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Massive Online Courses through Coursera Come to the University of Maryland

September 19, 2012

Crystal Brown, 301-405-4618 or crystalb@umd.edu

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland plans to offer four popular courses free this spring via Coursera - the international platform that hosts "MOOCs," massive open online courses.

UMD is joining the six-month old consortium, which until now has had 16 other American Association of Universities members and world class international institutions. Negotiations with Coursera began last July.

The first offerings include an eclectic mix intended to appeal to a diverse international audience:

  • Developing Innovative Ideas for Real Companies (James V. Green, Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute)
  • Women and the Civil Rights Movement (Elsa Barkley Brown, College of Arts and Humanities)
  • Exploring Quantum Physics (Charles Clark and Victor Galitski, College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences)
  • Software Defined Networking (Nick Feamster, College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences)

See Course Descriptions here: http://ter.ps/1c4
See Course Previews: http://www.coursera.org/umd

The courses are free, and students who successfully complete the work may request an unofficial certificate from Coursera. They do not earn UMD credit. Maryland pays only to produce the course materials.

"Coursera is novel, exciting and something of an unknown," says University of Maryland Senior Vice President and Provost Ann Wylie. "This is a wonderful opportunity to experiment with it and find out how well it works and how we can adapt this technology to our core mission."

Wylie discovered a strong interest by faculty members in taking part: she had to turn away volunteers, when roughly two dozen expressed interest in the four slots. She and her staff selected the ones they thought would have the broadest appeal and would expand Coursera's catalogue.

"I think these faculty members relish the challenge," Wylie says. "It gives them a chance to reinvigorate their teaching. After a while, most of us welcome an opportunity like this to rethink how weve been doing things."

The vision behind Coursera is to expand access to higher education, the social entrepreneurship consortium says. It points out that far more than a million people world-wide have sampled its materials in its first six months.

While Maryland embraces this goal of expanded access as part of its service mission, Wylie says the deeper question is how Coursera and other new platforms can best be used by the UMD community. For example, she says the state wants all University System of Maryland Schools to increase the number of students earning degrees. Online technology might be one way for UMD to serve an additional non-resident student population.

More immediately, online technology could be incorporated on a wider scale in UMD courses - so-called blended education.

"The bottom line is quality and academic integrity," Wylie says. "We need to be sure that we're using the most effective tools in the right places at the right times. That requires careful experimentation."

Last year, the Provost's team launched a Blended Learning Initiative- a carefully monitored experiment that offered 10 classes using online components. Wylie describes the findings as "encouraging." Among the observations from the Initiative:

  • Online components work better for some courses than others (especially those involving "skill building" and introductory level material); also excellent with visual materials;
  • Under the right circumstances, blended courses markedly help engage students;
  • More burden is actually placed on students, requiring more discipline, time-management and self-discipline, students reported;
  • Creating effective online instructional units is a complex process.

"We must take account of our students' extensive reliance on the Internet and electronics," says UMD President Wallace Loh. "This generation was raised with ear buds and touch screens. They live and communicate online. We can improve our classrooms and pedagogy by using new technologies. That is why partnering with Coursera and conducting experiments in blended learning are so essential."

This summer, Loh and Wylie formed a Provost's Commission on Blended and Online Education to chart a course forward. Dean of the School of Public Health Jane E. Clark is chairing the Commission, which is about to begin its work. The Commission expects to hold its first public meeting in the next several weeks.