The announcement last month that Coursera, which offers free college classes online, had signed agreements with state universities enrolling more than a million students made it plain that such courses, virtually unheard-of two years ago, are now part of the higher education mainstream.
But along the way, a rancorous debate has emerged over whether such courses will lead to better learning, lower costs and higher graduation rates — or to the dismantling of public universities, downgraded or eliminated faculty jobs, and a second-class education for most students.
Many universities have been quick to sign up with outside providers to offer the “massive open online courses,” known as MOOCs, either as stand-alone courses or in a hybrid format, with the online materials supplemented by a local faculty member. While they portray their online offerings as exploratory, many administrators hope the courses will help them expand their reach, rein in tuition and offer better instruction.
Now a new discussion has begun about whether universities should collaborate to develop and share their courses and technology, rather than working with outside providers. This week, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a group of provosts from Big 10 universities, issued a position paper saying that higher education must take advantage of new education technology — but perhaps on its own. On a small scale, C.I.C. members’ CourseShare program already does that, with members sharing classes in less commonly taught languages.
“Many of us feel more comfortable building our own infrastructure, rather than relying on a for-profit company,” said Karen Hanson, provost of the University of Minnesota and the committee’s chairwoman. “We think we want to remain in control of our own intellectual property.”
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