking the class for my own enjoyment, I spent a significant amount of time perusing outside journal articles and other readings to enhance my learning. And, just as in any course at Columbia, there were times when I felt like my eyes were glazing over because the material was redundant. But I persisted and successfully completed the course in only three weeks—not because of the lack of rigor, but because I was engaged and committed.
But when I approached my professors with the prospect of receiving credit for MOOCs, the majority of them responded with indignation. One professor even seemed offended by the idea. Yet another professor contended that there would be no way to prove that I actually did the work assigned in a MOOC, as if Columbia’s honor codes didn’t even exist!
I think that these professors’ opinions on online classes are overly simplistic. I, too, was skeptical about MOOCs when I first read about them in Inside Higher Ed a few years ago. However, now that I’ve taken a few, I believe that they can offer students a new way to learn about topics they are interested in, provide much needed structure to winter and summer breaks, and allow students to learn in a new way. Offering credit for MOOCs, commensurate with time invested, would also incentivize students to remain academically engaged while on vacation, and would help students develop a stronger sense of agency in their education.
There are a number of ways in which a process for receiving credit for MOOCs could be implemented. To date, it is against policy to award credit to students for free online classes. However, according to current University convention, students are permitted to complete “independent study” projects. While enrolled in independent study projects, students traditionally work alongside a professor over the course of a semester.
Why not disrupt this paradigm? The average amount of time I spend on my favorite course this semester, a three-credit class on foreign cities, is seven hours a week. Over 15 weeks, the length of a semester, that’s roughly 100 hours. For the Georgetown University MOOC I took over the summer, Introduction to Bioethics, I spent roughly 70 hours working on the online modules and outside readings for enjoyment. Why not receive 1.5 or two credits for it?
It has been argued that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to monitor and gauge the academic growth of students enrolled in MOOCs. However, if that is the main concern of professors and administrators, students could easily produce portfolios of reading reflections, and perhaps maybe even a research paper. Other people argue that there is something “lost” in taking an online class as opposed to one in a physical classroom; indeed, there is. It is difficult to self-actualize as a student by looking up to your professors when they’re not physically in front of you, when you can’t talk to them. But I believe that what is lost in the disembodied classroom is easily made up for in the sense of agency that these classes can help students develop.
Taking a MOOC can be a terrible experience. They’re not for everyone. After taking classes through Cleveland State University, Barnard, Columbia, and virtually through UC Berkeley and Georgetown, I’ve had a fair share of both positive and negative academic experiences. But considering the benefits, what does Columbia have to lose in offering independent study credit for MOOCs? I would think that an institution with the goal of educating students should be more than willing to accommodate, and maybe even encourage, students who want to take free online classes.
This winter break, just as I’ve done for the past few breaks, I’ll be taking a free online class or two. Would it be too daring to ask for some credit?
The author is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in urban studies.
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