The Points Don’t Matter: MOOCs, Resumes, and Learning

Finish LineConsider this an addendum to my last post recapping the recent Coursera Partners Conference in London. As I mentioned in that post, Coursera sees a problem with its Statements of Accomplishment. Students earn these free statements when they complete courses (MOOCs) running on Coursera. Apparently, employers are starting to assign value to the SoAs they see on job applicants’ resumes. Coursera is worried that if this continues, there will be less incentive for students to pay for “verified certificates” on Coursera’s Signature Track. Udacity announced last week that they are discontinuing their version of SoAs, and it seems likely that Coursera will do so, too, in the near future.

During the very same keynote in which Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng hinted at this move away from Statements of Accomplishment, Ng also shared the story of Andy, an Amherst College grad who took a data analysis course from Johns Hopkins on Coursera and used what he learned in that course to land a quantitative analyst job. (Coursera’s Julie Stiglitz also shared Andy’s story in her recent Fast Company essay.) It struck me that Andy didn’t get that job because he had a particular course on his resume — he got the job because he learned something in that course and demonstrated his learning during the interview process.

A few years ago, Dan Cohen said something on the Digital Campus podcast that has always stuck with me. The discussion was about careers in the digital humanities. As I recall, Dan argued that, when considering a potential recruit for his digital humanities center, he was much more interested in seeing what the applicant had built or made than what was listed on the applicant’s resume.

I’ve been thinking of the role that MOOCs play on the job market in a similar way. Knowing someone completed a MOOC doesn’t say much about what that person knows or can do. My experience in #FutureEd, where completion was determined by one’s score on quizzes and the quizzes had no wrong answers, bears this out. However, a person can learn something useful in a MOOC and demonstrate that learning in an interview, as Andy apparently did. Or someone can create something interesting to fulfill a MOOC assignment and show that to a potential employer.

If a line on the resume doesn’t count nearly as much as the demonstration of learning, then what use is a Statement of Accomplishment? Or, more to the point, what use is a Signature Track “verified certificate”?

One might ask, what use is a transcript from a traditional college or university? It’s true that we make assumptions about what we see on transcripts. If a student got an A in a particular course, then we assume the student has some mastery of the content of that course. Not all students with an A in that course will have done so, but the odds are actually pretty good, thanks to the structures that colleges and universities use to ensure course quality. Courses are vetted by faculty committees or departments before they’re added to course catalogs. And there’s usually a department chair or associate dean who looks at data from each offering of a course — student grades, course evaluations — to make sure that the course is being taught with some level of rigor.

It’s significant that MOOCs don’t have these same structures. Quality control happens in different ways for different MOOCs, but there’s not a lot of transparency about those mechanisms. On the other hand, if you’re an employer and would like to see what assessments a particular MOOC uses to judge course completion, you can probably find out — anyone can enroll in a MOOC, after all. That kind of transparency is rare in more traditional educational settings.

I’m not sure what to conclude about all this, but I suspect that, until we have a better way of understanding what “MOOC course completion” means in terms of student learning, those resume lines (whether free statements or paid certificates) won’t matter nearly as much as what students can do with what they’ve learned in a MOOC. And I’m kind of okay with that, since I think students should be able to do something with what they’ve learned in the courses we offer, MOOC or otherwise.

Image: “Finish Line,” US Navy, Flickr (CC)

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