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.”

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.”