University of Minnesota signs on to offer free online classes

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2013 - 6:56 AM

Five professors will teach in the noncredit “MOOC” movement.

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Jason Hill, an assistant professor shown teaching on the St. Paul campus, is one of the instructors who will offer a free online course.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ• jgehrz@startribune.com ,

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The University of Minnesota will create its own free online courses, joining an ever-growing group of universities in a grand experiment that some expect to remake higher education.

University officials announced late Wednesday night that the U is partnering with Coursera to produce massive open online courses, or MOOCs, available to anyone in the world for free. It’s part of a new wave of 29 universities to sign on with the California-based company, which is already working with 33 others.

The courses’ ability to attract huge numbers of students — tens of thousands, in some cases — has ignited the imagination of some officials and pundits, who believe they could help make a quality college education more affordable. But others argue that the courses’ efficacy is still untested and point to their high dropout rates.

Five University of Minnesota professors have signed on to create the courses, including “Sustainability of Food Systems” and “Interprofessional Healthcare Informatics.”

The format will “make available to the broader public the expertise of our faculty,” said Karen Hanson, the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Like other universities offering MOOCs, the U will not award students credit for completing them. But professors will reuse and refine the material for courses that U students pay for and take for credit, Hanson said.

“The relation between completion of a MOOC and credit at a university like this is an issue which is going to require a lot more faculty attention,” she said. “We are proceeding cautiously here.”

This partnership represents a new era for Coursera and Minnesota, which will forever be linked in the early history of MOOCs. Last fall, Coursera posted a warning on its website that the state’s Office of Higher Education had notified the company that none of the universities offering classes to Minnesota students through Coursera was authorized to do so.

The online uproar was immediate. Larry Pogemiller, the office’s director, said then that while a decade-old state law requires institutions to register with the state, the office would not enforce it.

This week, Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, introduced a bill that would exempt “free educational courses” from the registration requirement. He and other lawmakers have emphasized their support for MOOCs.

By blending MOOCs with traditional education, “we can find a way to reverse those alarming trends” of growing debt and low graduation rates, said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka.

Profs offer, cannot guide

Dr. Peggy Root Kustritz, a professor in the U’s College of Veterinary Medicine, already teaches online and hybrid courses. But she knows her MOOC will be different.

With a traditional online course, Root Kustritz encourages a robust back-and-forth. If a student e-mails her a question, she responds “to the nth degree,” attaching references and sending links. If a student is confused, she said, he might “hunt me down in my office.”

A MOOC “takes away a lot of your ability ... to interact,” she said. Rather than guiding students through the materials, all she can do is “offer” the material to them.

But Root Kustritz knows that she’ll expand her reach with a message that matters to her — dogs’ reproductive health.

Her course, “Canine Theriogenology for Dog Enthusiasts,” will include the latest research on the pros and cons of spaying and neutering, as well as the effectiveness of nonsurgical options. She will give students who complete the six-week course a “Statement of Accomplishment.”

  • related content

  • Jason Hill, who teaches in bioproducts and biosystems engineering, will offer a massive open online course on sustainable food systems.

  • Prof. Jason Hill taught the course “Natural Resources Consumption and Sustainability” to students at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. Hill is one of five instructors who will be teaching a massive open online course, or MOOC.

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