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Coursera offers biometric-based ‘Verified Certificates’ for a fee, extends credential options for students

Most of us are familiar with biometric testing in the exam industry, but now, these identity validation techniques are also being used in the online education space with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

Coursera announced yesterday that students will be offered the opportunity to earn “Verified Certificates” for select MOOCs for a small fee. This new option, called “Signature Track”, is available on a course-by-course basis and aims to verify the identity of the participating students.

Here’s how it will work:

  • Students will have up to 2-3 weeks from the eligible course’s start date to decide if they want to participate in its “Signature Track”.
  • Students will then create a “Signature Profile” by taking two photographs with their webcam: one of themselves and another of an acceptable photo ID document.
  • Next, students will create a biometric profile of their unique typing patterns by typing a short phrase. These “keystroke biometrics” analyse each user’s pattern and rhythm of typing to serve as a kind of fingerprint.
  • When a student submits work in the course, they authenticate their identity by typing the same short phrase, which is then matched to their recorded samples.
  • Upon successful completion of their course, students will receive a “Verified Certificate” issued by both the participating university and Coursera.
  • Students will then be able to electronically share their detailed course performance, in a verified format, with anyone they designate via their personal Course Records page on Coursera.

The initial price for joining “Signature Track” will vary depending on the course and generally range from US $30 to US $100; those who cannot afford the fee can register for financial assistance.

Revenue from the fee-based path will be split with partner universities. A Coursera spokeswoman said universities would keep between 6% and 15% of the revenue from courses taught by their professors, as well as 20% of profits.

“Offering verified certification for our courses will open up many new and valuable opportunities for students,” said Joseph Castro, Vice Chancellor of University of California, San Francisco. “And charging a small fee for these certificates gives our university the ability to cover the cost of free course offerings, ensuring that we’re able to continue providing high-quality content to students around the world.”

Initially, Coursera will pilot “Signature Track” for five courses, but they plan to roll it out to the majority of its courses. The company has built most of its own verification technology, a spokeswoman said, but would consider using third-party vendors if necessary.

Other verified certificates

The concept of an authenticated certificate is not new, but it’s the biometric element that makes this particularly interesting, and fully extends Coursera’s reach to any Internet-enabled destination. Other providers of free online courses work with testing centres, requiring students who want certificates to travel to a physical location, pay a small fee (i.e., US $89 for a Udacity course), show an ID, and take tests while a proctor supervises to prevent cheating.

Udacity and edX use this site-based assessment strategy thanks to their partnership with Pearson. Students who pass exams at a Pearson testing centre are given a certificate that notes that their final exam was proctored.

Monetising the MOOCs

In only a year, the online product offerings have become quite rich – most MOOCs are offered with certificates or letters of completion and a grade, now providers are starting to sell verified certificates, and still others go a step further and offer credit toward a degree programme through university partnerships. And when fees and course credit enter the foray, identity verification becomes even more crucial.

At Udacity, Sebastian Thrun and David Stavens see a business model where their students would pay for add-ons such as teaching assistant services, study aids, or offline materials. They also suggest the possibility of a job placement programme, with Udacity charging less than the 10% to 30% of first year salary a typical employment recruiter would receive.

As MOOC providers look to develop sustainable business models, verified certificates will likely serve as an important revenue stream. Other income channels include licensing online courses to colleges (Antioch University was the first to do so with Coursera), and lead generation for employers that are interested in hiring high-performing students.

Certificates a stepping stone towards course credit?

Though it does not include credit (yet), “Signature Track” provides students with a more meaningful certificate. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng explains:

“We created ‘Signature Track’ to allow students to verify their identity and show that they did the work, and thus provide a more valuable credential, without detracting from the experience of our free courses.”

Verified Coursera certificates are a form of alternative credential, which can aid career advancement or personal enrichment. But there are already signs that the dynamic company plans to continue raising the bar.

Coursera recently agreed with the American Council on Education (ACE) to initiate a credit-equivalence evaluation of a subset of the MOOCs offered by universities and hosted on Coursera’s platform. This new third party evaluation, conducted through ACE’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT®), has the potential to make some completed courses eligible for college transfer credit at institutions choosing to accept the ACE recommendations.

“We believe strongly in the value of a college degree and, by offering these high-quality courses to students in a way that opens the potential of college credit, we hope to ease the path for students toward graduation,” co-founder Daphne Koller said.

2012: Year of the MOOC

Coursera is at the forefront of what is being called a “tsunami” of change sweeping over the global education industry. The statistics change faster than we can even report, but at last count, more than 2.2 million students from nearly 200 countries have enrolled into its 200+ online courses.

MOOCs were one of the biggest game changers in 2012, with more and more institutions around the world investing in them. Online education is forcing education providers to rethink their business models and beginning to reshape the competitive landscape in global higher education, which may prove especially challenging for US private, for-profit institutions.

Earlier this week, Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board revealed that the number of students taking at least one online course during the fall 2011 term has now surpassed 6.7 million, an increase of 570,000 students over the previous year. Additional key findings from their latest “2012 Survey of Online Learning” include:

  • 32% of higher education students now take at least one course online.
  • Only 2.6% of higher education institutions currently have a MOOC, another 9.4% report MOOCs are in the planning stages.
  • Academic leaders remain unconvinced that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, but do believe they provide an important means for institutions to learn about online pedagogy.
  • 77% of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes.
  • The proportion of chief academic officers who believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education has not increased – it now stands at only 30.2%.
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders who say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is at a new high of 69.1%.
  • The perception of a majority of chief academic officers at all types of institutions is lower retention rates for online courses remain a barrier to the growth of online instruction.

In further related news, US News will publish the second annual edition of “Best Online Education Programs” on 15 January.

For more background on the popularity of MOOCs and other types of distributed learning as major drivers of technological change in education, please see our piece “Is technology the key change agent in higher education?

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