Sunday, 22 September 2013

What's the Point of Coursera's Signature Track?

The question of whether or not to pay for the Signature Track option offered on many of Coursera's courses regularly crops up on the discussion forums. Even those who are already paying for the option are frequently unclear or mistaken as to its benefits. Here's my view, for what it's worth.

In my opinion, most students will see no benefit from the use of Signature Track and I'll explain why. Firstly, we should be clear what Signature Track is and what it offers. Signature Track is an identity verification service. Through the use of photo identification, web cam monitoring and keyboard profiling (basically recognising how you type) the operators can say that the person taking the course is the person named on the certificate. What the scheme does not offer is any accreditation of courses or certificates. Signature Track certificates share most features with the standard (free) Statements of Accomplishment; they are delivered electronically as pdf files, they do not indicate a grade and they are non-accredited. Unlike the standard Statements of Accomplishment, they carry both the Coursera logo and that of the content supplier (ie the college or university presenting the course). The free certificates carry only the Coursera logo although they do name the content provider.

Will colleges accept Coursera courses for credit? I've seen no indication that any college has accepted a course for credit with or without the benefit of Signature Track. There are, I think, a couple of reasons. Firstly, Signature Track, while verifying the identity of the person at the keyboard, does not replace proctored (in UK terms, invigilated) examinations. There is nothing to stop the student having a supporter 'off-camera' feeding them the answers or, indeed, from registering multiple accounts in order to access the examination in advance of their Signature Track attempt. Secondly, if I may be forgiven some cynicism, the colleges have a vested interest in recognising only paid courses for credit. If they were to routinely recognise free courses where would that leave the faculties formerly offering the courses? General Education courses, for example, seem particularly vulnerable as they are effectively standalone, so don't need to match later courses in terms of content, and seem to be relatively poorly valued by many students. These courses do, however, by dint of the large numbers required to take them, generate significant income for colleges. I would suspect that, for example, PSYCH101 or CS101 courses taken by many hundreds of students as a part of their Gen. Ed. requirement cross-subsidise more advanced Psychology or Computer Science courses taken by much smaller numbers.

So, will employers accept Coursera courses as adding a benefit to applicants or employee's CVs (resumes)? Here, in my experience, the situation is quite different from the world of academia. Employers are generally far less wedded to the concept of 'accreditation'. I've taken many professional development courses over the years, some costing up to £500 per day (say $750) but few have ever had any external accreditation. Indeed, I used to present such courses. But does Signature Track offer any additional benefit in this market? I don't think so. I've never been asked to confirm my identity on a professional development course and employers have never questioned this. Both in my former career as an engineer and in my more recent work as a teacher, employers are happy to take development claims at face value. It is important, however, to recognise that most employers are looking for evidence of vocationally relevant training rather than primarily academic courses so the direct benefits might be marginal.

There are some very limited circumstances in which Signature Track might have benefits. A small number of courses, for example, offer the option of proctored examinations in order to obtain credit for a course. In the two I have seen Signature Track is a prerequisite of registration for the examinations. I have also seen one or two students report that employers will only accept courses as fulfilling development requirements if they take the the Signature Track option (although I suspect this arises more from lack of understanding on the part of employers then from any inherent value).

The final point I would make is that this is largely academic (so to speak). Research indicates that most students of MOOCs are already graduates and a high proportion actually have post-graduate ('graduate' in US terms) 
qualifications. Few will have any intention of seeking credit for the courses undertaken here. From discussions, it seems that many view Signature Track as a cross between a vanity product and a way of offering financial support to the course supplier and Coursera. The profits from Signature Track are split between Coursera and the course providers. Those taking an altruistic view should, of course, remember that Coursera is a for-profit corporation, not a charity, and Signature Track is merely one of the ways that their operations are being monetized.

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