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Opinion: Proposal For a Universal Lifelong Learning Credit System

6 minute read

Recently, Laurie Pickard conducted an analysis of MOOC-based microcredentials for Class Central. The resulting article,  Analysis of 450 MOOC-Based Microcredentials Reveals Many Options But Little Consistency, is screaming for solutions to the very real problem learners face when trying to get credit and recognition for learning they have completed online. Unfortunately, while there are many options for learning, there is a gap when it comes to translating that learning into career advancement and formal educational attainment.

In her analysis, Laurie identified 11 different types of credentials on 5 different MOOC platforms. These Microcredentials are difficult to compare with each other when you consider the main decision criteria such as study effort, cost and course reputation.

Proposal for a MOOC credit system

The problem of comparing educational programs and converting them into a common system is not new.  In Europe, a common academic credit system called the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) was introduced more than 20 years ago. The ECTS is used in many European countries as the principal credit and grading system in universities, while other countries use the ECTS as a secondary credit system for exchange students.[1]  In the US, most colleges and universities award Semester Credit Hours for the successful completion of a study course.[2]

MOOCs have matured over the past 7 years, however they don’t yet have a universal credit system. MOOCs are global by nature, they attract learners of all ages and disciplines, and they are organised by the best universities of the world. A universal academic credit system including both MOOCs and onsite programs would be beneficial for all stakeholders.

Both Europe and the US have credit systems that allow learning experiences to be carried from one institution to another. These systems can be considered similar if you take into account that for every US credit contact hour you need additional hours outside class. The European system has been adapted largely throughout Europe to standardise between European countries, and to manage international exchange programs included in undergraduate and graduate programs.

Expanding university credits towards a universal system, covering both onsite and MOOC programs looks like an obvious future evolution. Imagine a system in which we allocate one Universal Study Point (USP) per 25 study hours. This system could help participating universities, learners and employers understand and reward all kinds of studies, regardless of educational institution.

USP’s can be defined for everything from a single course to a microcredential of a few courses, up to a full degree. The system would work equally well for onsite as for MOOC and blended programs. It is a single figure that simply expresses how much study effort an average learner needs to complete the course or program.

New constellations of different sizes are possible by stacking courses & microcredentials of different universities and platforms to define new micro (or mini) credentials or degrees of, let’s say, 10, 60, or 180 USPs each. Defining such a degree or mini credential can be established by one or more universities, by an employer, or even by the individual learner. This allows the generation of specific programs with dedicated career or business goals.

A site like Class Central can act as a repository where users can find all existing programs, or define new ones themselves.

Benefits and opportunities of USPs

For universities & MOOC platform providers

  • Improved communication towards learners with this clear study effort indicator
  • Opportunities to integrate courses from other institutes & MOOCs into one’s own programs or vice versa
  • Provide flexibility for students to tailor their own degree
  • More innovation via additional collaborations
  • Larger global exposure of their courses and programs

For employers

  • Ability to create one or more own company degrees by cherry picking from university courses and MOOCs
  • Better align degrees to company goals
  • Easier setting of lifelong learning goals for employees, and measuring against these goals
  • Use as employee skill development metric

For learners

  • Academic credits are extended and become useful not only for students, but in general for lifelong learners throughout their careers
  • Depending on the time a person has available for study she can build a tailored program that fits best her needs and ambitions
  • USPs as a measure for lifelong learning velocity, eg USPs per year
  • A tool to plan and schedule continuous education
  • A marketing tool to demonstrate lifelong learning ability and practices
  • Easy to compare courses (MOOCs and onsite) by means of study effort and cost / study time

Example: USPs applied to the aggregated micro credential data

Using the data in Laurie’s article, we can extend the overview of microcredentials with two additional attributes:

  • Universal Study Points (USPs) indicating the study effort needed (25 hours per point)
  • Cost per USP making it easier to compare costs between the programs

Keep in mind that the figures given are averages and that data for individual courses differ. As Laurie’s paper explains there is a large variability between individual courses.

The credentials vary greatly in size between 2 and 8 USPs. To objectively compare their prices we therefore calculate the price per USP.

In this table we observe that both Coursera and edX, the two biggest MOOC providers, have both positioned credentials for 2, 4 and 8 USPs, of respectively about 50, 100 and 200 study hours.

The largest microcredentials (except for the FutureLearn Graduate programs for which we do not have the data) have about 8 USPs or 200 study hours, which clarifies why they are called ‘micro’ credential. Typically a full-time year at university is about 60 study points (Europe ECTS system) or 1500 hours of study.

Using price per USP allows us to compare microcredentials more accurately. edX XSeries are by far the cheapest option, twice as cheap as the nearest competitors. Coursera’s MasterTrack are at $649 per USP exceptionally expensive compared to the other microcredentials. One could think this is because it gives access to enroll in a university degree program, but edX MicroMasters credits are valid as well for university degrees, and at $120 per USP they are a far better bargain.


The main decision criteria for a learner to choose courses are the subject, the reputation of the course, the study effort and the cost. The introduction of MOOCs over the past 7 years resulted in an explosion of opportunities for lifelong learning, making it extremely difficult to search, compare and choose. A system using Universal Study Points (USPs), in which 1 USP is granted per 25 study hours, could bring more clarity and opportunities for further collaboration.

The introduction of Universal Study Points could enable further integration of lifelong learning solutions,  increased visibility and understanding of (micro)credentials, and more flexibility and collaboration in the definition of innovative lifelong learning programs. USPs create benefits for all stakeholders: universities, MOOC platform providers, employers and lifelong learners.

[1] In ECTS, a full study year normally consists of 60 credits. Most European countries and universities count 25-30 study hours per credit.

[2] Most colleges and universities award 3 Semester Credit Hours (SCH) (=45-48 contact hours) for the successful completion of a study course. The number of credits for lectures, independent project work, laboratory time and internships vary depending on specific institution requirements. [REF]. Students are generally expected to spend up to three hours outside class studying and doing homework for every hour spent in class [REF College Study Skills]. 15 SCH is the typical full time course load (REF Wikipedia)

Ronny De Winter is an independent IT analyst software engineer, living and working in Belgium. He graduated as engineer more than 30 years ago. Since then he has continuously updated his skills, in the early years via company courses and a cross-university postgraduate program, since 2012 mainly via MOOCs.  Husband of a college lecturer and proud father of a daughter and son who both recently graduated and are starting their lifelong learning journey.