Free online courses ‘inevitable’ at the University of Minnesota


The University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus offers 415 online courses, but it doesn’t offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs — yet.

Karen Hanson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, said developing MOOCs is “inevitable,” but the University has to figure out how to pay for them first.

Over the past few years, many universities have started offering free online courses to the general public. Across the nation, universities are struggling to determine where these courses fit into higher education.

The state of Minnesota received backlash online last week after informing MOOC platform Coursera it had to pay a fee in order to offer free courses to Minnesota residents.

State officials said they would contemplate changing the 20-year-old law that requires registration for non-credit offering institutions this January, according to the Pioneer Press. The law was originally put in place to protect residents from scams offering online classes.

The nonprofit MOOC platform EdX was founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. It offers courses from a range of different disciplines, and more than 150,000 people signed up for its first course on electronics, according to the website.

“This is something we’re working on this year,” Hanson said, “but we have to have faculty who are interested in producing MOOCs.”

Course development

Traditional online courses typically cost $16,000 to $45,000 to develop, according to the University’s Digital Campus website.

The Digital Campus was established in 2008 to gather all of the University’s online courses and resources in one place for students and faculty.

Bob Rubinyi, Digital Campus co-director, said the majority of this development cost goes to paying staff to optimize course content for online delivery.

While MOOCs generally have shorter video snippets and are not as technologically rich, they still take time to produce.

“MOOCs done well are actually quite expensive,” Hanson said. “They don’t have a financial model in place that allows one to recoup the costs.”

University computer science professor Shashi Shekhar said it took him about 130 hours to develop his most recent online course.

Each academic unit has a different system for developing online courses. While Shekhar did most of the online development on his own, faculty members from other disciplines often hire staff to produce content for them.

The typical time required to develop an online course is from 70 to 600 hours, according to Digital Campus’ website. Because Shekhar has been developing online courses since 1996, he said it doesn’t take him that long.

‘Changed landscape’

Hanson said many of the universities that currently develop MOOCs do it for name recognition.

“We’re interested in that, too,” she said, “but I think, fundamentally, we would be interested in MOOCs because we have a broad mission for education.”

Shekhar said online courses will continue to grow in popularity because students are becoming more comfortable with technology.

“As we see the new student demographics,” he said, “we think [online courses are] something that should be taken seriously and should be done.”

Whether these online courses will be MOOCs depends on how the University can pay for them, Hanson said.

“MOOCs have to be not just aligned with, but part of a broader e-learning strategy that has a return for students who are residents on our campus right now,” she said, “and for the public outreach activities that we are already committed to.”