URBANA — The first University of Illinois online course offered through Coursera, the California company that delivers free classes to students around the world, has attracted nearly 32,000 students in its first week.
Thousands more have enrolled for additional UI courses to be offered on the platform later this fall.
Campus instructors also are lining up in hopes of being among the next cohort of teachers to offer classes via Coursera in the future.
"We've been overwhelmed with faculty wanting to be part of this," said UI education Professor Nicholas Burbules, who was part of the faculty group that advised Chancellor Phyllis Wise on the decision to join Coursera earlier this summer.
The numbers signal a growing interest and excitement on campus about the company and the university's partnership with it, despite questions and issues still to be resolved, including, will the university earn income from the experiment and if so how will that revenue be distributed? How will instructors be compensated? And really, what do free, massive, open, online courses mean for higher education and brick-and-mortar institutions like the University of Illinois?
Free online courses that reach tens of thousands of students around the world may not be the future of education, but they could be part of the future of how education is delivered, "and I wanted to be part of the new direction," said Jonathan Tomkin, a professor in the UI's School of Earth, Society and Environment whose "Introduction to Sustainability" was the first UI course to debut on Coursera.
Teaching a course in a 100-seat lecture hall is one thing, but sending an email to 31,500 students was a bit nerve-wracking, he said.
"I was weighing my words," he said before he pressed "send" on a recent communication to students.
Tomkin, an associate director in the school and director of the undergraduate program in environmental sustainability on the Urbana campus, said he was volunteering his time developing and leading the class "as an experiment."
As early adopters or instructors in the partnership, the UI professors offering courses signed on even though the full implications of their decision to teach such a course were not yet known. Committees are being established on campus to address academic, legal and other issues. For example, the university has to determine how teaching a class for Coursera will affect a professor's "load" or number of classes taught per semester. A typical load is four courses per year.
"I'm burning the midnight oil," admitted Lawrence Angrave, senior instructor in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering. He is preparing materials to teach "Creative, Serious and Playful Science of Android Apps" on Coursera this fall.
"I'm very excited to be part of a top-five department, and I see my efforts here as being directly connected to being in a world-class department. Working in the Siebel Center (for Computer Science) we see a huge amount of energy and innovation here and I can't help but want to be part of it here," Angrave said.
Students in his course will learn to create their own Android app using Java and other software development tools. About 18,000 have signed up so far; a start date has not been finalized yet.
The UI does not pay Coursera to deliver the courses, but the university does expect to incur costs associated with developing the courses, such as for producing and editing videos. Tomkin has university staff assist him with his video lectures.
Classes are free to students, but Coursera plans to make money by charging for various services. The UI could also stand to gain some revenue from the partnership. Earlier this summer Wise said she expected it to be a "net positive" for the university.
The UI's agreement with Coursera outlines several different options for the university to bring in revenue. The university can provide certificates to students, for a fee, test students for a fee, allow prospective employers to contact students about such things as possible job opportunities, allow companies to sponsor courses, and more.
No decisions have been made yet on specific '"monetization strategies" the university will undertake, said Rob Rutenbar, head of the Department of Computer Science, who is involved in the Coursera effort on campus. Such discussions, he said, have not been "uppermost" in the mind of those involved.
"We've been mainly focusing on the education component: what we teach, to whom, at what level, with what expected outcomes," he said.
"One big question is how we decide, as a campus, what courses to put on the Coursera platform. This is important as we seek to balance competing opportunities, like attracting the best students, projecting our research excellence, offering new opportunities to exchange folks in parts of Illinois far, far from Urbana," Rutenbar said.
The University of Illinois is among more than a dozen universities that have signed agreements with Coursera, which was founded in fall 2011 by two Stanford University professors. The first were Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. Recent additions have included Caltech, Duke, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, Rice, University of California-San Francisco, University of Virginia and University of Washington. Three international universities also are involved: Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Edinburgh in the U.K. and University of Toronto in Canada.
Also this summer Coursera 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, brought the total amount raised from venture capital to over $22 million.
"Nobody really fully understands what it is or what it will become," Burbules said of Coursera.
MOOCs, the acronym for massive open online courses, have critics, champions and many people in between, he said.
"But everybody is talking about it now," Burbules said.
Most recently Coursera drew some criticism after reports of plagiarism in some courses. The company responded by adding an honor code.
There's no doubt MOOCs will have an impact on the world of teaching, Angrave said.
"The impact may be on the level of knowledge students will have as opposed to radical changes in infrastructure and whether or not people go to campuses for their education," he said.
For example, Amazon.com "didn't lead to a complete collapse of society as we know it. It complemented how we get materials," Angrave said.