UK university joins US online partnership

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionDaphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, and Edinburgh University's principal, Sir Timothy O'Shea, sign up to the online partnership

Edinburgh University is to be the first UK institution to join an influential US-based online university project.

Edinburgh is part of a major expansion in the Coursera project - which is going to see 12 more universities providing online courses.

The online platform was set up this year with content from US institutions including Stanford and Princeton.

Coursera co-founder, Daphne Koller, said there was a "growing realisation that this is the real thing".

This year has seen the emergence of major US universities launching rival platforms to deliver courses online.

At present, they are offering such courses without charge - and have acquired hundreds of thousands of students.

Global reach

Coursera, with roots in Stanford University and Silicon Valley, provides an online platform which carries course content from its partner universities.

An important part of this online development is its global reach - and the Coursera project is announcing three partners outside the US - Toronto in Canada and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, as well as Edinburgh.

It is also adding courses from US institutions including the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Virginia, Rice University, UC San Francisco, University of Illinois and University of Washington.

In terms of profile-raising, it means that Edinburgh's online courses will be available alongside some of the biggest names in US higher education.

Daphne Koller says that within the past year there has been a rapid change in attitudes towards delivering higher education online.

In its first few months, Coursera has acquired 650,000 students.

"There was a sense that online education was treated with scepticism," she says.

This is being overturned, she says, with the recognition that online courses can be of the "highest calibre".


Universities are no longer deciding on whether or not they should offer courses online - but are looking at how to put it into practice.

image captionOnline courses can be followed anywhere there is an internet connection

"It's not a question of whether - but how and how quickly," she says.

Allowing students anywhere in the world to study online is a "real democratisation", says Prof Koller.

"It's moving education from a privilege to a right."

Coursera, backed by venture capital, wants to follow the Google and Facebook funding model - offering a service free to users, with the aim of developing revenue streams from large numbers of visitors.

In this latest announcement, it says it now has $22m funding.

Among its biggest rivals will be the edX project, being launched this autumn, which is a partnership between two prestigious institutions on the US east coast - Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The edX project is a not-for-profit venture, backed by $60m from its parent institutions.

'Attrition rate'

Figures published this week by MIT about an earlier prototype - MITx - suggest how the large initial numbers of students become a smaller core of people who complete online courses.

There were 155,000 registrations, 23,000 began the course, 9,000 reached mid-term and about 7,200 completed and passed.

This "attrition rate" might seem high, says edX president, Anant Agarwal, but to teach this number in a conventional course would have taken 40 years.

This MITx prototype, which ran this spring, has also generated its own social network of users, which is producing its own follow-up courses.

Among those using the prototype course was a Mongolian high school - and MIT says one of its 15 year olds was among the 340 students who achieved a perfect score.

Both Coursera and edX are offering certificates - and not fully-fledged degrees.

When US universities are charging high levels of tuition fees to campus-based students, it raises questions about how they could accredit courses which are given away to online learners without charge.

But online learning seems likely to have important implications for three key pressures on universities - time, space and money.

"It seems clear that higher education is currently experiencing the first ripples of a wave that could drastically alter the method, scope and scale of educational access and delivery," said Rafael Bras, provost of the Georgia Institute of Technology, another of the new partners.

Jeff Haywood, Edinburgh University's vice principal, knowledge management, says that the university wants "to be in early" with this experiment in online education.

Prof Haywood says that Edinburgh wants to widen its reach - and wants to learn from the shared experience of developing this platform.

He says that this is also another aspect of the internationalisation of higher education.

But he cautions against unrealistic expectations - and says there are questions still to resolve around the assessment and accreditation of online education.

Among the big questions to be answered, he suggests, is to find the type of student who will really want to use online courses.

Will it be people who already have qualifications in this field, rather than extending it to those currently unable to attend university? And will there need to be a mixture of online and face-to-face learning?

"It's hard to predict where we'll be in five years. We don't know enough yet about who will want to take these courses and succeed at them."

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