Coursera credentials today, full Coursera-powered degrees tomorrow?

Barely a year into their existence, massive open online course (MOOC) providers, like Coursera EdX and Udacity, are starting to offer certificates that can be put toward university credit. But are full MOOC degrees on the horizon?

When asked that question by New York Times education reporter Laura Pappano on stage at the SXSWedu education technology conference in Austin Wednesday, Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng gave the diplomatic reply:

“Coursera isn’t a university. We don’t offer degrees of academic credit. We’re a humble hosting platform.”

To which Anant Agarwal, president of the nonprofit EdX, quipped: “a very politically correct answer” (drawing a round of laughter from the audience).

Ng’s response was hardly surprising given Coursera’s reliance on university partners, including Princeton, Brown and 60 other institutions, to populate its site with courses.

The startup wouldn’t be much of a partner if it planned to take on academia with a degree of its own. But just because Coursera says it doesn’t intend to issue degrees or their equivalent, it doesn’t mean that others don’t eventually plan to do just that.

Reacting to Ng’s comment, Degreed, a startup that scores and validates learning from all kinds of educational sources, tweeted:

Building on the rise of nonaccredited courses from sources like the MOOC providers and iTunesU, Degreed’s premise is that as people build skills through informal education providers, they will need an alternative to the traditional degree. Although they don’t share Degreed’s ambitions for “jailbreaking” the college degree, startups LearningJar and Smarterer similarly aim to assess informal education.

After the onstage conversation, Agarwal told me on the sidelines that he believes that pure MOOC degrees are on their way.

“Universities are already giving full degrees for online education, for distance online education, so what is different? Extension school programs and online programs are already giving full degrees. So why is this anything special?,” he said.

EdX, like Coursera, he emphasized, doesn’t want to be a university — “it’s a platform, a portal and a community.” But in the next year, schools will step forward to accept credit equivalency from MOOC providers and some may be willing to award full degrees from credits accrued on those sites, he said. In addition, as the entire value of a traditional degree comes under increased scrutiny, other companies outside academia could step in to validate and provide degree equivalents.

But even if MOOC-providers like Coursera and EdX are opening the door to alternatives to the traditional university degree, founders of both organizations said they rejected disruptive innovation expert and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s assessment that half of universities may be bankrupt in the next fifteen years.

“I think that would be a tragedy,” said Ng. “I think that there’s something very important, almost sacred about the student-professor relationship.” Instead of online education leading to the replacement of brick-and-mortar education, Ng said his belief is that MOOCs will have the biggest impact on working adults who don’t have a college degree and can use Coursera (or Udacity or EdX) courses to earn credits that they can put towards traditional degrees.

Agarwal said, “I love Clay Christensen but he’s just flat out wrong.”