It sounds almost too good to be true, but UCLA students may soon be able to get credit for completing free online courses.

On Nov. 13, the American Council for Education, an organization representing college presidents around the country, announced that it would begin a review of the massive open online courses offered by the company Coursera.

In particular, the council will review between five and 10 courses and decide whether or not to recommend these for course credit.

However, the ultimate deciding factor for UCLA students is the University of California. However the council rules, the final decision over whether to accept these courses will be made by UC faculty, said Susan Wilbur, the executive director of admissions at UCLA.

The UC system would do well to accept and integrate these courses ­”“ and do so as soon as possible. By granting credit for these courses, UCLA will move to the forefront of the future of higher education: Massive open online courses, for now, are here to stay.

According to an analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, studies comparing online to face-to-face instruction showed that, on average, “students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

While the University of California is developing its own online initiative, UC Online, Coursera as a whole should be treated like any other institution, online or not, that seeks to have its classes transferred to UCLA.

As a plus, Coursera’s classes are taught by professors from world-renowned universities, including Stanford University, Duke University and our very own University of California, San Francisco.

Assuming these courses are indeed of the same caliber as those offered on campus, making Coursera an option would be a boon to students.

Moreover, it’s no secret that UCLA has been strapped for funding in the last few years.

Integrating Coursera courses into classes or degree requirements could be an innovative solution to some of the funding problems. By outsourcing select general education requirements to professors that are, by their employment, clearly qualified, UCLA could plan on offering fewer large lectures on campus, and ease the stress on our own professors.

Best of all, Coursera courses wouldn’t cost UCLA much: The company, which just launched in April, is funded in large part by venture capitalists and charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a prominent source of education initiatives in the United States.

The company has also made proposals to generate future revenue by offering paid tutoring, allowing advertisements on its website or even charging tuition fees on universities that host their courses.

The approximate per-course tuition cost with proctored exams (to prevent cheating) is estimated to be about $150 ““ substantially less than UCLA’s.

Two major criticisms online projects like Coursera face are that it is difficult to actively engage students and, with little oversight, it is easy to cheat on projects and exams.

To address the first issue, online discussion forums provide ample opportunity for student participation.

UCLA already uses an online forum for many of its classes. The Common Collaboration and Learning Environment, or CCLE, provides a space for students to ask their peers and professors questions and discuss readings and lectures.

Students who tend to be quiet in traditional classroom settings are forced to contribute to discussion questions in most online courses, said Ronald Mellor, a professor of history at UCLA who taught his first online course this past summer.

If students are required to post in such online forums at regular times each week, they could serve a similar function as discussion sections in on-campus classes.

Secondly, Coursera will have to find ways to successfully prevent cheating ““ a challenge, considering enrollment in these courses can reach upward of 100,000 students. Coursera can’t pass the council’s review without adequately addressing this issue.

Along these lines, the company has announced plans to partner with outside organizations to monitor these tests remotely.

These companies would provide webcams and other technology to allow their employees to verify students’ identification and ensure they do not cheat on exams.

These challenges are not unique. UCLA already accepts transfer credits for online courses taken at community colleges ““ which have had to address the same issues.

If Coursera manages to adequately ensure quality and authenticity in spite of large enrollment, there is no reason why online courses shouldn’t be treated like any other transferable class.

Email Bensley at lbensley@media.ucla.edu.
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