Coursera Online Classes: Will This Boost Graduation Rates In America?

In a year that has seen tremendous growth in massive open online course (MOODs), one company, Coursera, has made particularly impressive strides to make a college more accessible and affordable. Coursera, a platform for online classes, announced Thursday that it will be partnering with 10 large public university systems to create courses that students can take online for credit, in conjunction with their classroom curriculum and often with proctored final exams on campus.

In the past Coursera has offered free online classes, but this new partnership will allow students from affiliated colleges to take courses at any campus, or at other universities on the Coursera platform, and count them toward a degree at their home campus. Many companies such as edX and Udacity are following Coursera in this new direction for MOODs, which once only offered free non-credit classes.

The Coursera deal, which would open up online classes to 1.25 million students, could increase graduation rates by increasing the accessibility of early required classes, those classes that are often quickly filled by high demand, causing student to fall behind.

Coursera will be partnering with the State University of New York system, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems, the University of Colorado system, the University of Houston system, the University of Kentucky, the University of Nebraska, the University of New Mexico, the University System of Georgia and West Virginia University.

William G. Bowen, the former Princeton president and founding chairman of Ithaka, a nonprofit organization that studies online education, explains why MOOD platforms are a particularly for public university systems.

“We have encouraged Coursera to work with the large state university systems, and the large state university systems to work with Coursera, because that’s where the numbers are, and that’s where there are the biggest issues in terms of cost, completion and access,” said Dr. Bowen. “It’s still exploratory, but this partnership has the potential to make real headway in dealing with those issues.”

Under the current system, nearly half of all undergraduates require remedial work before beginning credit courses. That can often be a costly delay, and with shrinking state budgets and decreasing class sizes, this often makes a 4-year degree impossible.

This remarkable partnership, however, is not what the founders of many such platforms had first envisioned. Originally Coursera’s free online learning platform was meant as a channel from professors at America’s elite universities to learners around the world and a means for students at those top universities to gain credit. While that first goal has largely been met, many of these elite universities as withdrawing from online credit courses.

Most recently Duke University pulled out of such a program, Semester Online, an education platform offering undergraduate courses for credit, after faculty members rejected the move in a vote. Semester Online had originally envisioned linking a consortium of universities including Duke, the University of Rochester, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest — all of which have since left the program. “Schools had to go through their processes to determine how they were going to participate,” said Chance Patterson, a spokesman for the program, “and some decided to wait or go in another direction.”

Despite leaving Semester Online, Duke will continue to provide access to nearly two dozen free online non-credit courses through Coursera. The Provost of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Peter Lange, explains, “The difference here is that Semester Online is for credit, and it would have an impact on campus.”

However, this platform has found other suitors, including Boston College, Brandeis, Emory, Northwestern, the University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Washington University in St. Louis. Students from these universities will have access to 11 online courses come fall.

As for the quality of courses, Esquire magazine editor A.J. Jacobs recently enrolled in a MOOC classroom. “The first thing I learned?” Jacobs writes, “When it comes to Massive Open Online Courses, like those offered byCourseraUdacity and edX, you can forget about the Socratic method … It creates a strange paradox: these professors are simultaneously the most and least accessible teachers in history.”

Jacobs did however admit that he couldn’t really complain since through his 11 courses he’s “getting Ivy League (or Ivy League equivalent) wisdom free. Anyone can, whether you live in South Dakota or Senegal, whether it’s noon or 5 a.m., whether you’re broke or a billionaire.” 

With education budgets in states like California leaving tens of thousands of students without access to the courses they need to graduate, and higher education costs going nowhere but up, MOODs life Coursera and their partnerships with universities will make higher education more accessible and cheaper for all. 

Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, recently participated in a fascinating TED Talk discussing "what we're learning from online education."