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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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UW-Madison agrees to offer the free online courses known as MOOCs
Officials argue the benefits outweigh the threats
Ortalo-Magné: The challenge is sustaining research when financial support declines.
Ortalo-Magné: The challenge is sustaining research when financial support declines.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has taken the plunge into the brave new world of massively available, free online course offerings.

The largest provider of open online college courses had been courting the university to join its network of free content providers since at least last summer.

According to Jeff Russell, vice provost for Life Long Learning and dean of the Division of Continuing Studies, the UW administration resisted those overtures until last month. That's when interim chancellor David Ward announced that the university would join Coursera, which will now provide hundreds of free online courses from dozens of institutions of higher learning.

As I reported last November in an Isthmus cover story, the UW is somewhat late to what has become a very fast game. Coursera, founded just last year in California by Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, originally had only a handful of universities and a few dozen course offerings.

Coursera is currently offering 325 courses from 62 universities around the world, including such prestigious names as Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Cal Tech. The UW now joins other Big Ten schools, including Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern. Big Ten schools-in-waiting, Rutgers and Maryland, are also members of the Coursera family.

On its website Coursera boasts 2.8 million "Courserians" taking classes through the online platform. Massively open online courses (or MOOCs) can be accessed any time from anywhere in the world for free but, as of now, not usually for credit.

The UW's first offerings will be available through Coursera starting in September, with some classes not beginning until next January. The UW will initially offer four courses: Video Games & Learning, Globalizing Higher Education, Human Evolution and Markets with Frictions.

Kris Olds, chair of the UW's geography department, will teach the course in globalizing higher education together with a colleague based in England. Olds reflects the widespread mix of excitement for the possibilities of MOOCs tempered with a little bit of caution.

Already, almost a year before it will begin, 1,200 people from around the world have signed up for his course, and he has even received an inquiry from a Pakistani government official who may take his class.

"Among many other things, MOOCs could be used to do professional development," Olds says. "It's a great platform to do something new for different kinds of audiences." He uses as an example education in regional governance and development that might be offered to new public officials across a given region.

"It could be used as a complement to existing courses, mixed and matched with workshops and so on," he says, but not as a replacement for the traditional bricks-and-mortar university.

Olds is concerned about the potential for "politicalization" of MOOCs. He says it could be used by public budget cutters as "a Trojan Horse to try to dismantle the public university."

After resisting direct solicitations from Coursera cofounder Koller for months, why did the UW commit to join the platform now?

Russell says that the window was closing. Coursera had made it clear that the next round of universities to join their platform would be the last for a while. Russell paraphrased Stanford President John Hennessy as telling Ward that the UW had better not be left behind. So, in February, the UW became part of a cohort of 28 institutions to join at the same time.

Russell said that Coursera is consistent with Ward's agenda of promoting educational innovation, as this is key to expanding on the "Wisconsin Idea" - the notion that learning should be disseminated rather than bottled up on campus.

There is no cost for any institution to join Coursera. The UW has committed $30,000 to help professors hire teaching assistants or use other means to help them develop the courses, but even that small amount will be privately raised.

Still, what is the business model? How will Coursera or any university make money or even pay back the costs of course development by offering the courses for free? And if universities start offering credit for free courses taken online, won't that undercut the bricks-and-mortar university?

Franois Ortalo-Magné has given these questions a lot of thought. Ortalo-Magné is dean of the UW School of Business. In an interview, Ortalo-Magné crisply lists a half-dozen ways in which Coursera can provide tangible and less tangible benefit to the UW's bottom line.

He says that Coursera should be thought of as a research and marketing expense - research into new ways of delivering content and marketing to almost three million people around the world who will be exposed to the UW's trademark. It's a way to keep connected to philanthropically inclined alumni. And he says that the courses themselves could become "supercharged textbooks" and a potential source of royalties. There's also the potential for the UW to make money by certifying coursework for credit, providing specialized training for employers and advertising.

Ortalo-Magné echoed comments made by Russell, Olds and Provost Paul DeLuca. While UW officials are bullish on MOOCs in general and on Coursera specifically, they do see potential danger. But the threat they see is less to the traditional campus than to research.

Undergraduate teaching provides revenues that mix with grant funding to power the research, which in turn makes the UW a more valuable place to learn as an undergraduate. It's a virtuous cycle that could be broken by for-profit colleges like Grand Canyon University in Arizona, Ortalo-Magné says. Grand Canyon provides online courses combined with an on-campus experience and even athletics, but no research faculty. Without that expense, for-profit colleges could possibly undercut big research universities like the UW on price.

"That's the challenge," Ortalo-Magné says. "Sustaining the research in the face of decreasing public [financial] support."

DeLuca sees the pitfalls but he envisions much more to be gained by the UW's entry into the world of massive learning platforms. "MOOCS provide a new and innovative platform to embody the Wisconsin Idea," he says, "articulating our excellence in scholarship to an ever broader audience with ever greater societal impact."

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