As former Princeton President William G. Bowen points out in his new book, “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” the ability of students to earn credits for MOOCs promises to be a game-changer. “The biggest opportunity for MOOCs to raise productivity system-wide, and to lower costs, may well lie in finding effective ways for third parties to certify the ‘credit-worthiness’ of their courses — and the success of students in passing them,” Bowen writes.

For Coursera the February news that it had received approval from the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT) to offer five courses for credit was a breakthrough. Here’s how the credit is awarded — or not.

The Washington, D.C., based ACE has more than 1,800 higher education institution members and guides the standardization of college credit. ACE CREDIT was established in 1974 to connect workplace learning with colleges and universities by helping adults gain academic credit for formal courses and examinations taken outside of traditional degree programs.

ACE noted that a student can earn its credit by signing up for an eligible course in Coursera’s Signature Track and then take an online proctored credit exam at the end of the course. ACE is working with a third-party provider, ProctorU.

While Coursera’s class offerings are free, there are extra costs for receiving college credit. Coursera’s Signature Track lets students in selected classes earn a verified certificate (sign-up fees may range from $30 to $99, exams from $60 to $79). Student verification is linked to photo ID and unique typing pattern. ProctorU connects students with a live proctor who, in addition to guiding the student through the exam process, will verify student identity by requesting a photo ID, recording the student’s image, and asking a variety of questions. Its general fees are $14.75 for an hour test and $30.24 for three hours.

“Students who meet all requirements and successfully complete one of these five pre-approved courses may request a transcript with credit recommendations from ACE, which they can then present to the college or university of their choice for prerequisite or undergraduate credit consideration, to be granted at the discretion of the institution,” says ACE.

ACE CREDIT recommends the equivalent of two to three college credits per course. Students can get a transcript (each transcript can contain multiple recommended credits) for an initial charge of $40, which includes registration and the first transcript. Additional transcripts cost $15 per transcript. ACE does not currently charge students for credit recommendations.

Since no credits have yet to be issued through Coursera, an agreement between Udacity (another online education provider) and San Jose University may become an industry standard. Udacity posts on its website that “Each class costs $150 and credit earned is transferable within the California State University (CSU) system and to most U.S. colleges and universities.”

Says Coursera’s Daphne Koller: “Many students face enormous financial obstacles in pursuit of their degrees. We want to help more students enter college with credit already accrued and exit college on time, on budget, and with a degree in hand.”

This new development suggests that Koller’s hope is on its way to a reality.

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