University of Minnesota to join wave of massive open online courses, offering five classes in science fields


The University of Minnesota will create and offer free massive open online courses for students and the general public this year.

The University last week was one of 29 schools to announce it will partner with California-based Coursera to produce classes available for free on the Internet.

Administrators began considering working with Coursera in the fall and asked professors who already had extensive online content if they’d be interested in conducting MOOCs.

The University will offer five science courses in May, which students can already sign up for.

Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson said there’s no substantial financial impact on the University as a result of the MOOCs right now.

“We don’t expect any big monetary effect in the short run,” she said. “The production of the MOOCs has been proceeding essentially by volunteer work.”

Although the classes are free, Coursera generates revenue through small fees for course certificates, records and career services that connect employers with students. The University will share any revenue generated from the MOOCs with Coursera.

While some say MOOCs are the future of higher education, others argue online courses take away from the learning experience of face-to-face time with faculty and peers.

Hanson said the MOOCs will be advantageous for both faculty and students, such as allowing faculty to get feedback from a larger sample of students.

“They’ll be able to tell from a massive number of people what has gotten through in the course and what people are still struggling with,” she said.

Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, said the company has more than 2.7 million students.

“We started Coursera because with the technology one professor can teach not just 50 students in a class but 50,000,” Ng said. “I think there’s a potential to transform higher education and give everyone in the world access to a great education, not just the privileged few.”

The content University of Minnesota professors develop for MOOCs will be the property of the school but can be used in credit-worthy classes on campus.

Pros and cons

Michael Oakes, an associate professor in the School of Public Health, said he’s excited about working with MOOCs because students from around the world can collaborate and learn “in a way that’s simply impossible in a traditional classroom.”

But MOOCs also come with a lack of personal interaction, Oakes said.

“I think the principle disadvantage is the inability to have that Socratic dialogue in a more classroom-traditional setting,” he said. “I think that’s going to be impossible in the MOOC or online format.”

The lack of student-professor interaction and the crediting system are other disadvantages, said Chris Cramer, the University’s faculty liaison for e-learning initiatives who helped move the MOOC idea forward at the University.

“Taking a MOOC is still a little bit of a labor of love. You just want to know more, and you think it would do you good to know more,” he said. “But you won’t necessarily be credentialed in a way that carries with it any common value to people you might want to present a credential to.”

Hanson said MOOCs might not be the most viable option for certain students, like prospective researchers.

“You can’t train the next generation of researchers, for example, through MOOCs,” she said. “You have to have them engaged in research, and that really does require access to laboratories and to researchers who can train them in the way researchers have been trained for a very long time.”

But MOOCs can provide education for students who don’t necessarily have the means to experience traditional higher education, Hanson said.

MOOCs “clearly will play a role in education in some other parts of the world, and they’re helping people in remote areas. They’re helping people who don’t have access to bricks and mortar campuses or faculties right now,” she said.

Cramer said students may take the fast-growing online courses for a variety of reasons, like checking out a subject area.

Epidemiology master’s student Bryan Labore said he wouldn’t take a MOOC because he doesn’t have time, but he still supports the idea.

“I’m all for educating people. If I don’t have to pay for it, I don’t really care.”

The University and Coursera’s contract doesn’t have a set timeframe. Both the school and the company can request course material be taken down.

What’s next for MOOCs and higher education is unclear, Hanson said.

“I don’t think anybody really knows for sure how the MOOCs will play a role in higher education in the United States in the future,” she said. “I think that MOOCs may be part of the future of higher education, but they aren’t all of higher education.”

Nationwide trend

The latest partnership doubles the number of universities offering free online courses this year with Coursera and edX, another leading MOOC provider.

Of the new institutions, 16 are outside the U.S.

Ng said Coursera is pleased the University decided to partner with the company because of its forward-thinking views on higher education.

“Many people in Minnesota are taking a leadership role in thinking through what legal structure surrounding higher education should be,” he said. “So we’re deeply honored when the U of M decided to work with us on creating MOOCs.”

—The Associated Press and Marion Renault contributed to this report.