Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, usually don’t cost a dime, but there are benefits for those who pay to enroll, experts say.
Proponents of MOOCs have lauded this form of education for providing learning opportunities at no charge to anyone around the world with an Internet connection. Still, some have questioned MOOCs’ true effectiveness, especially given their low student completion rates.
In the past few years, experts say, major MOOC providers Coursera and edX – both of which partner with colleges and universities to develop online classes have turned to models in which students have the option to either audit a MOOC for free, or pay usually about $30 to $150 to earn a “verified certificate” indicating successful completion.
Unlike the free certificates that the companies offered in the past, verification ensures the authenticity and value of the credential, Coursera and edX officials say.
Those pursuing the verified certificate option must prove their identity through photo and government-issued ID validation processes via webcam, and pass the class by meeting exam and assignment requirements.
“We see a larger and larger number of our learners, especially in courses that confer direct benefits for instance, to one’s career opting to pay for the certificate, posting it to their LinkedIn profile, using it in the job search and so on,” says Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera.
Coursera and edX aren’t the only companies to turn away from the concept of free certificates in online learning. Udacity, which provides affordable programming and technology online courses, now primarily offers project-based nanodegree programs costing about $200 a month, typically for six to 12 months to complete.
However, the company does offer a limited number of verified certificates for single courses.
Other companies, such as European-based online education provider iversity.org, also provide certificates to learners who pay and fulfill MOOC requirements.
The use of verified certificates, experts say, is just one example of the growth of microcredentials in online education. Another is digital badges, which highlight specific skills and competencies gained from online classes.
Prospective MOOC learners should consider these five reasons to pay for a verified certificate.
1. Show off skills on a resume or portfolio: Coursera and edX officials say verified certificates are ideal for posting online, and students can also mention the certificate on a job application or resume.
“A verified certificate is an important credential that students are proud to own and share on their LinkedIn profiles or on social media,” says Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX.
2. Ensure authenticity and value: Employers who know that a student passed an online course and earned a certificate that’s verified are more likely to view the credential as legitimate, experts say.
Certificates generally indicate both the institution and company from which they were earned, and employers can typically verify their authenticity online.
“How is somebody going to take this credential seriously if it’s just multiple choice and it’s published somewhere and anyone can do it? It’s not going to have any validity,” says Chris Caplice, the executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Center for Transportation & Logistics, who develops and teaches MOOCs with the verified certificate option.
Both Coursera and edX confirm a learner’s identity through photo and government-issued ID verification via webcam. Coursera also uses typing pattern recognition to confirm students’ identities based on the time between their keystrokes and the duration they press down different keys.
3. Have greater incentive to learn and complete the MOOC: In edX MOOCs, the average completion rate among learners who sign up for a verified certificate is about 60 percent – 10 times higher than students taking the class for free, says Agarwal.
Kelly Walsh, chief information officer at the College of Westchester, completed a Coursera MOOC last year on how to assess and teach 21st-century skills. He says earning the certificate was a key motivating factor.
“It did add a level of commitment, because otherwise you can kind of walk away at any point, and you might be disappointed in yourself, but other than that you’re not really losing anything, per se,” the 53-year-old says.
4. Get a shot at college credit, if possible: Though it’s not yet common, there are some instances where verified certificates can translate to college credits, experts say.
For example, students who complete five supply chain management MIT MOOCs through edX and a final exam can receive what the school calls a “MicroMaster’s” credential. If they then apply to MIT and are admitted, they are qualified to gain credits in MIT’s blendedgraduate master’s degree program.
5. Gain possible access to additional services by paying: Students who pay for the certificate might also get access to features that those taking it for free do not.
For instance, Koller says that in many career-related MOOCs, Coursera has started incorporating the ability for paying students to submit and receive feedback on graded work.
“That category of users has access to the entire experience, and the others are basically auditing the class, similar to how one audits at a university,” she says.
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