Online College Courses Get A Big Boost,
But Doubts Persist

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Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCS, are reshaping the landscape of higher education. And there's no bigger MOOC than Coursera, the for-profit tech company, with 3.5 million people taking its online courses. Today, Coursera unveiled a partnership with 10 state university systems serving well over a million students.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, it is the biggest shift so far of degree-granting institutions into the world of global online education.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: For Tennessee's 46 public colleges and universities, the deal with Coursera is huge, but not without its risks.

RICH RHODA: This is a leap in faith but, again, I think the potential good far outweighs the bad.

SANCHEZ: Rich Rhoda is executive director of Tennessee's Higher Education Commission. He says the bad is not knowing whether MOOCS can truly compliment, let alone replace, traditional classroom instruction.

RHODA: Well, you just described the discussions in Tennessee. We look at it as an experiment.

SANCHEZ: The good that could result from this experiment, says Rhoda, is that students may now be able to earn a degree more quickly, more cheaply; entirely online or as part of a regular course. Institutions will be able to showcase their top professors and connect students to professors at other schools.

As part of the Coursera network, the University of Tennessee System - and those in New York, Georgia, Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Mexico, West Virginia and the Houston University System - will now join the ranks of elite institutions that have embraced the MOOC model.

Like most states involved in the deal, colleges in Tennessee already offer lots of courses online, which Coursera will format into modules for a fee.

RHODA: We're talking about three to $5,000.

SANCHEZ: That's per course. It's a fraction of what it costs to develop and deliver a regular course. That's the hook, says Rhoda.

RHODA: Replacing campus scholars with cyber scholars.

SANCHEZ: Schools save money and cut costs. It's how schools are responding to tight budgets and the economic realities of higher education.

DAPHNE KOLLER: This is going to transform the way that we teach on college campuses. It's not going to substitute for it.

SANCHEZ: Daphne Koller is Coursera's co-founder. A professor of computer science at Stanford University who, by the way, hates the term MOOCs but who's pushing the concept and turning higher education on its head.

KOLLER: The whole landscape of higher education has been reshaped as a consequence of this phenomenon. Multiple institutions that had not considered online to be a critical part of their mission are now no longer thinking whether, they're thinking when and how.

SANCHEZ: Still, even among institutions that are partnering with Coursera there are questions.

HOUSTON DAVIS: Oh, absolutely.

SANCHEZ: Houston Davis is chief academic officer and vice chancellor with the University System of Georgia.

DAVIS: I don't think anyone should see it as a magic pill. This has to be about high quality teaching and learning opportunities at an affordable price for students.

SANCHEZ: This fall, Davis says Georgia's 31 state colleges and universities will be working with Coursera to improve quality, access and raise college completion rates.

Critics aren't so sure, though, that Coursera or MOOCs in general can do any of these things.

EILEEN LANDY: Whether it costs a little less or a little more, I would not want my child's education to be an experiment.

SANCHEZ: Eileen Landy, professor of sociology at the State University of New York-Old Westbury, is with the union that represents the 35,000 faculty members in the SUNY system.

LANDY: We know MOOCs have an average about 10 percent completion rate and that's among very highly motivated students. If you target MOOCs for incoming students, students who need remediation, the chances are we'll lose them.

SANCHEZ: But Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the SUNY system, says that with nearly half a million students on 64 campuses, SUNY'S goal is to use Coursera to help more students complete their degrees, not discourage them.

NANCY ZIMPHER: And since we have so many people who need what we offer, why not enhance access and completion through this vehicle as well?

SANCHEZ: It's the future, says Zimpher. As for Coursera's future, Daphne Koller says its partnership with states will be a model for working with countries around the world, where people have no access to higher education.

KOLLER: You can basically change lives by giving people an opportunity they never had before.

SANCHEZ: Koller calls it Coursera's social mission.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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