More than 680,000 students have taken a Coursera class.

The University of Virginia will make four of its courses available for free online in 2013 after the campus’s governing board last month cited a lack of web-based courses in its controversial ouster of President Teresa Sullivan.

But advocates for online education said the university’s partnership with for-profit internet learning site Coursersa—which announced partnerships with 12 universities July 17—should be seen as a tepid embrace of nontraditional courses, not as a momentous shift toward a new learning model.

UVa. will post courses in physics, history, and philosophy to Coursera, part of the massive open online course (MOOC) movement that includes other free educational websites like edX, Udacity, and the Khan Academy.

The courses will be available to anyone with an internet connection. UVa. students will not earn credits upon completion of each Coursera class, whereas students at the University of Washington soon will be able to take Coursera classes for credit.

Coursera offers 43 college courses to more than 680,000 people worldwide. The site could have more than 100 classes by January, according to a company announcement.

Educational technology leaders said UVa.’s sudden willingness to join the MOOC movement reeked of political consideration in the wake of a nasty fight between the school’s governing board, led by rector Helen Dragas, and Sullivan, who was voted out in June only to be reinstated after a weeks-long campus outcry from faculty and students.

“From afar, the University of Virginia’s partnership with Coursera seems to be a reaction to the pressures President Sullivan received from the board, and specifically Helen Dragas,” said Kevin Corbett, a technologist who tracks advances in online learning in K-12 and higher education. “Really pretty crazy the power plays that exist within institutions as they rush to jump on the new online learning gold rush.”

In a lengthy critique of Sullivan published this summer, Dragas said the university had fallen behind peer institutions in online class offerings, bemoaning the lack of a “centralized approach to dealing with this potentially transformational development” at UVa.

“Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight,” Dragas wrote in her critique.

Sullivan sought to ease fears among UVa. decision makers that making course lectures and material available for no charge on the web would cheapen the university’s academics.

“They will in no way diminish the value of a UVa. degree, but rather enhance our brand,” she said. “We also gain the opportunity to share the expertise of our faculty, both in the classroom and the research labs.”

Bill Sams, an executive in residence at Ohio University, said prestigious schools’ participation in MOOCs was only an initial step toward credential-based learning in the global online classroom.

“For those who try to make this sea change go away with the observation that these courses still don’t lead to credits or degrees are beyond naive in that this phenomena is only six months old,” Sams said. “As industry recognizes the power of badges to define specific industry job skills, the concept of one size liberal arts degree fits all is going to be in serious trouble.”


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