The concept of remote learning has been threatening to revolutionize the world of education since the days of mail correspondence course, but has always been held back by the same problem: how to verify that the person taking the course is completing the work themselves, and is not cheating.
A new pilot program from edX—a non-profit that has partnered with the likes of MIT, Harvard, Rice, Georgetown and others to deliver free courses—is seeking to change all of that. If it succeeds, it may well provide the piece of the puzzle that finally removes the cost and location barriers to gaining a quality education, especially for those who want the flexibility to continue working while they gain a new qualification.
To try to solve the student verification problem, edX has launched a pilot program to provide verified Certificates of Achievement to students who successfully complete the courses. While the courses remain open to all (edX operates on the MOOC—or Massive Open Online Course—model), students who want to gain a Certificate of Achievement now have the option of validating their identity and, if they pass, attaining a certificate for the course. Here's how edX describes the verification process on their site:
"Using a series of photos of you and your ID, we are able to verify that you are the person completing your work in the course. When you complete and pass the course, your verified certificate provides a level of comfort to others who may want assurance about the authenticity of your edX coursework."
While the details of exactly how that will work are a little unclear, the initiative is a definite sign that the edX team recognize that there is a key difference between the concept of spreading knowledge to as wide an audience as possible, and of its students actually being able to benefit in tangible ways from that knowledge.
Having completed an edX course earlier this year—my account is here—I can personally vouch for the fact that there is nothing lacking in terms of challenge or educational rigor with edX's offerings. But, while taking the course, there is no doubt that it would have been possible for me to cut corners, to pass off others' work as my own, and even to have a subject-matter-savvy friend take the mid-terms and finals for me. Hard as I worked for it, I accepted from the outset that there was no way my new-found knowledge would have anything like the credibility of the qualifications I gained at accredited institutions that I actually had to attend in person. But that's something that edX is working to change. In an email announcing the initiative, they expressly stated that "our goal is to make it easier for you to show an employer, admissions officer or your friends proof of the hard work you and you alone put in at edX."
The larger question, of course, is whether employers will get to the point where they're willing to recognize qualifications from the likes of edX or Coursera. While there will always be people who want to take these courses to build their skills and knowledge, the ability to turn that into employment currency is a key consideration for many. In a Slate piece examining the broader implications of the move for the higher education industry, edX president and MIT professor Anant Agarwal "notes that many people have begun to list edX classes on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles. 'It is definitely serving as a currency already,' he says."
Other developments in the field also point to the eventual acceptance of such courses as legitimate career currency. Most notable, to date, is AT&T's tie-up with the Georgia Institute of Technology and online education provider Udacity to create a $7,000 masters in computer science—a program that AT&T is planning to use to further its own employees' educations.
While edX's programs at the moment are a little more scattershot, it too is seeking to get into a more structured, track-like approach to its courses—in addition to its announcement on certification, edX also rolled out its XSeries certifications this week. Currently limited to just two fields of study—Foundations of Computer Science and Supply Chain Management, both from MIT's curriculum—the XSeries certificates are awarded to students who successfully complete a number of modules and, according to edX "demonstrates a level of achievement that you can use to advance your career or simply impress yourself."
Whether or not such qualifications are worth pursuing at this point depends entirely on your perspective. If you're looking to gain a qualification that will open doors and guarantee a job in a field of your choice, you'd probably be better off sticking with a traditional institution for the time being; not only is it more likely to be recognized, but physical institutions come will all sorts of benefits like alumni networks and career services professionals that simply don't exist in the digital realm (or not yet, anyway). However, if you're in simply looking to pick up a new skill to apply to an existing job, or simply for your own satisfaction, then courses like edX's may well be what you're looking for. And, with a price tag of 'free' there's nothing stopping you from trying something before making the leap to a more formal educational setting.
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