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UNC-CH joins effort to open some classes to the masses

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    Coursera now has 223 courses listed on its website. Registration is free. To see the offerings, go to www.coursera.org



UNC-Chapel Hill will join a mass movement in higher education when it begins offering free online courses to the public, officials will announce Thursday.

Beginning in the fall, the university will offer the classes under an agreement with Coursera, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company that has signed dozens of universities to provide online courses on the company’s platform.

With the addition of 29 universities on Thursday, including UNC-CH, Coursera’s worldwide partners have jumped to 62. Duke University joined Coursera in 2012.

In the past year, universities have raced to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The free classes are open to anyone who registers; a single course can attract tens of thousands of students from around the globe.

Participation has been stunning. Coursera, the for-profit company started last year by two Stanford University professors, already has 2.8 million registered users, company officials say.

But the long-term impact of the MOOC movement is unclear. Most MOOCs do not give academic credit toward a degree, but that is likely to change. Universities and companies are exploring how to award credit, how to prevent cheating and how to make money from a venture that offers education from top professors for free.

Though these questions remain unresolved, the hype has spurred many universities into action. The phenomenon is exciting to those who see it as a way to extend education to the masses who wouldn’t be able to get it otherwise.

UNC-CH’s involvement with Coursera will start modestly, with four courses in public health, music, law and library science.

The university reviewed 10 proposals from faculty members who wanted to teach MOOCs for the first round. More will be offered in the future, and the courses do not necessarily follow a semester in length or start time.

Duke has already offered courses on such subjects as neuroscience, English composition, health care innovation, philosophy and human physiology.

180,000 registered

Two philosophy professors, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke and Ram Neta from UNC-CH, co-taught a Duke logic class on Coursera from November through last week. At one point, about 180,000 people had registered for the course, called “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.”

By the end of the 12-week course, Sinnott-Armstrong said, there had been 3.6 million views or downloads of course videos. About 17,000 students were still active and about 3,000 were expected to receive a completion certificate for finishing all the quizzes and assignments.

Despite the number of dropouts, Sinnott-Armstrong said he had reached more people through “Think Again” than in his 30-year career in academia.

Starting small

Carol Tresolini, UNC-CH’s vice provost for academic initiatives, said university leaders consulted Duke about its experience with Coursera as it considered the venture.

There is no cost estimate for UNC-CH’s future online courses, Tresolini said, but already many faculty and staff hours have been logged. That’s why only four courses will be offered at the start, she said.

“This is something we’re going to be tracking,” she said Wednesday. “Given the budget situation the past several years, we don’t have unlimited resources, obviously.”

The investment is likely to pay off in the classroom in Chapel Hill, Tresolini said. Professors will gain valuable knowledge about how to improve large enrollment courses and how to use technology to improve teaching and learning.

Plus, she said, it benefits people who want to boost their learning without a tuition bill.

“It’s another way for us to extend the intellectual resources of the university to the public,” she said. “I think this is a core part of our mission and who we are as a university.”

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