UI, others join with company for free online courses

URBANA — If you've always wanted to take a course in Heterogeneous Parallel Programming at the University of Illinois without having to apply (or pay) to the College of Engineering, your chance will come.

The university will partner with a Silicon Valley company to offer a variety of free, online courses to students around the world, it was announced today.

The company, Coursera, was founded in fall 2011 by two Stanford University professors. Earlier this spring the company announced it had signed agreements with Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania to deliver online courses on everything from calculus to vaccine trials.

In addition to the UI, the new universities partnering with Coursera include Caltech, Duke, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, Rice, University of California-San Francisco, University of Virginia and University of Washington. Three international universities also will be involved: Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Edinburgh in the U.K. and University of Toronto in Canada.

"We're very proud of that list," said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a computer science professor at Stanford University. "The University of Illinois is one of the top universities in the country ... and we're pleased to work with them," she said.

The announcement comes about two months after UI Vice President and Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise asked a faculty committee and a group of administrators to consider a possible agreement with the company, the pros and cons of doing so and the legal, academic and information technology-related issues.

Late last week, university administrators learned Coursera was planning to announce a new slate of universities, and since then they've hustled to get the agreement signed on Monday in time for today's announcement.

By working with Coursera, the UI will be "on the cutting edge of this MOOC movement," Wise said, referring to "massive, open, online courses."

"It also serves our land-grant mission, to share knowledge with people who can't come to campus," such as lifelong learners or others students who want to learn more about the University of Illinois, she said.

The UI will be the first land-grant institution to participate in the venture, she said.

"I'm excited about this. We really did this in a very nimble way and followed all the rules of shared governance," she said.

Massive, open, online courses are "a sexy, popular thing, and I'm happy we're part of it," said Nicholas Burbules, a UI education professor who worked on the faculty group reviewing the issues associated with the agreement. Free online courses do not represent the core of what the university is doing in online education, however; the Coursera initiative is one part of the university's online, e-learning mission, he said.

Courses offered through Coursera are not-for-credit and the length varies by class. Many are four to six weeks long and a couple last 12 weeks.

"Coursera does not own the courses. We own the courses. They provide the platform for sharing them with people," Burbules said.

The UI courses scheduled to be offered in the future include microeconomics principles, elementary organic chemistry, introduction to sustainability and more.

Since its launch, Coursera has 680,000 students from 190 countries and more than 1.55 million course enrollments across its 43 courses, according to Koller.

"I'm surprised at how quickly it has been growing," Koller said.

On Tuesday, Coursera also announced Caltech and Penn would invest $3.7 million in the company. That, along with additional funding from current investors New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, brings the total amount raised from venture capital to over $22 million.

The UI does not pay Coursera to deliver the courses, but the university does expect to incur costs associated with developing the courses.

And that leads to several questions still to be answered, including, according to Burbules, should state money or tuition dollars be used to pay for the courses to be developed? Will faculty develop them as part of their regular teaching load or will teaching a Coursera class be considered "off load" or above the regular teaching duties? (And thus, will and how are they paid to do so? A typical load is four courses per year.)

Classes are free, but Coursera plans to make money by charging for various services, such as helping companies find employees who have completed certain courses, and if a student wants a certification showing he or she took the course, he or she will have to pay for that.

The university will share in some of that revenue, although the formula is still to be determined, according to Wise.

"We fully expect at some point in future a net positive for the university," she said.

And how that potential revenue will be distributed — among professors, departments, colleges or the university — is also to be determined, Burbules said.

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Tyler Jackson wrote on July 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm

This looks really cool - might sign up for a few classes. I've been using KhanAcademy, Codecademy, Ucademy and TeamTreehouse so far, since they're as-you-please. The Coursera courses require signup and take place over a set timeframe.