Added to the 33 universities already on board, this expansion nearly doubles the reach of Coursera. "We're already the largest MOOC [Massive Open Online Courses] platform in the world by almost any metric you could choose," said CEO and co-founder Andrew Ng said. "I see this as a sign that universities all around the world are signing on to this mission of offering the best education to everyone, for free."
In reality, the pattern may be more to offer a taste of the best education for free. At Penn State and the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), one motive for participating is that Coursera could serve as a recruiting tool, although representatives from both universities promised not to make it a hard sell.
"It's more like, this is who we are, these are kind of things we do, and here's a taste of it. And we'd love to know if you want more," said CalArts provost Jeannene Przyblyski. Also, working with Coursera is bound to be exciting, she said. "It's hard to avoid the MOOCs being in the news. It is sort of a great experiment in education, and as an art school, we are dedicated to experimentation. That's more interesting to us than putting classes online, which isn't rocket science on some level."
[ Is the future of education online? Read Higher Education Tech Forecast Sees MOOC, Tablet Momentum. ]
Penn State has more of a century of experience in distance education, starting with correspondence courses, which it considers part of its mission as a land grant university to educate the whole community. Its World Campus has been offering online courses for credit (tuition charged) since 1998.
Still, Penn State recognized that Coursera's success represented something new and that the university might be "at a long-term disadvantage by not participating in that space," said Cole Camplese, director of education technology services at Penn State.
"What's new is that these courses often have 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 students, these ridiculous numbers -- a year ago, you wouldn't have dreamed that would take place," Camplese said. "Many of our faculty have expressed such deep interest in this. A decade ago, it was hard to get faculty to rally around online delivery of material, but that has tipped. Now, faculty has embraced technology, by and large, and they've come out in droves to embrace this. They'd like to be part of a revolution that opens up access to 40,000 people -- which is more than they might teach and touch in their entire careers at a university."
"I've not seen excitement like this among the staff, all the way up through top faculty, in my 15 years at this university," he added.
Working with Coursera should not undermine the Penn State World Campus because the two models are very different, Camplese said. "We have this really powerful online campus we do charge tuition for; [it's] very high quality. Sections are small, and it's a real classroom experience." Coursera's MOOCs give up the intimacy of small classes, instead creating learning communities more reliant on peer-to-peer discussion where students answer each other's questions and evaluate each other's work, with the professor stepping in occasionally as questions bubble up from the group.
Penn State's initial offerings will also be relatively short courses of 6 to 12 weeks, "so it's not a full three-credit experience like you'd get in a classroom," Camplese explained. However, some of these courses might entice students into pursuing a more complete course of study. For example, one of the MOOC offerings will be an introduction to geospatial analysis, using geographic information system software from ESRI, which could lead directly into a World Campus or on-campus program on the same material.
Also on Thursday, the MOOC edX announced the doubling of its program from 6 to 12 universities and the addition of its first international partners. Launched by Harvard and MIT, edX is a non-profit. Coursera is organized as a for-profit company, currently following the Web startup pattern of building its audience and infrastructure for scale, with a business model to be nailed down later. For all its success, Coursera's momentum faltered recently with the train wreck of a course on "Fundamentals of Online Education" that had to be suspended after the third day because of confusion over the professor's plan to organize online projects among the students.
"That's part of the price you pay when you try experiments, try to prove things," Ng said. "The instructor, to her credit, was being very innovative and trying some new ideas, but some of the specific ideas didn't work out."
The New York Times also editorialized this week about The Trouble With Online College, although its target was less MOOCs than the idea that online education is the future of higher education.
Ng acknowledges Coursera is a long way from offering a complete university education for free. "We're not a university, and we will not become one," he said. However, Coursera has recently made progress establishing a path to obtaining college credit for students who do well in these online courses. That makes the service an important resource for working adults who may not have the time or the budget to pursue their education any other way, he said.
The MOOC courses can also be a resource for on-campus students, enabling a "flipped classroom" model where lectures are delivered online and classroom time is used for discussions or exercises best conducted in person. "For most classes, substantially the same material can be used for both audiences," he said. As a Stanford professor whose course in artificial intelligence is one of Coursera's most popular offerings, Ng uses the material in just that way. However, the two classes are different, he said. The on-campus students at Stanford work with him on projects that he evaluates -- providing the kind of personal attention he can't deliver to a class of 100,000.
Ng is also excited about Coursera's international expansion and the availability of courses to students who don't speak English. New courses are coming in French, Spanish, Chinese, and Italian.
The map below shows the locations of all Coursera's institutions, with new partners indicated by red pins.
View Coursera Partners Map in a larger map
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