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A Big Step in MOOCs for Credit? The ASU & edX Global Freshman Academy

Written by Charlie Chung
9 minute read

There was a big announcement in the world of MOOCs the other week: Arizona State University (ASU), the largest public university in the U.S., and MOOC provider edX announced the Global Freshman Academy. ASU will produce a series of online courses on the platform that anyone can take. Learners who pass a course can apply for and obtain college credit from ASU at tuition rates at a discount to the standard cost. Coming from a large, well-respected university, these credits have a high likelihood of being accepted for transfer at many schools–on the ASU transcript, it will not even indicate that the credits were earned from an online vs. on-campus class. ASU and edX plan to offer at least a dozen courses starting this fall, making it possible to take an entire first year of college online via MOOCs.


This article will explore this news in depth, describing the details that have been announced, indicating some of the reactions of the press / pundits, then speculating on who might be interested in participating in the Global Freshman Academy.

Specific Details about the Global Freshman Academy

Here is what we know for now about the Global Freshman Academy, or ‘GFA’:

• The courses are open to all, and can be ‘audited’ for free, the same as with other courses on
• To have the option to receive ASU credit, you will need to sign up for the Verified Certificate track for each course, which costs $45 per course
• Once the course is over, if you passed the course requirements and you were in the Verified Certificate track, you can choose to apply for ASU credit
• Tuition is discounted from standard ASU rates, and will not exceed $200 per credit hour, which is less than half of on-campus tuition (but remember, most courses are three credits)

There will be at least 12 courses, of which three have been announced:

•  Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy, starting Aug. 20
• Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe, starting Oct. 14
• Human Origins, starting Oct. 14

Other planned courses (tentative, and subject to change) are:

• First-Year Composition
• College Algebra
• Introduction to Psychology
• Introduction to Health and Wellness
• Energy in Everyday Life
• Elements of Statistics
• Introduction to Philosophy
• Sustainable Cities
• Macroeconomics Principles
• Introduction to Environmental Design

What the Press/Pundits Are Saying

This announcement has generated plenty of media attention. The general tenor of the reactions can be grouped into the categories below, on a spectrum from positive to negative:

A – This is a huge step and foreshadows a revolution in higher ed! Okay, except for Anant Agarwal who made the announcement, not many pundits are saying this–which is understandable given the MOOC hype in 2012. However, several have pointed to the pass-before-you-pay aspect as innovative, with the Washington Post calling it a groundbreaking idea. Others have noted previously that, save a few small exceptions, there has been an impermeable wall between modern MOOCs and credits, and that once some universities started to “yield”, and offer credit for some MOOCs, others will have to follow to keep up. Could this a crack in that wall?

B – This is a good experiment, and offers another option on the path to college. Joshua Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at Dartmouth, noted that many of the media responses were sharply critical (see ‘C’ and ‘D’ below). In a post on the Inside Higher Ed blog, he lists many of these responses and offers a short rebuttal. Kim does a great job in collecting a comprehensive list of concerns that have been raised, but not all of the answers are fully satisfactory, as each is just one paragraph. He emphasizes that this is an experiment meant to substitute for some of the impersonal introductory lecture-based courses for a subset of motivated students, and that it “offers an alternative method to access college, one that is lower risk (as you pay only if you succeed), has lower barriers (as enrollment is easy and open), and is more flexible (as courses are online).”

C – This is a worse option than Community College! Several commentators have pointed out that if the objective is to lower costs of attending a four-year college in the U.S., then that is already a mission of the community college system. Community college tuition varies, but can be much cheaper than the $200 per credit-hour of the Global Freshman Academy. Another issue is that community college students have the option of applying for financial aid, whereas this is not currently an option with the GFA. This led Matt Reed to ask, in his Inside Higher Ed blog post: “What problem are ASU and edX solving?” But, as others have conceded, GFA might offer course selection or convenience that local community colleges can’t match–and let’s not forget international students who may be planning to apply to U.S. universities. Ultimately, some students may prefer the image of ‘taking ASU classes’, and may willingly pay more for to do so. (An interesting question would be whether this might affect transfer request acceptances, in cases where transfers are not guaranteed.)

D – This is the start of something really bad. For some pundits, this announcement indicates looming trouble ahead. Some feel that college credits will get devalued through online classes that are inferior in quality, and John Warner, in an Inside Higher Ed blog, raises the concern that ASU may start to offer credits for non-ASU created courses in the edX catalog, in essence, “cleaning” the credits of their online origins. Jonathan Rees is concerned that this is the start of a new phase of academic competition, where schools will undercut each other on price for credits, with the ‘winners’ ending up with massive classes, while other schools see their revenues fall, with faculty cuts being the inevitable result. These are certainly important issues to discuss as higher ed goes through the inevitable changes in this technology-driven age.

These types of experiments usually don’t end up being utilized in the way people expect or predict 

A through D is quite a spectrum, where does Class Central fall? Somewhere near the ‘B’ camp. This initiative does appear to be a major step in breaking down the MOOC-to-credit barrier, and the access and ease of starting an edX course without much paperwork is likely a bigger benefit than many realize. In the U.S., the GFA should offer a huge convenience and brand image advantage over community college, but it remains to be seen if engagement and motivation will be widely sustained in this format by the prospective students that are attracted to it. For international students, the GFA seems like a great option to have access to, whether they want to apply to the U.S. or stand out at home.

Our main observation however, is that these types of experiments usually don’t end up being utilized in the way people expect or predict. Although the initiative has the vision of “first year free”, the majority of the use may be students who knock out a few classes in order to take more electives, adults dabbling to see whether they want to go back to school and earn a college degree, or high school students looking to burnish their college applications. This might be like the overall MOOC phenomenon itself: providing a lot of value, but not necessarily for those initially envisioned, and not used in the way initially anticipated, per the lofty vision communicated at the outset.

Who Might be Interested in Global Freshman Academy?

Given the above caveat that this is difficult to predict, here is some speculation about specific groups that might find value from the Global Freshman Academy and may be interested in exploring it further:

1. Those who want more flexibility in scheduling their university schooling. Students in high school (or maybe the summer before college) may want to take one or more GFA courses prior to starting college, so that they can get into electives more quickly. If they use this as a way to aid in graduating early, it can shorten the college experience, but if they still use the full four years, they are essentially lengthening it by starting early, allowing for either more electives, or a less hectic courseload. Note that students may want to check with their school to ensure that they will accept ASU credits.

2. Those who are considering community college, but want the flexibility of an online class. For those that may want to take community college classes for credit, GFA courses can provide supplemental options to take courses that are not offered at the local community college, or are difficult to take for logistical reasons–a major benefit of modern MOOCs, after all, is that they can be done on your own time, but at the same pace as a cohort, thus providing flexibility while still giving some feel of a class.

3. Those who want to try out a university course, and get credit in case they decide to continue on. For those that are thinking about going back to school to get a college degree, this can be a good choice. You can sign up for one with a few clicks of the button, and see whether you like the experience and want to continue. Once you pass a GFA course, if you think it likely that you will continue, then you can apply for the credit so that you will have it for the future. Note that you will need to sign up for the $45 Verified Certificate just to have this option.

4. Those who are interested in attending ASU! Whether you are in Arizona, out-of-state in the U.S., or a student in another country, perhaps you are interested in applying to ASU. If so, taking a GFA course might be a good way to get a little better feel for how instructors teach there (one of the five reasons high schoolers should consider MOOCs). And the good news is that there are no concerns that the credit you earn will not be accepted. Perhaps this is a side benefit that ASU is hoping to gain from the initiative, gaining more exposure for the school and connecting more people to it.

Ultimately, we will see who and how many the GFA appeals to. And the good news is that, like the San Jose State experiment, we’ll get answers to at least some questions in a relatively short period of time, in as little as a year. That’s a pace of experimentation and learning that should be a big benefit for further innovations in higher education.

You can see information about edX’s Global Freshman Academy, and even enroll for the three initial courses here.