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The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has chosen an unusual partner for its online M.B.A. program: massive open online course provider Coursera.

The program, known as iMBA, will deliver most of its course content through Specializations, Coursera’s term for course sequences. Students will be able to take those sequences in four different ways -- two that award credit and two that don’t.

As with any MOOC, the content is available for free. Learners who wish to earn a credential but have no need for academic credit can pay a small fee, $79 a course, for an identity-verified certificate. Students can also apply to the College of Business and, if accepted, pursue the full M.B.A. degree. Finally, students can choose to take the courses individually for credit, postponing a decision about whether to go for a degree until they are well into the program.

“That’s why we call it fractional learning,” said Rajagopal Echambadi, associate dean of outreach and engagement. “Think of it as Lego blocks.”

The iMBA announcement comes less than two weeks after Arizona State University and edX, another MOOC provider, unveiled plans to offer a year’s worth of credit through massive open online courses. A Faculty Senate committee at Illinois approved the plans during a meeting Monday night, placing the iMBA program on track to launch next spring. Updated -CS

Illinois is one of Coursera’s most prolific partner universities, having created dozens of MOOCs since joining in 2012. Administrators at the College of Business, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary, approached Coursera last year about “giving something back,” said Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s cofounders. Together, they spent months developing an M.B.A. program whose individual courses would work as free, stand-alone MOOCs but also add up to a degree worth the price tag, she said.

The university plans to price the 18 courses at about $1,000 each. With the added cost of the identity verification fee, the total cost of the degree will be about $20,000, Echambadi said. The university does not have an existing online M.B.A. program, but it charges in-state students in the part-time M.B.A. program about $9,000 a semester and full-time students about $22,000 a year for tuition. The MOOC offerings will cost the same for residents and nonresidents of Illinois.

Being admitted to the college grants students access to the university’s content management system, where they will find case studies, exams and office hours with faculty members. Coursera will host asynchronous content such as recorded lectures and quizzes, and all students -- regardless of the credential they pursue -- will interact on the online forums. Echambadi said he expects the content on Coursera will total about 20 percent of the course work for credit-seeking students.

The low price may help the program stand out in market growing increasingly crowded as more selective institutions launch their online offerings. Echambadi also said he hoped splitting the program into Specializations will attract students interested in “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” -- those who may only want a Specialization in accounting or digital marketing, for example.

Of the thousands who take the MOOC for free, the university expects to enroll four cohorts of about 50 students each in the degree program and an additional 200 to 300 non-degree-seeking students next spring.

Despite the reduced price and the new form of delivery, the program will use the same content and faculty. Echambadi said the business school therefore will not seek prior approval from its accreditor, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, for what it sees as “an existing program in a new vehicle.”

The university will share revenue from credit-seeking students with Coursera, but the terms have not yet been finalized, Koller said.

One partnership does not mean Coursera is entering the online “enabler” business to compete with companies such as 2U or Pearson, however. For example, if a university asked the company to host a degree program capped at 150 students, she said, Coursera would likely respond “that’s not the business we’re in.”

Marketing is one of the main reasons why universities agree to share sometimes as much as half of their tuition revenue with enablers. With a user base of nearly 13 million, Coursera will be able to provide potential students more “organically,” Koller said. “We don’t have to fish for students -- they come.”

Finding a way to earn credit through MOOCs “hasn’t been a priority for us,” Koller said. The company this spring indicated it has built a business model out of Specializations, on-demand content and partnerships with the private sector -- priorities that target adults looking for continuing education. “Right now, that’s the place where we see a tremendous opportunity for change,” she said.

Asked why it has taken a Coursera partner three years (the company launched in 2012) to offer a degree through MOOCs, Koller said she "sometimes laughs with a little bit of chagrin" in response to one of the most common criticisms against MOOC providers -- that they haven't revolutionized higher education overnight. "The fact that it’s been online three years and counting, I think, has been pretty remarkable. I would expect to see a lot more of these [initiatives] over the next two years." New -CS

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