With state school partners, Coursera explores different uses for massive online courses

In the year or so since its launch, online learning startup Coursera has touted partnerships with some of the world’s most elite institutions. And, under most of those arrangements, the schools create online courses for tens of thousands of students anywhere to watch.  But with its latest cohort of partners, which the company is set to announce Thursday, Coursera is trying a different strategy on for size.

Working with 10 state schools, including the State University of New York, the University of Colorado System and the University of New Mexico, Coursera said it plans to explore various uses for massive open online courses (MOOCs). Instead of just creating open courses for anyone, the institutions plan to use MOOCs for blended learning experiences (that combine online and offline instruction), as well as to improve completion rates, quality and access at their schools.

“Up until now we’ve been doing a very good job giving a free education to people around the world,” said co-founder Andrew Ng. “But one thing a lot of people still need is a college degree. This is a big step toward helping make that better.”

Noting that about 75 percent of people in the U.S. attend schools in state university systems, Ng said Coursera’s partners plan to experiment with Coursera in a variety of ways.

For some partners, Coursera could enable various campuses within a system to pool resources, which could be particularly helpful as state schools face tighter budgets. For example, one campus could create an effective Introduction to Biology class, another could create an Introduction to Psychology and the courses could be shared by students across the system.

For other partners, the platform could enable faculty to adapt existing MOOC content to fit their courses or offer courses to non-matriculated students that could potentially be used for credit.  Ng said that very few partners currently award credit for Coursera courses offered by their institution but five courses have been won approval from the American Council on Education (ACE) for credit equivalency.

At the University of Kentucky, for example, the plan is to use Coursera to help prepare admitted students for college-level courses. As with several colleges, many students enter the University of Kentucky unprepared for science and math courses, Vince Kellen, the university’s CIO and senior vice provost, told me. While anyone online will be able to take the Introduction to Chemistry course the school plans to place on Coursera, he said it will primarily be intended for incoming freshmen and sophomores at his school.

“Rather than trying to build a course for the elite learning, this lets us reach a large percentage of students preparing for college,” Kellen said.

In the past few months, MOOCs have come under attack at a few universities, with faculty arguing that the massive online classes could weaken non-elite schools and promote a two-tier university system. Ng said he believes that Coursera’s partnerships could help strengthen state schools through blended learning and other approaches that enable professors to bring more resources into the classroom. And he said that he doesn’t buy the notion that MOOCs will lead to a two-class college system.

Even though Coursera may offer a great Intro to Calculus class offered by the University of Pennsylvania, that doesn’t mean students at every school should take it, he said, adding, “There are students at different levels, adding content makes sure you have content at different levels… [For some students], having their local professor create a different course would serve them better.”