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Making MOOCs Count in the College Admissions Process

By Martin Walsh

Over the last five years, web-based classes—especially massive open online courses (MOOCs)—have begun to change the way students interact with the education process. And soon, these digital approaches to learning may change the landscape (literally and figuratively) of the college admission process.
For some people, MOOCs signal a paradigm shift in education that marks the impending demise of hundreds of brick-and-mortar colleges. For others, they represent more empty claims about the ways in which technology will transform learning for everyone.
Many colleges and universities currently offer such online courses, but most have been developed at elite schools, such as MIT and Stanford. As their name implies, MOOCs are free for anyone to take, and many are taught by recognized experts in their field. The courses tend to be similar to on-campus lecture classes: introductory overviews of topics in nearly every discipline.
One recent development that has gotten a lot of attention is the new master’s program in supply chain management offered by MIT. This program will rely on MOOCs for half its credits. Interestingly, if a student finishes the one-year program’s online component (for free) but does not complete its classroom-based counterpart (at a cost), s/he still stands to earn a “MicroMaster’s”—a so-called nanodegree. This “inverted admissions” course, which allows students to “try before they buy” will begin in February 2016. Up until now, schools have been reluctant to offer academic credits for such courses; MIT’s decision may change minds.
It is clear that MOOCs are having an impact on higher education and are evolving to meet the needs of students and institutions. But how do they factor into the college application process? Many students and counselors believe that applicants who take MOOCs (in addition to their regular course load) stand out to admissions officers at colleges and universities. Is this the case? And if so, what online classes should students take?
Data about the MOOC “revolution” is still cloudy. While millions have taken at least one MOOC, only a small percentage of these learners—fewer than 15 percent—have completed them. And a smaller number still goes on to earn certificates (perhaps because MOOCs that award such a credential often cost money.)
Some commentators have been surprised by the ages of MOOC enrollees. Some might assume that young people make up the majority of such students. But just under a quarter of those who take a class from Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers, is in the 13–to–29 range. A recent UC Berkeley article explains that 79.4 percent of 35,000 MOOC enrollees surveyed already possessed a four-year degree, while 44 percent had attended some graduate school.
What follows, then, is by no means scientific, but it’s based on anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from working with hundreds of secondary school students around the world, as well as experts in the field of college and graduate school admissions.
While taking MOOCs may help students do well in college classes (more on this later), many teenagers hope their online enrollment will demonstrate their love of learning to admissions officers.
A recent New York Times article suggests that the role of online classes on college applications is still nebulous. The director of admissions at Harvard College for example, says that MOOC enrollment “falls into the category of very interesting things we’d like to know about you.”
Though this statement is open to interpretation, it sounds as if it means (at least at the most prestigious institutions) that such information probably doesn’t belong alongside your formal academic credentials. MOOCs seem to hold a similar position as other extra-curricular activities like community service, or involvement in clubs.
Other admission deans took a different tack. They explained that certificates of MOOC completion can help a student stand out, especially if s/he takes classes in fields s/he’s interested in, both in college and beyond. According to them, such a certificate would be considered a plus in admissions decisions.
I also spoke with college and guidance counselors about this issue and many stressed that the onus is on students to tell their counselors about online classes so they can mention the students’ engagement in their recommendation letters. Still there is no doubt that by completing MOOCs that were directly relevant to the student’s prospective major they conveyed this applicant’s passion for the material and could certainly help scoring a coveted admission offer.
If I were still working in admission I would certainly advocate for counselors to provide this information about their students to colleges. I would further recommend that applicants find a place in the application to explain their levels of involvement with online courses. Not only would it give kids a space to lay out their experiences with this emerging technology, it would provide valuable data on the relationship between MOOC enrollment during high school and several other useful stats: college grades, graduation rates, and grad school application and acceptance, to name a few.
As a counselor at the Harker School, I encourage students to take courses in subject areas that go beyond what they can take at my school. Coding seems to be the most popular option, and I’ve seen secondary school students from around the world turning to MOOCs for lessons in this area. I’ve encouraged a number of teens to take these courses based on comments I’ve heard from several business leaders. One of them, a managing partner at one of the top tech-focused consulting firms in the world, said that coding is the new literacy for many in the business world. In his opinion, it’s more important for a job candidate to have experience in coding than in speaking a foreign language.
Basic familiarity with programming languages—which can be achieved relatively easily through online classes (many of them taught by top profs)—can allow students to bypass introductory computer science classes at the college level. This, in turn, will put students far ahead of many of their peers and may ultimately lead to high-paying careers.
Many students realize in high school that they want to go into the business world, but most high schools don’t offer classes dedicated specifically to building relevant skills. Perhaps this is why I’ve seen students enroll in MOOCs on entrepreneurship, global markets, sustainable development in emerging economics, or other business-related fields. Even basic courses in general areas such as accounting or economics can give a student a leg up once college applications arrive.
If nothing else, videotaped lectures can give a high schooler a sense of the language and jargon that a college course in a given discipline will involve, smoothing the high-school-to-university transition.
Should you take a MOOC? If you’ve got the time, there doesn’t seem to be much of a downside at the moment. Thinking about the future, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which students petition schools to receive academic credit for completing college-level courses, which would, in turn, lead to a re-evaluation of the role of AP and IB classes—but that’s a discussion for another article. For now, there are almost no schools that offer undergraduate credit for MOOCs (Arizona State is one notable exception).
MOOCs aren’t going anywhere for the time being, and for now the real winners are the students who can expand their knowledge and skills beyond what is possible in their high-school classrooms. Whether this will help lead to the demise of college as we know it is another question altogether. One thing is clear: MOOCs can be incredibly useful tools that international school students can employ to illustrate the intellectual vitality that most universities want to see from an applicant. Counselors and administrators at international schools must take the time to educate themselves on program options as well as develop the policies needed to encourage top students to take advantage of this unique learning opportunity.

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