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Continued: University of Minnesota signs on to offer free online classes

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

Christopher Cramer, a chemistry professor who describes himself on Twitter as a “MOOC skeptic,” will soon teach a MOOC: “Statistical Molecular Thermodynamics.”

In a November memo to the faculty, Cramer, in his part-time role as faculty liaison for e-learning, put out a call for MOOC proposals, addressing in his frequently asked questions and responses many of the tricky questions they raise about quality, costs and credit.

What, for example, are the benefits of teaching a MOOC? Some topics, such as international affairs, might benefit from the worldwide enrollment, he said. The massive class size could aid in evaluating the efficacy of the course materials.

“If you’re scathingly brilliant,” Cramer continued, “shouldn’t we be sharing you with as many people as we can, and reaping the reputational benefit?

“And maybe doing some good for humanity along the way?”

Questions remain

The U won’t pay Coursera to host the MOOCs, and Coursera won’t pay the university. The contract does allow Coursera to generate revenue from the agreement, which would then be shared between them.

Coursera has been exploring three ways it might make money, said Daphne Koller, co-founder and CEO. For example, students could choose to give Coursera their résumés, which would be given to employers who might pay for the connection.

Koller told lawmakers Tuesday that new legislation around “free educational courses” ought to leave room for the quickly changing world of MOOCs. What if, for example, a student chooses to pay a small fee for a version of the course that uses proctored exams to verify her identity? Or if an institution chooses to award credit for a completed MOOC?

“Is that a credit-bearing class or not?” Koller said.

While the university won’t be paying Coursera, there is a cost.

Making a MOOC requires time from faculty, instructional designers and others who, “if they weren’t doing this, they’d be doing something else,” Hanson said. “Although they are free for those who enroll in them, they are not free.”

Some faculty members say they believe the university ought to be cautious in its investment.

“While the university does need to respond to this trend, I also think it is best served by playing to its strengths,” said Bryan Mosher, director of undergraduate studies in the College of Science & Engineering’s School of Mathematics. Among them: interaction with faculty, research opportunities and extracurricular activities. “Going to college is more than just taking courses.”


Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168


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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.

  • 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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