How to use MOOCs for College Credit

What is a MOOC?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as they exist today are really quite new- most date their official emergence as 2012.   The concept is simple:  a trusted college shares -for free- their course content for anyone with a desire to learn!  For years, decades really, there have been avenues available to those who wanted to learn something (library, anyone?) but MOOCs are different, very different.  MOOCs are real classes, taught by real professors, and really available online for you to use.  There is no college credit awarded by the college, mainly because there is no accountability or responsibility- in other words, you’ll listen to lectures and do the reading, but you won’t be graded.  The up-side is you can try your hand at any subject and simply drop out if it’s not for you.  No harm, no foul, no permanent record.

Why use MOOC in a homeschool?

MOOCs are fantastic homeschool tool because the student is still enrolled at home, takes the course in the home, is supervised by the parent, and the parent awards the high school credit.  In the majority of cases, the parent doesn’t have to do any grading, but they have full control over the degree that their teen completes the work.  Perhaps the parent wants to assign additional homework, but in other cases, the parent allows the teen just to follow the course independently.  There really are no “rules” here!

In addition, the majority of courses are college courses, so if your teen has a passion or talent to go beyond their high school curriculum, they can do so through a MOOC.  There are literally thousands of courses in every subject – and since most are self-paced, it’s unnecessary to study on the university’s schedule.  It’s possible to complete courses in just a week or two.

There are a few criticisms of MOOCs, one of which is poor completion rate.  That is to say student registers, but doesn’t finish.  I would argue that to be an ADVANTAGE of a MOOC!   Speaking from personal experience, I’ve registered for 4 MOOCs this semester, one through Harvard (credit-eligible) and 3 through Stanford (2 credit-eligible, 1 for enrichment only).  The Harvard course was exactly what I needed- it provided targeted education on a topic I needed on my resume.  The Stanford courses were in my area of professional expertise (nutrition) but for personal enrichment.  One of the courses was outstanding- seriously engaging and fascinating.  The teacher was amazing, and I eagerly completed the whole course and paid for the continuing education certificate ($40).  The second course was a little dry.  The certificate, if I completed the course, was free.  I dragged on through it, completed the course, but more from an obligation to earn a free continuing education credit than an engaging education.  The last course was credit eligible but wasn’t interesting, so I dropped it to do something else.  In my case, I completed 3 of 4 (75%), but if I’m being honest, I wanted to drop the third one too.  That would have brought my personal completion rate to 50%….but who cares?  Use what you want and leave the rest!

Another criticism is that students aren’t capable of “real” independent learning.  Though tempted, I won’t mount a long counter-argument here.  Instead, I’d challenge anyone who believes that to take a minute and visit the library, youtube, or enthusiast clubs.  These places are full of real independent learners.  You don’t need to pay a teacher so you can learn something, but you’re a homeschooler, you already know that! 🙂

MOOCs as high school curriculum

Here’s an example of one 12th grader’s schedule complied totally of free courses taken through edX.

  • Science:  Human Anatomy (University of Michigan)
  • Math:  College Algebra (Arizona State University)
  • Civics:  American Government (Harvard)
  • Technology:  Introduction to Computer Science (MIT)
  • Fine Arts Elective:  History of Art (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Language Arts:  AP English Literature and Composition (UC Berkeley)
  • Language Arts Elective:  Journalism for Social Change (UC Berkeley)

Earning College Credit

Option 1:  participate in a partnership

There are small but consistent efforts by some of the large MOOC providers to allow students an opportunity to earn college credit.  These verification processes differ by provider, but in short, it usually involves passing some type of proctored final exam and paying a fee.  Not all MOOCs are set up to convert into college credit, so if you’re looking for direct credit, you’ll have to choose from their lists.

One example of a formal partnership is between edX and Arizona State University.  They’ve created an entire “Global Freshman Academy” program.  (there are several others, this is just the best example because the credit goes directly to a university.)

Option 2:  DIY College Credit

The lower cost and more flexible options are to simply Do It Yourself!  In other words, by using MOOCs as your curriculum provider, you can assign high school credit (general or honors level) while simultaneously helping your teen prepare for a credit by exam option (like CLEP or AP).  Most college freshman courses follow a predictable curriculum, this is why English 101 transfers easily into another college.  The course structure is almost always very similar.  As such, you can count on a freshman MOOC taught through a university to be very similar to the content required for a CLEP exam!  Note, you’ll still want to allow time for test preparation, there are resources in the toolbar above to help you locate testing resources and practice exams, but the content will be covered through the MOOC!  And best of all, if test prep isn’t going well, you can simply choose not to do it.

Jennifer’s TOP 2 MOOCs

These guys are the heavy-hitters.  They’ve been around the longest, have the most prestigious college partners, and are well funded by philanthropists and non-profit funding.  In other words, they are highly motivated to scale their offering and create a model that sustains them for years to come.  You can’t go wrong with either of these.

Beyond my short list, there is a longer list on Wikipedia you may find useful.  Note that they don’t all offer courses taught by university professors, and some charge a fee.  I suggest you start with these 2 first:

edX  Started by Harvard and MIT in 2012.  You can take classes from top universities all over the world.  A Nice search feature allows you to filter by level (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and by language (some courses are taught in languages besides English).  They have really detailed filters that making finding the best match very user-friendly.  In addition, they have relationships with a handful of colleges to award college credit for some courses and have recently added MICRO MASTERS programs. These programs allow students to take graduate level courses that can turn into MBAs or Master’s programs at actual universities.

Coursera  Started in 2012 by 2 Stanford professors, you’ll find their setup similar to edX.  They also offer free classes from top universities all over the world.  They don’t offer individual college partnerships for undergraduate courses the way edX does, however, they do have a robust graduate program that can be rolled into college credit that rivals edX’s.  The area that I think Coursera falls a little behind edX is in website user experience.  I find it much harder to search Courser’s site – I don’t think they have a nice filter system the way edX does, but that’s splitting hairs.  They are truly a leader in this area.  The course I spoke of earlier that I enjoyed so much was on Coursera’s platform.  Child Nutrition and Cooking by Maya Adam (Stanford)

A Few Class Recommendations


edX Science and Cooking  This is more science than home ec, and an exceptional elective if your teen is interested in chemistry and culinary arts.

edX American Government  Could be used to prepare for AP or CLEP American Government exams.

edX Contract Law  My son took this course to enrich his high school Business Law Course.  This could be used to help prepare for the DSST Business Law exam.

edX Introduction to Computer Science  At Harvard, this course is used for computer science majors and non-majors.  Could be used to prepare for the AP exam.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

edX Introduction to Computer Science  At MIT, this course is used for computer science majors and non-majors. Could be used to prepare for the AP Computer Science exam.

edX Entrepreneurship 101 If you’ve read my post and free homeschool business curriculum, you’ll recognize this course as the first in the series of three Entrepreneurship courses.  My son completed all 3 as part of one high school class – the teacher is fantastic!

edX Calculus There are 3 courses in their full calculus series.  I expect them to be exceptionally rigorous.  Students can use these to est out of college calculus using CLEP or AP exams.

UC Berkeley

edX The Science of Happiness Don’t let the title fool you, this is a multidisciplinary course that merges psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology to study the scientific and chemical basis of human happiness.  Wouldn’t be enough to take the AP or CLEP Psychology exam, but could be combined with any of the other 37 Psychology courses offered at edX.

Duke University

Coursera English Composition I (first part of CLEP or AP exam option)

Coursera Introduction to Chemistry  (CLEP or AP exam option)

Columbia University

Coursera Economics of Money and Banking  (DSST exam option)


There are over 4,000 courses available through Coursera and edX, I hope you’ll enjoy some of them as much as I have!