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updated: 9/4/2012 5:40 PM

Online class at U of I attracts 32,000

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Associated Press
URBANA, Ill. Talk about a big class: One professor at the University of Illinois started the fall semester with nearly 32,000 stu

Professor Jonathan Tomkin is teaching "Introduction to Sustainability" through the online learning platform Coursera. The Urbana-Champaign campus is offering seven free online classes this fall, joining Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and other schools that have already partnered with Coursera to offer online classes.

Sending an email to tens of thousands of students can be nerve-wracking, said Tomkin, who teaches in the School of Earth, Society and Environment.

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"I was weighing my words," he told The News-Gazette.

Tomkin says he volunteered to teach the class "as an experiment." The fall courses will include organic chemistry and microeconomics. They won't count toward a degree.

Coursera courses are free, but universities may get some revenue by charging students $30 to $80 for a certificate showing they completed a class. The university also could reap revenue by selling the names of high-achieving students who agree to share that information with would-be employers.

Coursera was founded by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, two Stanford professors who started the platform after they taught an online computer science course that attracted more than 100,000 students last fall.

This fall, Coursera will offer 116 courses from 16 universities in disciplines such as medicine, philosophy and artificial intelligence. So far, about 900,000 students have enrolled.

The idea has proved popular with Illinois faculty too.

"We've been overwhelmed with faculty wanting to be part of this," UI education Professor Nicholas Burbules said.

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