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Coursera Unveils Plans With Universities; Arne Duncan Responds

Coursera said it has reached an agreement with 10 public universities and higher education systems to create new options for using "massively open online courses" to improve access to academic courses and college completion.

The announcement drew a mostly positive response from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said yesterday that he sees potential benefits for secondary schools, not just colleges, if the quality of the classes could be guaranteed.

Coursera, a big name in the world of "MOOCs," says the arrangement will allow more universities to "explore the possibilities" of using open courses to improve academic content and course completion—what many consider to be a weakness of the open courses—and promote access to college instruction.

The agreement could benefit not only postsecondary, but also high school students by allowing secondary students in upper grades to take university-level courses that could be used for college credit, Coursera officials predict.

Much of the activity in the world of "MOOCs" has thus far been focused on higher education. But Coursera recently took a step toward changing that dynamic when it announced that it had formed partnerships with schools of education, museums, and other institutions, to provide MOOCS focused on professional development for K-12 teachers, aspiring teachers, and others.

The latest move will allow professors working at the 10 schools and institutions to develop online classes through Coursera, officials from the Silicon Valley-based company said. Those faculty members will also be able to mold existing Coursera offerings to fit their own classroom needs.

In addition, the arrangement will give professors the ability to experiement with blended-learning approaches, combining online content with in-person instruction. Blended-learning is widely used in K-12 systems by schools and districts who believe students benefit from the integration of technology-based lessons and direct teacher-to-student interaction.

The 10 schools that Coursera says it is working with are the State University of New York; the Tennessee Board of Regents; the University of Tennessee system; the University of Colorado system; the University of Houston system, the University of Kentucky; the University of Nebraska, the University of New Mexico, and University system of Georgia, and West Virginia University.

Critics of MOOCs have pointed to the low rates of completion in those courses, and questioned how universities and other entities can ensure that course offerings are of high quality. Others question the future of MOOCs from another angle, casting doubt on whether providing academic content for free is a sustainable business model.

In a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, Duncan, when asked about Coursera's plans, said he found much to like about MOOCs, particularly if students could be encouraged to persist and complete those classes. (My colleague Lesli Maxwell was on the scene.)

"I am very, very, very interested in MOOCs, not just on the higher ed side, but in the high school space and maybe even in the middle school space," Duncan said. "We just want quality." Quality would include making sure that course-completion and retention improves, he said. Duncan said the weak showing in that area could be due in part to the prevailing structure of MOOCs, in which there is no credit attached to those courses.

The secretary saw the potential for MOOCs to help students with particular courses, such as algebra, a common academic hurdle that students have to clear to reach college and succeed there.

"Think about if we had the best algebra teachers in the country helping to teach a lot more kids," Duncan said.

He also alluded to the overall concerns he hears—at the dry cleaner's, at the grocery store—about college costs, and said MOOCs could provide a piece of an answer to those financial challenges.

"If you can deliver a high-quality college education for a fraction of the cost...it's fascinating," he said.


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