Administrators at the University of Illinois say they're pondering the future of their free online courses, offered through an ambitious startup program the school joined last year.
More than 300,000 people from around the world have signed up through Coursera -- a for-profit online education platform -- to take classes from the school, according to The (Champaign) News-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1719D4H ).
Despite the large number, only a fraction of those students ever complete a course in the program, which is known as a MOOC, or "massive open online courses."
So far, U of I's virtual students can't get credit for their classes, just a certificate of completion, but administrators said they're trying to decide whether to eventually add a for-credit option or a full MOOC degree program.
"All of this stuff is under active discussion," said Rob Rutenbar, chairman of the school's computer science department.
This spring, Georgia Tech announced it will offer what it termed a first-of-its-kind computer science degree taught entirely over an open online platform. The school plans to charge about $7,000 for the master's degree, even though the courses are free and available to anyone through a MOOC platform.
The cost of same degree on campus is about three times as much for Georgia students, and between six and seven times higher for out-of-state and international students.
Rutenbar says Illinois is "carefully looking" at Georgia Tech's plan.
But first, administrators and professors must wrestle with a series of questions: Are classes taught through Coursera part of a faculty member's normal teaching load? And what types of instruction should be offered through the MOOCs?
"The university has to figure out what our strategy is for delivering MOOCs, how to allocate resources," said Charles Tucker, UI's vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation who is co-chairing a committee examining the issue. "It's a very challenging question because the future is evolving quickly."
Jonathan Tomkin has taught "Introduction to Sustainability" three times on Coursera. During the spring semester, 20,000 people were enrolled in his class -- although only about 2,000 students actually earned a certificate of completion.
Tomkin says the experience has prompted him to begin researching student learning as he works to craft a class that keeps students engaged in course discussions, assignments and quizzes, particularly when they're not earning a grade.
"It has made me much more interested in what motivates and what causes these students to succeed," he said.
Coursera courses are free, but universities could eventually make money by charging students $30 to $80 for a certificate showing they completed a class.