Interest grows in open online courses for public colleges

The movement of ‘‘Massive Open Online Courses,’’ which began with elite universities making their courses available online to the public, 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 — will 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.

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‘‘We noticed the vast majority of ours students were people who already had degrees and wanted to continue their education,’’ said Coursera cofounder 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 policy makers, 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 members 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. 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.