Will Taking a MOOC Help You Get Into College?

The arguments are volatile, hostile, and hyperbolic — full of name-calling, grandstanding, and confusing data.

If you think I’m writing about politics, you’re wrong; I’m referring to online learning, which has effects that are similarly far-reaching and important to the future.

Big Schools, Big Business

In about seven short years, Web-based classes, and especially massive open online courses (MOOCs) have begun to change the way students interact with the education process. And soon, these digital approaches to learning may change the landscape (literally and figuratively) of colleges and universities.

For some people, MOOCs signal a paradigm shift in education that marks the impending demise of hundreds of brick-and-mortar colleges. For others, they represent more empty claims about the ways in which technology will transform learning for everyone.

Many colleges and universities currently offer such online courses, but most have been developed at elite schools like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. As their name implies, MOOCs are free for anyone to take, and many are taught by the academic equivalent of rock stars. The courses tend to be similar to on-campus lecture classes — introductory overviews of topics in nearly every discipline. I have personally taken a few and learned a great deal from them.

One recent development that has gotten a lot of attention is MIT’s new master’s program in supply chain management, which depends on MOOCs for half its credits. Interestingly, if a student finishes the one-year program’s online component (for free) but does not complete its classroom-based counterpart (at a cost), she still stands to earn a “MicroMaster’s” — a so-called nanodegree. This “inverted admissions” course, which allows students to “try before they buy,” will begin in February 2016.

Up until now, schools have been reluctant to offer academic credits for such courses; MIT’s decision may change minds.

So, MOOCs are having an impact on higher education, and are evolving to meet the needs of students and institutions. But how do they factor in when you’re applying to college?

At the risk of being reductive, the general population seems to believe that students who take MOOCs (in addition to their regular high school courseload) stand out to admissions officers at colleges and universities. Is this the case? And if so, what classes should students take?

Number Problems

Data about the MOOC “revolution” is still cloudy. While millions have taken at least one MOOC, only a small percentage of these learners have completed them. Educational researcher Katy Jordan estimates a 15-percent completion rate, which she defines as receiving a passing grade, either from a human instructor or automated scoring. And a smaller number still goes on to earn certificates (perhaps because MOOCs that award such a credential often cost money). A UC Berkeley article reports that less than 1 percent of Coursera users opt to purchase a certificate upon finishing a class.

Some commentators have been surprised by the ages of MOOC enrollees. Some might assume that young people make up the majority of such students. But just under a quarter of those who take a class from Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers, is in the 13-to-29 range. The same Berkeley article mentioned above explains that 79.4 percent of 35,000 MOOC enrollees surveyed (in a 2013 University of Pennsylvania report) already possessed a four-year college degree, while 44 percent had attended some graduate school.

What follows, then, is by no means scientific, but it’s based on anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from working with hundreds of secondary school students around the world, as well as experts in the field of college and graduate school admissions.

MOOCs and College Admissions

While taking MOOCs may help students do well in college classes (more on this later), many teenagers hope their online enrollment will demonstrate their love of learning to admissions officers.

Divergent Opinions

A New York Times article from 2015 suggests that the role of online classes on college applications is still nebulous. The director of admissions at Harvard College, for example, says that MOOC enrollment “falls into the category of very interesting things we’d like to know about you.”

Though this statement is open to interpretation, it sounds as if it means (at least at the most prestigious institutions) that such information probably doesn’t belong alongside your formal academic credentials. MOOCs seem to hold a similar position as other extracurricular activities, like internships, athletics, community service, or involvement in clubs.

I heard slightly different opinions from three admissions deans I know personally, however, all of whom work at selective universities. They explained that certificates of MOOC completion can help a student stand out, especially if she takes classes in fields she’s interested in — both in college and beyond. Such a certificate would be considered a plus in admissions decisions. Perhaps tellingly, however, none of these professionals wanted me to mention the schools they represent.

I also spoke with college and guidance counselors about this issue. Noodle Expert Amy Garrou (who’s worked as both an admissions professional and a counselor) notes that the onus is on students to tell their counselors about online classes so they can mention the students’ engagement in their recommendation letters.

Garrou added that the MOOCs one of her students completed were directly relevant to the student’s prospective major; they conveyed this applicant’s passion for the material and helped her get into the college of her choice.

If I were still working in admission I would certainly advocate for counselors to provide this information about their students to colleges. I would further recommend that college applications provide a dedicated space in which students can explain their levels of involvement with online courses.

Not only would it give kids a space to lay out their experiences with this emerging technology, it would provide valuable data on the relationship between MOOC enrollment during high school and several other useful stats: college grades, graduation rates, and grad school application and acceptance, to name a few.

Popular Subjects

As a general rule, I encourage students to take online courses in subject areas that go beyond what they can take in high school — often computer science and business-related fields.

While many students have taken AP, International Baccalaureate (IB), or A-Level courses in secondary school in subjects like science, history, math, and English, the range and specificity of offerings tends to be very small compared to what MOOCs can deliver. Online classes may give students a taste of an academic field or set of courses they would not have known about otherwise.

Coding

Coding seems to be the most popular option, and I’ve seen secondary school students from around the world turning to MOOCs for lessons in this area. I’ve encouraged a number of teens to take these courses based upon comments I’ve heard from several business leaders. One of them, a managing partner at one of the top tech-focused consulting firms in the world, said that coding is the new literacy for many in the business world. In his opinion, it’s more important for a job candidate to have experience coding than to speak a foreign language.

While virtually all schools offer some foreign language instruction, few secondary schools provide courses in coding. MOOCs can fill this gap.

Basic familiarity with programming languages, which can be achieved relatively easily through online classes (many of which are taught by top profs) can allow students to bypass introductory computer science classes at the college level. This, in turn, will put them far ahead of many of their peers and may ultimately lead to high-paying careers.

Business

Many students realize in high school that they want to go into the business world, but most high schools don’t offer classes dedicated specifically to building relevant skills. Perhaps this is why I’ve seen students enroll in MOOCs on entrepreneurship, global markets, sustainable development in emerging economics, or other business-related fields. Even basic courses in general areas like accounting or economics can give a student a leg up once the first year of college rolls around.

If nothing else, videotaped lectures can give a high schooler a sense of the language and jargon that a college course in a given discipline will involve, smoothing the high school-to-university transition.

Final Thoughts

Should you take a MOOC? If you’ve got the time, there doesn’t seem to be much of a downside at the moment. Thinking about the future, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which students petition schools to receive academic credit for completing college-level courses, which would, in turn, will lead to a re-evaluation of the role of AP and IB classes — but that’s a discussion for another article. For now, though, there are almost no schools that offer undergraduate credit for MOOCs (Arizona State is an exception).

MOOCs aren’t going anywhere for the time being, and for now the real winners are the students who can expand their knowledge and skills beyond what is possible in their high-school classrooms. Whether this will help lead to the demise of college as we know it is another question altogether.

Looking to try out a MOOC for yourself? Check out the Noodle class search, where you can find thouands of options. You’ll be able to look for classes in almost any subject and filter your results by location, provider, and cost.