Accrediting Online College Courses Could be the Pandemic’s Silver Lining

Online learning has become widespread during the pandemic but transferring credits has been a challenge for many students. Photo: Barney Yau
Online learning has become widespread during the pandemic but transferring credits has been a challenge for many students. Photo: Barney Yau

By Ayako Inagaki, Ryotaro Hayashi, Lynnette Perez, Marito Garcia

Online courses play an important role in accessing quality higher education, even more so during the pandemic. But most higher education systems do not have a process in place to accept credits from online courses not offered by their own institution.

During the COVID-19 pandemic peak in 2020, many school systems transitioned from traditional classroom-based education to online learning. Online courses had been playing an important role in accessing equitable and inclusive quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for many years. And COVID-19 accelerated the trend.

Yet, the emergency also revealed shortcomings that will need addressing to fully tap the benefits of online learning. In particular, most higher education systems across the world do not have a process in place for accepting credits from online courses that are not offered by their own institution.

Universities began offering online courses to external learners in 2012 as massive open online courses (so-called MOOCs) hosted students on platform managers such as edX, Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn, Udemy, etc. These platform managers do not create their own courses but form partnerships with universities, institutions and industries to offer online courses to outside learners.

Nonetheless, a few countries or regions have implemented educational reforms to incorporate online courses into their academic curriculums.

In 2016, Malaysia became the very first country to issue academic credits if a student successfully completes an online course as part of its Globalized Online Learning initiative. The project purports to enhance the quality of the course content as well as cut down the cost of course delivery, while allowing global learners access to Malaysian expertise. This recognizes online courses as valid and reliable instruments of learning by giving them recognition through credit.

Through online learning, Indonesia aims to increase equitable access to high-quality tertiary education to 50% by 2026 compared to 34% in 2018, while improving course quality. According to a 2018 regulation updated in 2020, the country will recognize online learning certificates as receipts of credit for formal academic qualification.

Most higher education systems across the world do not have a process in place for accepting credits from online courses that are not offered by their own institution.

In addition, the government has established a consortium of online university course providers called the Indonesia Cyber Education Institute, where students can get credits through online courses. Students who pass assessment in the online courses are awarded digital credential certificates, which are registered on blockchain, enabling implementation of a verifiable digital credentialing system that is more difficult to hack, deters fake diplomas and fake certificates, and is thus more trusted by employers, government, and businesses.

Indonesia is among the world’s first countries to employ blockchain technology in digital credentialing.

The 27 countries of the European Union are members of an interconnected system of course credit transfer, known as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. The system has provided systematic recognition of courses in tertiary education institutions in member states since 1989. It was set up to allow students to study physically in other countries, enabling the transfer of their credits back to their home institutions. This credit transfer mechanism was extended to online courses as well and hence credits can be awarded to online courses taken from another institution.

In short, it is crucial to adopt flexible and enabling educational policy frameworks that allow recognition and transfer of credits from online courses across higher education institutions. Doing so will help them reap the full economic and social rewards of digital learning that were dramatically accelerated by the global pandemic.

More specifically, it brings three benefits: expanding access to higher education without the need to construct new classrooms; improving access to quality education by using content developed by the world’s leading experts and the best professors; and reducing the cost of higher education.

Countries considering these frameworks can build on the experiences of the early adopters by paying attention to three lessons.

First, the scope of the credit transfer needs to be defined. Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, allow from 30% up to 40% of total graduating credits in a specific program of study.

Second, it is important to clearly establish quality assurance mechanisms. The process for quality assurance, assessment and academic recognition needs to be worked out, using the guidelines in Malaysia as a great reference. Indonesia’s experience shows that the academic credentials can also be protected by using blockchain technology.

Third, right providers and online courses need to be identified. The online courses could be provided by centers of excellence in the country and platform providers, while the online course marketplace could be provided by a credible institution.

Many countries, particularly small ones, may not have the capacity to develop such courses and policies; however, the example of the European Union can show them the benefits of regional cooperation with neighboring countries.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on education in many parts of the world but one benefit that it could bring is the wider use of online courses as an important component of learning in developing countries. Systems that allow online course credit transfers is an important aspect of this transition.