Coursera takes step to enable students to receive college credit for its courses

Since launching in April, Coursera has been on a tear, enrolling more than 1.8 million students and forging partnerships with 33 top-tier universities from around the world.

But, to date, the vast majority of Coursera students haven’t been able to receive credit for their online classes or count them toward a degree.

If all goes according to plan, however, that could change in a matter of months because, on Tuesday, the startup announced that it was working with the American Council on Education (ACE) to evaluate credit equivalency for its courses.

“Ever since we launched Coursera, we’ve known that university degrees are important,” said Coursera co-founder and Stanford professor Andrew Ng. “We wanted a more systematic way for students to earn academic credit… This is just a step in that direction.”

Over the past few months, a few institutions, including the University of Helsinki and the University of Washington, have unilaterally announced that they would award credit for some Coursera courses. And, last month, the Palo Alto startup announced a licensing deal with Antioch College that would enable Antioch students to take some Coursera courses for college credit, at a cost that is less than the per-credit cost of traditional courses.

But the ACE evaluation could make Coursera offerings eligible for credit at potentially 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities, the company said. The evaluation process will start in early 2013 and, assuming ACE makes a positive recommendation on at least a few Coursera courses, Ng said they hope to announce the eligible courses in “a small number of months.” To earn credit, students will need to successfully complete the course, sit for an identity-verified, remote-proctored exam and pay a “modest” fee.

Some of the concern and criticism surrounding Coursera and other startups offering MOOCs (or massive open online courses) – particularly on the part of higher education institutions threatened by a new regime — is that they could replace traditional colleges and universities. But Ng said that by offering credit-bearing classes, Coursera not only aims to give students more access to an affordable education but an on-ramp to a college degree.  For higher ed institutions fearful of losing relevance amid the march of MOOCs, that’s likely a reassuring sentiment.

“We’re hoping that it will allow adults to take the first step to going back to school to earn that degree,” Ng said.