Five nearly-free online courses are so similar to their classroom versions students will now officially be able to take them for college credit, the American Council on Education announced last week.

These courses provided by Coursera, a California-based online education provider, are the first “massive, open online courses” – or MOOCs – ever to be declared eligible for credit.

ACE agreed to recommend four courses for credit, as long as course work is proctored, including pre-calculus at Univerisity of California, Irvine; introduction to genetics and evolution at Duke University; bioelectricity at Duke; and University of Pennsylvania’s single-variable calculus. ACE also endorsed an algebra course at UC-Irvine for for vocational credit.

The purpose of MOOCs is to help students facing challenges affording college to enter college with credit and exit on time and on budget with their degrees, according to Coursera’s statement Thursday.

Aaron Brower, provost of the University of Wisconsin Extension and leading developer of UW System’s Flexible Degree program, said UW does not offer any MOOCs for credit yet, but is working to provide these opportunities for students soon under UW’s interim vice provost of teaching and learning. UW has already begun developing hybrid traditional and online methods of learning, according to UW Vice Chancellor for External Relations Vince Sweeney.

“Interim Chancellor Ward embarked on a very comprehensive initiative called Education Innovation,” Sweeney said. “It’s moving at a pretty good pace and certainly we at the UW-Madison need to keep an eye on the national landscape and what others are doing to change, adapt and adjust in new ways of teaching and learning.”

College classes are “fundamentally changing,” Brower said, because students now have access to basically the same information as faculty. Therefore, he noted instructors no longer have to spend as much time in class informing their students through lectures and note taking. Students are now expected to acquire that information on their own, he said. 

The benefit of this system is that students in online courses can use class time to review and expand on what they have learned online, according to Brower.

Brower added online courses are not a new concept at UW, however. He said the university has provided such courses for approximately 40 years now. The difference is MOOCs are not monitored, so nobody is checking over the work students do, according to Brower.

“It’s important to distinguish online course from the MOOC,” Brower said. “Online courses are just as labor intensive as every other kind of course. In fact, there’s some evidence they’re even more hyper-intensive. It’s the MOOCs that you take them and put them online for everyone.”

Brower compared MOOCs to books you can check out of a library, browse through and then return for someone else to learn from.

Sweeney added the traditional classroom style of learning is not a dying phenomenon in spite of the recent gains in innovative ways of learning online.

“I don’t think it’s dying, but I do think it needs to adapt and adjust with updated tools and updated formats,” Sweeney said, adding the institutions capable of this will thrive and survive the best. “In my opinion, there will always be a strong place for traditional methods of instruction and learning on large campuses.”