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Two providers of massive open online courses are expanding their course catalogs to try to find a larger global audience.

Coursera and edX both announced this week they are doubling the number of universities offering classes through their sites, which already reach a few million people across the world.

For Coursera, a Silicon Valley company with 2.8 million registered users, the expansion means 29 new universities will join the company's 33 existing partners. EdX, a 675,000-user nonprofit started by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will add six new universities, bringing its stable to a dozen.

Coursera wants to expand its global reach, said one of its co-founders, Andrew Ng. Sixteen of the company's new partners are international institutions, including universities in Italy, Hong Kong, France and Spain.

Ng said Coursera’s current users are mostly English speakers with broadband. Ng hopes the international additions will help the company pick up non-English speakers in Europe, China and Africa where about 96 million people speak French. Ng said Coursera now offers only one or two courses in French but will now have more classes in French, as well as Chinese, Italian and Spanish.  

EdX’s expansion includes five international universities -- including two in Canada -- but courses will continue to be only in English for now, said President Anant Agarwal. But edX also wants to reach non-English speakers. In particular, Agarwal said officials at the French-language École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland want to offer edX courses in French, a move that he said would provide "huge reach" in Africa.

“In the longer term, our mission is to dramatically increase access to education worldwide,” Agarwal said.

Coursera is less than a year old and one of three groups atop the MOOC craze. Besides edX, the other is Silicon Valley-based Udacity. There is also a British MOOC provider, which Britain's prime minister recently promoted in India. Coursera and edX have more users in India than in any other country outside the United States, their representatives said.

Trial by MOOC

Coursera and edX will now share three partners. EdX said the University of Toronto, Rice University and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne would start offering courses through its site. All three are already affiliated with Coursera.

Toronto's vice provost of academic programs, Cheryl Regehr, said edX approached the university about the new partnership. Toronto currently has about a quarter-million Coursera users taking five of its classes, according to the provost's office. Regehr said the university signed the non-exclusive contracts with both Coursera and edX to test the waters.

"At this point, we see this as just another opportunity to join with great universities,” Regehr said. “But also each platform is configured slightly differently, the model of the different companies is slightly different, and, quite frankly, this is a brand-new world.”

Regehr said the university is now leaving it up to faculty to look at both edX and Coursera. "It's only by trying both of them that we'll be able to see, does one meet certain kinds of needs better than the other?” she said.

One obvious difference among the three top MOOC providers is their tax status: Coursera and Udacity are both for-profit and edX is not. Regehr noted that edX’s technology is open-source, something the company repeatedly noted in a release to the news media.

Agarwal also said Netherlands-based Delft University of Technology would be the first MOOC course to release its content under a Creative Commons license, a copyright license that encourages rather than discourages use of otherwise protected materials.

For Credit?

Despite the growth of MOOCs, the biggest question remains: What are they for?

Besides self-study, the obvious value to students who take and finish MOOCs remains in flux. As does the MOOC business model: all three major MOOC providers offer free courses, though Coursera plans to charge fees for users who want to earn credits and Udacity recently announced a deal with San Jose State University to jointly offer three $150 courses.

Agarwal and Ng both said they are interested in having successful MOOC students get credit.

Coursera is already offering five classes that, if students successfully complete them, will lead to credit recommendations from the American Council on Education, which means some universities may grant credits for completing Coursera work. The council has a network of nearly 2,000 colleges and universities that agree to consider the group's credit recommendations, but the decision to accept credits are made on a case-by-case basis.

Ng hopes the council will grant credit recommendations for more courses and that international universities will accept the council’s recommendations. Agarwal said the University of Texas System -- an edX partner made up of 15 Texas institutions -- is interested in offering credit on its campus for edX courses.

Other advances are incremental, like the National University of Mongolia’s decision to give 10 students credit for an edX course on circuits, which Agarwal cited.

But, even without credit, MOOCs are proving useful.

Toronto is offering two of its Coursera courses to students to create "inverted classrooms." Regehr said the goal is to get students to listen to the lectures outside of class time.

Agarwal and Ng said precocious high school students use MOOCs to try to boost their college applications. Agarwal said 5-10 percent of edX’s users are high schoolers taking courses to “make their case in the college application stronger.”

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