“The single most important experiment in higher education,” reads the headline to this piece posted at TheAtlantic.com.
Slate.com asks: “Will online education startups like Coursera end the era of expensive higher education?”
Those posts were related to the news announced earlier this week that a dozen more universities have signed on with Coursera to deliver free, online classes to the masses that are known as MOOCs (massive online open classrooms).
“The news certainly caught my eye,” says Paul Peercy, the dean of UW-Madison’s College of Engineering, which has a long tradition of delivering master’s degrees and continuing education online. “I’m convinced that the rapid advances in information technology are going to change the world. And they’re going to change education at all levels.”
That said, UW-Madison officials explain they’re not ready to jump on the MOOCs bandwagon just yet, instead opting for a more cautious approach to getting involved with this exploding trend in higher education.
“That was obviously a big announcement,” UW-Madison Provost Paul DeLuca says of Coursera adding 12 new partners. “But in a time of finite resources, I’m just not sure that’s something we want to jump into right now.”
Back in April, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Penn, Princeton and Stanford announced they were teaming with Coursera. The universities produce and own the content of the classes, with Coursera -- a for-profit company backed by venture capital –- providing the platform to host and stream the courses on the web. Similarly, in May Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a nonprofit partnership dubbed edX that will also deliver free online courses to the public.
The New York Times reported that Coursera enrolled some 680,000 students in 43 courses with its original four partners. Those numbers are expected to explode in the coming months.
But students who complete these free courses currently don’t earn university credit toward a degree -– the common currency that allows one to compete for jobs. (The Seattle Times reports that the University of Washington plans to be the first to start offering credit for some of its offerings via Coursera, but it will charge a fee.)
And unlike a traditional online course offered via a university, MOOCs also offer very little, if any, personal interaction with the professor who teaches the course.
In addition, while providing free online courses to the public can be viewed as a noble cause -– especially at a time when costs associated with higher education continue to skyrocket -- it appears there’s currently no business model in place for institutions to be able to support these endeavors.
So why would schools want to get involved? For now, it appears most on the UW-Madison campus view this leap into offering MOOCs as mostly a branding and marketing initiative for the institutions taking part.
Among the latest schools teaming up with Coursera are: the University of Illinois, which joins the University of Michigan as the second Big Ten Conference institution to partner with the company; and the University of Virginia, which earlier this month saw its president forced out by its governing board in part for not moving fast enough into the online education realm (the president was ultimately reinstated).
When I interviewed UW-Madison interim Chancellor David Ward in late May for the first article I wrote about the MOOCs movement and what it might mean for the university, he told me UW-Madison would likely be able to create a consortium, particularly within the Big Ten, to deliver such free content. But he added that he had no interest in initiating such a conversation, in part due to the fact that his term as interim chancellor is scheduled to end next summer.
“I would think this might be one of the first agenda items for my successor," Ward told me. “They'll have to not only think about whom to collaborate with to do this, but try to figure out a real revenue structure based on how you award credits. I'm not sure about the payback, and we don't have the loose change that MIT and Stanford have.”
Despite the sudden spike in the number of institutions teaming with Coursera, DeLuca told me Wednesday that he isn’t feeling any new pressure to put the accelerator down on moving UW-Madison toward making such offerings.
“I really don’t see this as a pressing issue,” says DeLuca.
He argues it makes more sense for the university to focus on the Educational Innovation initiative pushed by Ward. This is an effort, in part, to take a hard look at online learning options that can both improve student outcomes while simultaneously providing efficiencies and increasing revenues by expanding UW-Madison's reach to nontraditional audiences via online technology.
Conversely, with the MOOCs movement showing no signs of slowing, it’s likely only a matter of time before UW-Madison gets involved in some way, shape or form.
“I think it’s correct to say that we want to figure out what’s right for us before jumping in,” says Aaron Brower, UW-Madison’s vice provost for teaching and learning. “At the same time we are actively looking at Coursera and other options for putting information out there that people can take advantage of.”
Brower adds that there is “active discussion” with members of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) -- a consortium that generates unique collaborations between faculty and students at Big Ten Conference universities, plus the University of Chicago –- about the potential of partnering for an online initiative and examining what platform might work best for such an endeavor.