The online education platform Coursera  announced today that 12 more universities had signed on as partners, joining the 4 that were part of the startup’s launch in April . Joining the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, University of Michigan and Stanford are Georgia Tech, Duke University, University of Washington, Caltech, Rice University, University of Edinburgh, University of Toronto, EPFL - Lausanne (Switzerland), Johns Hopkins University (School of Public Health), UCSF, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Virginia.
That last university is a particularly interesting one, considering the role that MOOCs played in the ouster of UVA president Teresa Sullivan by its Board of Visitors. The decision-making at UVA is the focus of much of Inside Higher Ed’s Steve Kolowich’s article  on today’s news. Kolowich chronicles the negotiations among UVA deans, faculty members and Coursera, noting the irony that these discussions were ongoing as the BOV fired Sullivan for failing to have an adequate response to their questions about the university’s plans to respond to the Stanford-model MOOCs. The plans are clear now: join the Coursera platform.
The rapid expansion of Coursera’s partners, along with the equity investment made by two of them, certainly suggests that many institutions are preparing to face what the New York Times’ David Brooks called the “campus tsunami .” Initially, Coursera had to woo schools and professors; now schools and professors are approaching Coursera, which offers universities its technology and expertise in teaching and grading “at scale.” And while this might demonstrate what Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng told me – that “MOOCs are not a passing fad” – it’s not clear yet how MOOCs will evolve as they expand to new disciplines and new universities and/or how these MOOCs will change higher education in turn.
It’s the latter that seems to elicit the most excitement  and concern . Georgia Tech computer science professor Mark Guzdial has shared  the email that faculty received there announcing its partnership with Coursera. In it, Provost Rafael Bras offers reassurance that “we are not abandoning our central mission of residential undergraduate instruction. In fact, we view this as an opportunity to remain true to our pledge to define the technological research university of the 21st century by exploring new modes of instruction and operation. What we learn from the Coursera and other similar experiments will above all benefit our own students and strengthen our existing programs.”
That echoes how Ng and his co-founder Daphne Koller describe Coursera as creating a “better education for everyone.” When I spoke to the duo when Coursera launched, Koller said that the creation of these online courses will make for robust and active learning experiences on campus. There is a “growing amount of content out there on the Web,” she said, and “the value proposition for the university isn’t getting the content out there but rather the personal interaction between faculty and students and students and students.”
That is part of the value proposition of the residential campus experience, I’d argue. When I asked Ng about the impetus behind these universities’ signing up for Coursera, he said that both faculty and administration were pushing for it. But students at these universities, not so much. That’s not to say that students in general aren’t interested in the free online classes – Coursera boasts 1.5 million course enrollments by over 680,000 students. But these students aren’t necessarily that same population served by a residential campus. (According to demographics  from Ng’s Machine Learning class offered last fall, only about 11% were in undergraduate degree programs.) In The New York Times  today, University of Michigan (and Coursera) professor Scott Page says, “There’s talk about how online education’s going to wipe out universities, but a lot of what we do on campus is help people transition from 18 to 22, and that is a complicated thing,.” He adds that MOOCs would be most helpful to “people 22 to 102, international students and smart retired people.”
Who’s being “helped” here is a crucial consideration – for institutions, for faculty (both research and instructional faculty), for enrolled students and for learners everywhere.
A few lingering questions:
- How will the University of Washington’s plans to offer credit for its Coursera classes work? (And related: how will concerns about online cheating be addressed? Udacity partnered with Pearson for this.)
- How will a partnership with Coursera change universities’ other online course offerings? (These universities and other universities, pre-existing and planned programs, and particularly for-credit ones)
- How will the peer grading work? (History professor Jonathan Rees raises questions  about how well students will be able to evaluate one another’s assignments.)
- With all these online lecture-based course options, whither the offline lecture-based course offerings? And how will funding models have to change for universities if students opt to learn “elsewhere” for these credits?