The movement of "Massive Open Online Courses," which began with elite universities making their courses available online to the masses, is rapidly moving into the trenches of public higher education.
On Thursday, 10 large public university systems — including the giant state systems of New York, Tennessee, Colorado and the University of Houston — announce plans to incorporate MOOCs and platforms offered through for-profit Coursera into their own teaching.
The plans vary widely. Some institutions will focus on improving prep courses for students coming into the system, others on matriculated students both online and on-campus, and still others will be developing their own MOOCs to teach students at other institutions in their states. At least one system, Tennessee, plans a version of an experiment cropping up at schools around the country: having students take in-person and customized MOOC-like versions of the same course, and comparing results.
But overall, the announcement is the latest ramping up of higher education's MOOC experiment, which launched in earnest barely a year ago as a way to sample elite college courses. But it is now tangibly affecting the large public institutions that do much of the heavy lifting of American higher education. The latest batch of partners also includes the Universities of Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Mexico and West Virginia University.
"We noticed the vast majority of ours students were people who already had degrees and wanted to continue their education," said Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller. "We really wanted to move the needle on fundamental educational problems" of access and affordability. Because Coursera does not produce its own content or administer degree courses, "you have to work within the framework of the institutions that are actually good at that," she said.
The announcement also shows the extent to which, for cash-strapped university leaders and policymakers, the MOOCs and the platforms they are built on offer an irresistible promise of doing more with less — to scale up education and help students move more efficiently toward a degree.
"It's been a challenge in reduced financial capacity to offer all the courses all the time that every student needs to complete a degree," said SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. "That's what slows students down — our inability to provide degree-required courses students need at exactly the speed they want them."
Many aren't convinced, however, the trend is good for students, and the latest announcement comes as the sheer speed of the MOOC movement is raising concerns on campus. In recent weeks, faculty at Duke and Amherst have voted against elements of expanding MOOCs on their campuses, and 58 Harvard faculty last week called for a new university committee to consider ethical issues related to Harvard's participation in edX, a MOOC-producing consortium led by Harvard and MIT. Some California faculty have also protested plans in the state higher education system to use MOOCs to supplement teaching on campus.
Legislators in Florida and California are pressing to force universities to accept credit from MOOC courses, especially if students can't get into the in-person versions of the courses they need. Peter Stokes, an expert on education innovation at Northeastern University, said more such efforts will follow — likely to the alarm of some faculty.
"It almost seems to promote the notion that there is this no-cost alternative for higher education," he said. "It feeds into the fear that many public institutions have that the political solution to higher education is to continue to divest."
At SUNY, Zimpher said the giant, 64-campus system (which already has 150 online degree programs) would be working with Coursera and other providers as part of a broader effort to expand capacity of its "Open SUNY" online program by 100,000 students, potentially offering students up to one-third of their online degree programs outside SUNY.
Details on programs and courses aren't yet set, but she emphasized than any MOOC courses would be evaluated for possible credit by similar faculty mechanisms SUNY currently uses to assess traditional courses.
"We must maintain the same academic oversight and the same academic standards that have applied for decades in our residential delivery system when we employ online delivery," she said.
The University of Tennessee, meanwhile, will have faculty at its Martin and Chattanooga campuses work with Coursera to develop entirely online versions of first-year courses in English composition and masterpieces of music, both general education requirements (these courses won't be "open" to non-UT students, so aren't really "MOOCs," but they will borrow from Coursera's technology platforms). The broader state system of two- and four-year colleges governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents is also part of the agreement announced Thursday.
Tennessee will run two kinds of courses — traditional and online — side-by-side, and the results will be compared. University officials said it would be up to the campuses to work out how students would be selected and whether they would have a choice which track to take, but all would get credit.
The university has been awarded about $50,000 in start-up costs to develop the courses. Afterward, it will pay Coursera $3,000 per class and $25 per student — substantially cheaper than traditional instruction.
But it's not clear how much help students will have. In a conference call with reporters, system president Joe DiPietro and Katie High, vice president for academic affairs and student success, indicated students could send faculty e-mails and those on-campus could approach faculty with questions. If so, that raises questions about whether the technology is truly improving efficiency for faculty as much as promised.
In a world where even many on-campus students are already taking online courses, often from other institutions and transferring them, Thursday's announcements further blur the distinctions not just within universities but between them.
"Now can we find a way to interact with the University of Georgia system and perhaps exchange course content and delivery mechanisms," SUNY's Zimpher said, adding that for future students "choosing" one school or another will no longer mean sacrificing opportunities.
"That is a brave new world into which we are all entering and we want to play in that space," she said.
Follow Justin Pope on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JustinPopeAP