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Universities from New Mexico to New York will join Coursera in a sprawling expansion of the Silicon Valley startup’s efforts to take online education to the masses.

Together, state systems and flagship universities in nine states will help the company test new business models and teaching methods and potentially put Coursera in competition with some of the ed tech industry’s most established players.

The push, which company and university officials previewed over the past several days, is not a single effort but several pilot projects with different goals. Some university leaders are unsure of the direction they are heading in, but the effort will create at least a temporary buffet of experimentation using Coursera's online platform. A network of universities will be creating or using and buying or selling course material from each other, with Coursera in the middle as a content broker, consultant and host. 

Some university officials say they see Coursera as a potential replacement for some services universities now receive from the makers of learning management systems. Others see Coursera's online courses as this generation's textbook. Because Coursera and university officials discussed the project in advance of an official public announcement on Thursday, many of those potentially affected -- faculty groups, business competitors and others -- did not have an opportunity to react.

Some state systems will use Coursera to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for anyone in the world for free. MOOCs, which rarely result in college credit at this point, are what Coursera has so far been known for.

But some universities will try Coursera to see how well they can use its software to offer traditional for-credit online classes to dozens of registered students at once. If universities like the platform, long-time industry players like Desire2Learn and Blackboard could find themselves with new competition.

Others will turn Coursera into a new kind of textbook by pairing online material from elsewhere with their own university's instructors. Some universities may try to create entirely new learning communities by sharing course material amongst themselves or by licensing other universities’ content to flip classrooms.

Coursera's New Partners

  • State University of New York
  • Tennessee Board of Regents
  • University of Tennessee System
  • University of Colorado System
  • University of Houston System
  • University of Kentucky
  • University of Nebraska System
  • University of New Mexico system
  • University System of Georgia
  • West Virginia University

And yet other universities may experiment with Coursera in an effort to lower costs, offer credit to students who take MOOCs, offer certificate programs using Coursera courses or increase the number of students they can enroll at any given time.

“This is some of the largest public institutions in the country, from nine different states, basically embracing at least the beginnings of the transition to a new way of teaching their students,” said Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller.

The State University of New York,  whose 64 campuses make it one of the largest systems in the world, is in the midst of an ambitious effort to enroll 100,000 new students over the next several years. as part of its Open SUNY effort.

It plans to use Coursera to help reach that goal, said SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

"This is not a random act of subscription," she said. "This is an intentional relationship with a provider fitted within our SUNY portfolio of online degree programs." Those efforts include plans to reduce the time students are enrolled by offering credit for certain MOOCs.

SUNY's associate provost, Carey Hatch, said the system also plans to offer incentives to campuses to develop and consume online courses that meet general education requirements. Some courses could be “guided MOOCs” where a SUNY instructor helps SUNY students work their way through a course that was created by another institution.

“We hope to reach more students with the existing faculty that we have,” Hatch said.

The partnerships announced this week also represent a break from Coursera’s plans to work only with elite institutions.

Koller said she realized that state systems educate about 70 percent of the students in the country. So, Koller said, her desire to improve education in the United States needs to involve state systems.

“This is where you have to place a lot of the effort, and that’s why we engaged with those institutions, because we knew that’s the place you needed to go if you want to move the needle,” she said.

To partner with so many institutions, however, Coursera will sidestep a contractual obligation to primarily offer courses from members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America. It will do so by creating a new section of its website to house material from the less-than-elite state universities. This different section will offer MOOCs but will be branded in a different way.

Hatch said SUNY, which has two AAU institutions (Stony Brook University and University at Buffalo), was not quite thrilled with the segregation.

“We’re not totally happy about it, but we understand the perspective of where Coursera partners started from,” he said. “We hope through the course of time where they end will be something different.” 

The University of Colorado system is glad it can offer more MOOCs from all its campuses on Coursera. Its Boulder campus is an AAU institution and existing Coursera partner, but its three other campuses are not.

Kathleen Bollard, the Colorado system’s vice president and academic affairs officer, said system faculty members contacted Coursera about offering courses a while ago, but only institutions can sign contracts with the company, not individual faculty members. At the time, only AAU institutions were being admitted, so Boulder got in but not the others. 

"Then, of course, people on our other campuses were interested in offering MOOCs," she said.

The MOOC Moment

A free, print-on-demand booklet of Inside Higher Ed articles and essays about MOOCs may be found here.

Bollard said the university could generate revenue if it monetizes the courses. It could, for instance, charge Coursera users from across the world for verified certificates of completion. It could also end up paying other institutions if Colorado professors want to integrate content from Coursera into their classrooms.
In Tennessee, both of the state’s public higher ed systems -- the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee -- are joining Coursera's new effort.
Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said the focus at first would be solely on producing traditional online courses, which typically enroll about as many students as traditional in-person courses. He hopes to have a few courses up this fall but to have multiple sections of those courses. Some might be so-called hybrid courses, which use online material like a textbook but also require students to attend an in-person class. The state wants to see how Coursera works and wants to gauge the effectiveness of Coursera’s platform.

While the board had yet to sign the contract with Coursera on Wednesday morning, Morgan said students would pay what they normally pay for classes but Coursera would get $25 per student plus $3,000 for technical assistance to bring the course up on its platform. The state, which already has extensive experience putting courses online, would spend about $50,000 developing each course.

This is where Coursera could begin to compete with some software that universities already use to offer online courses.

Morgan said his system currently uses Desire2Learn to offer online classes, but he wants to test out the analytics software that Coursera offers to instructors trying to track student progress and prevent students from derailing.

"We believe it will offer opportunities beyond what our current capacity is," Morgan said. (He said he had not yet looked at Desire2Learn’s new analytics service, which was announced several weeks ago.)

At SUNY, Hatch said a large enrollment course at Stony Brook University that uses Blackboard has run into difficulty. 

“We know Coursera scales and can handle hundreds of thousands of users at a time and we can’t say that today about our current platforms” -- primarily Blackboard, Hatch said.

Koller said Coursera does not currently view itself as a competitor to Blackboard and other learning management systems, though she said there is a “70 to 80 percent” overlap in capabilities.

“It’s pretty clear to me that we will not replace every single course with this format,” she said.

A spokesman for Blackboard said there were some similarities but MOOC platforms lack the "depth and breadth" of traditional learning management system software. Blackboard is also looking to increase its ability to support large enrollment courses.

Phil Hill, an education technology consultant, said Coursera's announcement represented not just an expansion of colleges that partner with Coursera but an expansion of and change to the company's business model.

"This could be an indication of the MOOC providers getting much more pressure from their venture capital investors and themselves that they need to find revenue models -- and LMS is a revenue model," Hill said, referring to the learning management systems market.

Josh Coates, the CEO of the company that makes the Canvas learning management system, which entered the market two years ago, said Coursera continues to conduct interesting experiments to compete against "older legacy systems" but he also sensed an effort to find cash.

"I think they are still trying to figure out any business model and a market to go into, because, right now, there really isn't a MOOC market -- there's no money changing hands," Coates said.

The deals between Coursera and the institutions were months in the making. One of the early players on the state system side was Houston Davis, the chief academic officer at the University System of Georgia. The Georgia Institute of Technology, which is a member of the system, put itself atop a pile of new developments last month when it announced plans to offer a $6,630 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors. That deal is with Udacity, another MOOC provider.

Davis said he and Koller talked about changing the MOOC conversation from content creation -- with star professors pumping out MOOCs for masses of students -- to what he called “utilization.”

Koller said she now wants people to start thinking of Coursera content as a textbook.

“I think it is rather like a shared textbook, though I think the key distinction is you cannot give a textbook to a shared group of students and expect students to learn from it,” Koller said.

This creates some new ways for Coursera to bring in cash. Right now it is relying on charging for verified completion certificates and revenue from an affiliates program if users buy books suggested by professors.

Now, Koller said, some institutions will be buying content from each other to use for courses. Coursera, of course, will get a cut of that.

In anticipation of working with Coursera, West Virginia University restructured its administration by creating an office of “Academic Innovation.”

The partnership between the university the Coursera came together after WVU President Jim Clements ran into Koller earlier this year at the Business-Higher Education Forum in Washington and the two talked over dinner.

"This is, for us, a good chance to have a seat at the table," Clements said. 

So far, much of the MOOC craze has been driven by elite institutions. Koller and her business partner, Andrew Ng, are both Stanford professors. Udacity, another MOOC provider that is looking at new business models, was also started by professors who had taught at Stanford. A third major American-based player is edX, which was created with $60 million from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Coursera announcement, even though it spans institutions across the country, appears to be somewhat closely guarded. For instance, when WVU announced its restructuring last week, it said it was setting itself up for new ventures but did not mention the Coursera partnership.

Also, a review of online agendas and meeting minutes from the governing boards of all of Coursera’s newly-announced partners gives no indication the governing boards have publicly voted to enter into a contract with Coursera. It was also unclear how many contracts had been signed with Coursera. 

A Coursera spokeswoman referred a question about procurement to state officials. In Colorado, university attorney Patrick O'Rourke said no money is changing hands so there did not need to be board action. In West Virginia, a spokesman, John Bolt, said the president has authority to sign contracts and this one is not subject to bidding requirements. In the SUNY system, Hatch said the contract with Coursera doesn’t obligate the university to do anything.

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