Posted 02/13/2013 6 minutes
Written by: Nick Gidwani
Personal Development
FAQ: What is a Coursera Certificate? What’s it Worth?

What’s the deal with MOOCs?

If you aren’t familiar, Coursera is one of the leading providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), along with Udacity and edX. MOOCs are a way for Universities to put their entire curriculum for a given course — lectures, problem sets, texts and more — online for anyone to learn, using video and web-based testing. Many have called MOOCs a revolution in education, and with millions of students enrolling — many from India, Brazil and other low-income nations — it is clear that they are here to stay.

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There are three big challenges for MOOC providers. First, the most obvious, how do they make money on these free courses? Second, perhaps equally important, how can they allow students to prove the knowledge that they have gained, when there is no accredited diploma? Finally, how can they manage cheating in an online world where stealing answers is as easy as opening a new instant message window?

Coursera hopes to help solve these problems with their new certification program, called “Signature Track“.

How does it work?

So let’s say you enroll in a free Coursera course. After you enroll and the class has begun, you have about 3 weeks to decide that you want to be in the “Signature Track”, which provides proof of course completion as well as a grade on how well you performed. If you decide that you want to go with the Signature Track option, you have to take a few steps.

    1. Pay between $30-$100 (depending on the course).
    2. Submit a recognized ID such as your drivers license as well as take a picture of yourself via webcam. This gives Coursera a way to verify that you are who you say you are.
    3. Type a short writing sample, which allows them to use your “keystroke” signature like a fingerprint of sorts. They ask you to repeat this typing sample after each test — so they can be reasonably sure it was you who took the test.

After these steps, you continue taking your course, taking tests, and getting grades. Once you’ve completed the course and have your grades, you can then share your detailed course performance with employers via a web-based interface. Currently only 5 courses work on Signature Track, but Coursera wants to upgrade the majority of their 200+ courses by the end of the year.

What’s a Coursera Certificate Worth?

This is a bit more complicated.

At the end of the day, students enroll in courses to learn knowledge that will help them get ahead — get a better job or get a promotion. To be crude, to earn more money. That’s why college has usually offered among the best returns on investment of nearly anything that anyone can buy. You spend money to get a degree, then you use that degree to make more money – it’s proven that a bachelors degree has a net present value of about $450,000.

With that said, the value of a Coursera Certificate can be measured in a few wayseither its value towards an accredited degree or its stand-alone value to employers.

Since we are really just looking at the value of the Certificate, we can ignore the fact that taking a course certainly has inherent value — you will have more knowledge inside your brain afterwards than you did before. But again, that’s being offered for free already. We are merely talking about what the value to this new $30-$100 product is to your ability to make more money.

Lets take them one at a time:

How many credits (from an accredited institution) can I exchange the Coursera Certificate for towards a degree? Coursera is working with the American Council on Education (ACE) to ensure that credits that come from the Signature Track program will be honored by many of ACE’s 1,800 member schools, such as Amherst University, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon and many others. Last week, ACE said that they would recommend to their member schools that they offer 2 – 3 credits per completed Signature Track course.

However, even as ACE has recommended it, it is likely that only a portion of these schools – those with lesser reputations – will honor these credits, at least at first. Adoption will take place on a university-by-university basis, and for any given institution its unclear right now if or when it will happen. Right now the answer is: Your Coursera Certificate cannot be exchanged for any credits from any accredited institution. After ACE’s announcement, we can expect this answer will change within weeks or months.

How many credits (from an accredited institution) can I earn by using the knowledge that I gained from the Coursera course towards a degree? When you first arrive at college, most schools will allow you to test out of certain introductory level classes, which allows you to earn credits by proving that you have mastery of that particular subject — likely saving you thousands of dollars.

There is also the prior learning assessment (PLA), a more formal method of testing out, where a collegiate institution agrees that a course you took is worth a specific amount of credits by using your portfolio to determine your prior learnings, or requiring standardized test to prove said knowledge. In either of these cases, the school gives you an opportunity to earn credits for previously learned knowledge. PLAs are still quite new and while colleges are beginning to accept it, it is rare to find a top college that allows you to gain credits in this way. Still, PLAs are gaining, and it’s only a matter of time before they are more widely accepted. That said, today, PLAs are limited to community colleges and the lowest tier of universities – and none have announced that they will accept Coursera Certificates as of yet.

How will employers value my Coursera Certificate? Will it enable me to apply for better jobs, or get interviews I wouldn’t be able to get otherwise? And this, my friends, is the million dollar question, and one that cannot be answered here because its entirely based on a set of millions of changing, morphing opinions by hiring managers, executives and business owners.

That said, here is what we do know: there is some agreement that MOOCs can provide similar value to taking a course in an in-person setting, as several universities are already enrolling their students in MOOCs, with these students taking their tests in a standard proctored environment. There is also widespread agreement, at least among engineering or technical subjects, that MOOC-style courses can deliver similar, or the same, knowledge and expertise as the normal college experience. Where this falls apart is in three areas:

First, employers value predictability. Many companies have continued to recruit at the same colleges for years, with an understanding of what it means to hire a Cornell or a Boston University graduate. That reputation shifts over time, but it is still a predictable, known variable. As more MOOC students apply for, and are accepted into jobs, they will become the standard bearers for their institution. As a result, Coursera has a lot riding on their first few “classes” of graduates — they will be the first ones to solidify what it means to be a “Coursera Graduate”, even if that shifts dramatically in their first decade as they are still experimenting.

Second, a major problem facing MOOC students is that the prevalence (and ease) of online cheating makes it very hard to trust the grades that students receive in their courses. Although this can be a problem for brick and mortar universities, it is far greater of an issue for online only schools. Signature Track is perhaps the most significant step that the Coursera Certificate takes — it enables some level of proctoring to reduce (or eliminate) cheating — and all Coursera students will benefit from this.

And finally, there is hesitancy to recognize the value of courses that stress interpersonal skills that are hard to replicate online: team-based project work, communications, presentation skills and creativity. Certain majors like Sales/Marketing, Political Science, Advanced Engineering (that require teamwork and projects) and more, will have a hard time filling ranks with students that spent their time in virtual classrooms. This is likely to be a problem until MOOCs gain tools to replicate these experiences — likely a lot farther away.

What does this mean for you?

So the answer is that right now, employers are utterly confused and unclear about the value of a Coursera Certificate. That will likely change within 3-5 years, or even sooner if Coursera has a really good PR team. At the moment though, don’t expect your Coursera Certificate to get you an interview at Google!

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