After online struggles, university will try free web courses

Coursera partnered with 12 universities this week.

The University of Illinois (UI) will give online learning another shot.

By teaming up with Coursera, one of several new online education companies, the university will dip a toe into a fast-growing trend in higher education to offer free courses to an unlimited number of students. It’s a low-risk venture compared with the UI’s failed and expensive Global Campus online initiative from several years ago.

The Urbana-Champaign campus is one of a dozen universities that on July 17 announced partnerships with California-based Coursera, joining Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania, which joined earlier this year.

“As the only land-grant university on the list, we have expertise in areas that others don’t. We will be able to offer courses that no other university has in their repertoire,” said Phyllis Wise, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus.

The courses won’t count toward a degree, however.

And the university may be able to make money off the venture, either through a fee for course-completion certificates or the sale of students’ names to potential employers.

The first UI courses — in subjects including organic chemistry, microeconomics and programming for smartphones — will begin this fall. Future online classes could include veterinary medicine and agriculture.

“I would love to see a future where UIUC is teaching not just thousands of students, but millions,” said Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer science professor who started the company last year after an online course he taught drew more than 100,000 students worldwide.

While the Coursera-hosted courses are free, the UI’s may charge students $30 to $80 for a certificate showing they successfully completed the course. Ng said the UI’s would get some of that revenue.

He said the company also is working on an arrangement where employers could pay to receive the names of high-achieving students who opt-in to share their information. Universities also would get a portion of that revenue.

Wise said UI’s approached Coursera because it was eager to join what some are calling a revolution in higher education. Coursera, founded last year by Ng and another Stanford professor, has offered 43 courses since April.

The online courses include lecture video clips that can be as short as 15 minutes and auto-graded quizzes. A computer science class may include programming homework, while a poetry course could have peer-reviewed assessments. Students can post questions and answers in a discussion forum.

With the 12 new universities, Coursera expects to host about 125 classes between now and January. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also recently announced plans to offer Massive Online Open Courses, known as MOOCs.