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U.Va. to expand free online offerings

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — University of Virginia officials say their first round of worldwide free online classes were such a success that they'll increase the offerings.

More than 150,000 took the university's five free courses this year on the Coursera online network. At least nine classes have been firmed up for the next year — three repeated classes and six new entries — and others are possible, Kristin Palmer, U.Va. director of online learning environments, told The Virginian-Pilot (http://bit.ly/1bFEpzP) .

Popular professor Larry Sabato, who also serves as director for the school's Center for Politics, will teach a class on President John F. Kennedy's legacy 50 years after his assassination. It is timed to coincide with the publication of his book on Kennedy.

While Sabato said he's teaching the class at the request of President Teresa Sullivan, he said he's far from sold on online courses.

"That's one of my questions about this: Can I maintain any real level of educational standard in a class like this?" Sabato said.

U.Va. is the only university in the state among more than 65 participating in Coursera, based in Mountain View, Calif. Others include Duke, Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The school doesn't get any money for the classes, and those who take them do not receive college credit.

U.Va. Board of Visitors rector Helen Dragas said she supported the online classes, because "change is our reality."

"My hope for U.Va. is that we lead and define change in ways that maintain our unique culture and honor our esteemed traditions, but make affordable excellence a reality in 2030, as well as 2013...." she wrote in an email to the newspaper. "Ten years from now, we want to be the Apple — not the Edsel — of the universities."

Coursera's "massive open online classes," known as MOOCs, consist of videos, which can be viewed for free. Professors usually don't have to grade quizzes, but many participate in discussion forums with students.

Michael Lenox, one of three business school professors who provided Coursera classes, estimated there were more than 50,000 "active participants," including a study group in Mongolia, in his "Foundations of Business Strategy" course.

"It's a very strong platform for disseminating knowledge, especially lecture-based content," Lenox said. "On another level, it pales in comparison with what we do in the classroom here. You don't have the live exchange of ideas. You don't have the same level of participation."

Philip Zelikow blended the Coursera and U.Va. versions of his course on "The Modern World: Global History Since 1760." He required the 80 students in his Charlottesville class to view the Coursera lectures. During what would have been their lecture times, they engaged in discussions on the material.

Zelikow said students like that they could make the class conform to their schedule and that it led to a "more interactive exchange" in class.

About 411,000 students signed up for the five Coursera classes combined, Palmer said, with about 157,000 actively looking at the content.

She said it cost about $3,000 for each hour of video. Lenox's business class, for instance, had six 60-minute videos.

The downside, she said, was that there was more investment needed by faculty and staff than they had expected.

Still, those involved said it was a worthwhile investment for the university.

"Higher education is being challenged by many serious forces," said Robert Bruner, the dean of the business school, "and better that we experiment with the positive effects of the forces than to close our eyes and pretend they're not there."


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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