URBANA — The University of Illinois is exploring the possibility of partnering with Coursera, a California company that offers free online courses.
UI Vice President and Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise has asked the faculty senate to convene an ad hoc committee that will explore any academic issues that could come along with a possible partnership.
Meanwhile, a separate committee is taking a look at the potential legal, pedagogical, financial and logistical implications, said Rob Rutenbar, professor and head of the UI's Department of Computer Science.
Coursera has garnered media attention recently for its growing offering of free "MOOCs" — massive, open online courses.
Founded in fall 2011 by two Stanford University professors, the private company received $16 million in venture capital last month. Several universities, including Princeton, Stanford, California-Berkeley, Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania have partnered with the company to offer a variety of courses on Coursera's platform.
Upcoming courses include basic behavioral neurology, algorithms, a history of the world since 1300, and more.
"The job of this committee is to surface faculty concerns and academic issues," said Matt Wheeler, chairman of the Urbana senate.
That way, when Rutenbar visits the senate in the near future to discuss the possible partnership, the academic issues "can be on the front burner," Wheeler said.
Wise told faculty last week she heard about Michigan's involvement with Coursera while speaking recently with that university's president, Mary Sue Coleman.
"I'm really excited about this," Wise told faculty.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the UI could be the first public, land-grant institution to join, she asked them. At the same time, Wise said, she wanted to get a clear understanding of the possible risks involved and what kind of risk faculty members are comfortable with. She has asked several administrators to review legal and financial issues.
"I'm on board with this," said Nicholas Burbules, UI education professor and member of the senate executive committee.
However, he said he's not convinced Coursera's instructional model (video lectures, quizzes) is cutting-edge. But could the UI innovate and influence the way these courses are delivered, he asked.
The university has a history of developing online courses, of supporting online students, but how do you adequately support students in a massive, open online course environment, said Charlie Evans, associate vice president in university administration.
Among other questions being asked: How would the classes be accessible to students with hearing or visual or other impairments? What are the expenses involved? Would it put the university's educational resources at risk?
"These are tough times. We do not want to commit to something that would draw resources," Evans said. "I think it's exciting, something we really want to consider.
"I don't believe this would replace our core online programs that are developing on the Urbana campus. This is another option for our online programs."
Rutenbar said the committees do not face specific timelines, "but there is a sense we should be moving rapidly on this."
"The landscape is changing so rapidly," Rutenbar said. "We're trying to be agile in putting this together, to get stakeholders together to talk about what we should be doing here, what makes sense for Illinois, and, assuming we go forward, how?"
This story appeared in print on May 20.