University of Virginia Enters Agreement To Distribute Courses Online

Woman sitting at a desk working on a laptop

U.Va. will offer free online courses through Coursera starting in 2013.

The University of Virginia's global reach is about to expand even more.

Through a partnership with online-learning pioneer Coursera, four U.Va. courses soon will be available worldwide, at no cost, to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. The "massive open online courses," or MOOCs, offer coursework from the world's best universities while strengthening brands and broadening outreach.

U.Va.'s agreement with Coursera, announced today, has been in the works for several months. Both the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and Darden School of Business  have been carefully evaluating options that could result in thousands of students having online access to world-class instruction from U.Va.

U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said the courses will advance the University's role as a leader in global higher education while reinforcing its core missions of teaching, research and public service.

"They will in no way diminish the value of a U.Va. degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village," she said. "I am pleased to have the University partner with Coursera because we have a shared understanding of the importance of strong teaching and of learning outcomes."

She added, "These courses have the potential to open new opportunities for students around the globe, while also being likely to benefit our courses on Grounds. We also gain the opportunity to share the expertise of our faculty, both in the classroom and the research labs."

"This is good news," said University Rector Helen E. Dragas. "It's important that we begin to experiment with many new initiatives in order to see what works and what doesn't. And we're certainly in good company as we enter into this venture with Coursera. As we explore the uses of technology in education, whatever we learn will benefit all of our institutions."

Founded last fall by Stanford University computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Coursera provides an online platform already used by universities including Stanford, Princeton University, and the universities of Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Coursera today announced partnerships with 12 more universities – including U.Va. – that will offer new courses on topics in the arts, computer sciences, health, mathematics, history, literature and more.

Universities included in this latest wave of Coursera partnerships include the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

"We have been in discussions with the University of Virginia for several months, and are delighted that they have agreed to join with 15 other top universities in partnering with Coursera," Koller said. "We are very enthusiastic about this collaboration with one of the country's oldest and most distinguished public universities, and are looking forward to working together to make education accessible to everyone."

U.Va. will offer four non-credit courses starting in 2013 – three from the College and one from Darden.

The College courses will be in physics, philosophy and history: 

• Taught by physics professor and celebrated lecturer Lou Bloomfield, "How Things Work" is a practical introduction to physics and science in everyday life, using an approach for non-science students.

• "Know Thyself," taught by Mitch Green, Horace W Goldsmith Distinguished Teaching Professor in Humanities, is described as "an investigation of the nature and limits of self-knowledge from the viewpoints of philosophy, psychoanalysis, experimental psychology, neuroscience, aesthetics and Buddhism."

• Philip Zelikow's course, "The Modern World: Global History Since 1760," is for those who wish to understand how the world got to be the way it is. Zelikow, the White Burkett Miller Professor of History, describes the course as a survey of modern world history, from a global perspective, beginning with the economic and political revolutions of the late 18th century and ending with contemporary conditions.

"We are pleased to be able to extend the Academical Village to students around the world, inviting them to learn with us," said Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of the College. "These initial courses are good foundations. We also welcome this chance to join in a massive research and development effort that we believe will enrich the in-class experience of our students on Grounds."

J. Milton Adams, U.Va. vice provost for academic programs, said the online courses open the door to what's known as "flipping the classroom." Instructors can assign students to gather the basic information by viewing the online video and related materials ahead of time, so face-to-face time in the classroom is spent on higher-level engagement.

"We're trying to raise the level of a student's ability to work with information," he said. "It's not just about memorizing facts. It's about understanding, analyzing and applying the knowledge."

Darden's course will focus on common challenges faced by existing private businesses that have survived the start-up phase and are trying to scale into bigger operations. Parts I and II of "Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses" will be taught by Edward D. Hess, professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence.

Peter Rodriguez, Darden associate professor and senior associate dean for degree programs, said the school had an early interest in the massive online course opportunities. Coursera's  announcement of its first university partners in April occurred just before a planned "West Coast Tech Trek" that took Dean Robert Bruner and a group of faculty and staff members to companies including Microsoft, Apple, Google and Twitter. The U.Va. group had its first meeting with Coursera on June 7.

"We began follow-up discussions and investigations immediately after our trip and twice convened the traveling faculty and staff to discuss our views and opinions and decide on next steps," Rodriguez said.

The Darden representatives also compared notes and information with their counterparts in the College.

Bruner said great universities "have always adapted to the challenges and opportunities offered by technological advances."

"From printed books, to calculators, computers and social media, great teaching requires us to learn to educate and enrich our students using the best available tools," Bruner said. "Coursera offers a cutting-edge platform and partnership with leading universities taking appropriate steps to develop new ways of reaching and teaching students."

To date, Coursera has seen more than 680,000 students from 190 countries and more than 1.55 million course enrollments across its 43 courses. Students can earn certificates of completion for the non-credit courses. New enrollments are currently expanding at the rate of 30,000 per week.

"Students have greater access than ever before to the world's foremost subject-matter experts," said Ng, the Coursera co-founder. "Professors can reach more students in one course than they could have hoped to in a lifetime. Universities can teach millions worldwide, and make time on-campus for interactive in-class learning."

The Coursera partnership with U.Va. includes no exchange of funds.

Since its founding, Coursera has attracted more than $22 million in venture capital from multiple investors including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates and several of its university partners.

Massive open online courses have been gaining momentum and attention as organizations such as Coursera, edX (a partnership led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Udacity begin to expand. U.Va. computer science professor David Evans designed one of Udacity's first courses, a computer science course that attracted 94,000 enrollees.

More recently, U.Va.'s Faculty Senate and the Teaching Resource Center, with financial support from Sullivan, launched a competition to identify faculty ideas for "blended learning" that combines in-class instruction and interaction with Web-based or digital technologies.

Sullivan said the long-term impact of online teaching is unknown, and faculty have much to learn. "But it's critical for U.Va. to be in on the ground floor so that we can learn along with our peers what the future holds," she said.

– by McGregor McCance

Media Contact