Coursera and Georgia Tech Bend the Online Learning Curve

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Events move quickly in the world of online learning.  As an example of how fast: online learning platform Coursera was founded in 2012.  Georgia Tech announced a partnership with Coursera this week.

But Georgia Tech is not alone in this; Coursera is working with “elite” partners in the U.S. and other countries, to host MOOCs within each partner’s most highly regarded areas of expertise.

According to Inside Higher Education, Coursera is creating a new market niche: “While Udacity has elected to team up with individual professors and edX has not announced any partners beyond M.I.T. and Harvard University, Coursera has attracted partners based on selling itself as a ‘humble hosting platform’ upon which top-tier traditional universities, some of which might still be dubious of transposing entire degree programs to the Web, can extend their brands online in an innovative way.”

What might this mean for Georgia Tech, and for Georgia as a whole?  At the least, we should expect improvements in:

  • Reputation
  • Access
  • Cost

Reputation. Georgia Tech as an institution certainly gains by remaining on the very cutting edge of education and technology, and is once again recognized as belonging among elite universities.  While burnishing its reputation as a thought leader, Tech may also benefit financially, as I’ll describe below.

Access. Increased access to educational content from some of America’s best universities is one benefit students in Georgia, and indeed all over the world, will see.  Nontraditional students, or students who were not accepted into one of Coursera’s partner schools (all of which are quite selective), can still access high quality course content and professors through Coursera.  And these courses mostly involve topics in the hard sciences and computing: vaccines, physiology, software engineering and others, along with courses in the humanities and social sciences.

Cost. Coursera’s courses are free, and, in many cases, students who complete a course will receive a certificate signed by the instructor (though not course credit from the university).  Each university partner signed up for Coursera knowing they were joining a completely new project, and certainly expect their offerings to evolve over time.  One possibility, which at least one of Coursera’s funders has hinted at, is the idea of some users paying for premium services, which logically could include course credit at some point in the future.

Access to some of the top teachers at some of the top colleges in the country, and at no charge, should provide strong evidence of Coursera’s potential value to students.  And these partner universities appear willing to experiment with the Coursera platform and the structure and content of their course offerings in the future, while enhancing their brands as innovators now.  A few logical outcomes follow over the next several years.

One very plausible short-term possibility would be that each partner could offer certificates (likely for a fee, though that fee would also likely be less than tuition) for a set of courses.  Hypothetically, a working student could study from home and get a certificate in internet security from Georgia Tech – and at the level of quality of a brick and mortar program – to enable him to earn a promotion at his IT firm, or a teacher could get a certificate in history from the University of Virginia to enable her to renew her teaching certificate.

A bigger, bolder possibility – and one these institutions should consider, given the likely growth and ambitions of Udacity and Minerva and others – would be for each university, or the universities working in concert, to offer full degrees through Coursera.  These could be offered for less cost than a traditional degree program at any one of the partner institutions, while at the same time opening up a huge global market to Georgia Tech and the other institutions.  Students could cobble together a fantastic education including coursework from the University of Michigan, Duke, Georgia Tech, and others.  More practically, students could save significant time and money; a structure like this may even make HOPE sustainable for Georgia students in the long term.  With all the talk of a looming higher education bubble, we should hope that Coursera and its partners, and other groups like them, are considering these possibilities.

(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.)

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