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Schools Jump onto Free Online Course Service but Hedge on Certification

Coursera's on a growing streak. The number of new institutions of higher education to sign onto the free online course site has more than doubled, bringing the total count of colleges and universities participating to 33 from 16. Among the new schools participating: Berklee College of Music, Columbia University, Ohio State, Vanderbilt, and Wesleyan.

Each participating institution contracts with the company to provide classes taught by members of their faculty. With the new additions, Coursera now hosts more than 200 courses from 33 domestic and international universities and reaches 1.3 million students, or "Courserians," as they're called, around the world.

Students can sign up for free to gain access to online video lectures and interactive activities, such as discussion forums. The initiative has also sparked creation of in-person meetups in 600 cities, according to the company. The classes, which also include required reading, assignments, and quizzes, last a set number of weeks and in many cases earn a certificate at the end for those who successfully complete the requirements.

One new participant is the University of California Irvine, which has added seven courses and is already involved in a Coursera-like initiative run by the OpenCourseWare Consortium, but without the interactive components that Coursera provides. UCI also offers educational materials on iTunes U, YouTube, Connexions, California State University-managed MERLOT, and other repositories.

So making the decision to join Coursera wasn't a big leap, according to Gary Matkin, dean of Continuing Education, Distance Learning, and Summer Session, and Larry Cooperman, director of UCI's OpenCourseWare. "It's another channel, another way of getting our stuff out there," notes Matkin.

Because the university had a large portfolio of course material already compiled from previous open courseware initiatives, "it [was] a much smaller step for us to put things on the platform with Coursera than it might be for another institution that hadn't already developed things to this point," noted Cooperman. "We had a lot to choose from."

The push to participate came at least partially from inside the university, particularly among faculty, said Matkin. "I've probably had four to five phone calls or e-mails per week--'What are you guys doing about Coursera?' They read the newspaper. They see Stanford doing it. What are we doing about it?"

In fact, once UCI decided to jump on board, the deal took only three weeks to put together from the time the university was in contact with Coursera until now. That included signing a contract and putting together promotional videos. "We did everything in record time," Cooperman said. "But we'd never have been able to do it if we hadn't preceded this with serious capacity building at UCI."

Cooperman pointed out that participation in a high-profile endeavor such as Coursera has "reputational aspects" to it: "The school becomes better known."

But, added Matkin, there's a mission the university needs to fulfill as well, and the open courseware work done by UCI addresses that. "This year UCI had 70,000 applications for undergraduate spots. We were in the top 10 in the country. We admitted something like 20,000. And we yielded something like 5,200," he said. "There is no shortage of demand for our 'regular program.'"

On top of that the average grade point average for entering freshman was a perfect 4.0. "We're not going to run out of students at a very high quality," he said. "How do we fulfill our public role as a public university and a land grant university when our reputation is based on how many people we exclude?... We have to exclude thousands and thousands of people who could get a good education here."

Opening up courses up "for free to the world" is something, Matkin added, "that is absolutely endorsed by my chancellor, is understood by the administration here, and increasingly faculty members are getting onto it."

On a practical level, the main challenge the university faced in joining up with Coursera was working out the contractual terms that dealt with the notions of certification and authentication of learners, according to Matkin. "The idea that anything with UCI's name on it that had anything to do with and looked in any way like academic credit or 'certificational' learning, that's a big barrier for us."

In part, that gets to the heart of one of Coursera's major revenue generation models: the sale of certificates to students who complete a course. According to the text included in the contract that the University of Michigan has with Coursera, the company is allowed to provide "University-branded certificates" that don't carry University credit but do certify achievement by the student of an "instructor" specified threshold of performance for a particular course."

But at UCI, "faculty are not ready to do that," Matkin said. "They're ready to put their stuff up for free. They're ready to have people look at it and learn from it. But to have UCI put its name on a certificate that says, 'You got an 80 percent on the test,' even that is really difficult for us."

The concern is timely. In recent weeks Coursera has had to address complaints of plagiarism committed by participants on the platform by broadcasting honor code reminders. As a Slate article asked, "Why would students cheat on a free online class that doesn't count toward anything?"

Because at some point in the near future, it will count, said Matkin. He noted that Colorado State University-Global Campus had already announced that it would be giving three transfer credit hours to students who finish a free computer science class on Coursera competitor Udacity.

"There's going to be a large systematic way of doing this that's going to be academically validated in some way, very, very soon. That's being spurred by, 'We gotta make money out of this somehow, and if we could get a $10 profit out of everyone that wants the certificate, that's a lot of money if you've got 10,000 students,'" Matkin said.

In the meantime, he added, UCI has given Coursera "the right to use our stuff and to make their own assessments; but the certificate that students get [won't] have our name on it."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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