News Column

UNM to Offer Web Courses to Masses

May 30, 2013

Higher education's latest movement, the mass distribution of online courses, is getting a new member: the University of New Mexico.

UNM announced to faculty Wednesday that it had partnered with Coursera, the company founded by two Stanford University professors that makes massive open online courses, or MOOCs, widely available.

The courses until recently have been taught by top professors at universities like Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and have been at the center of debate over their role in higher education. Free of cost unless the course is for credit, the courses have been hailed as a new way to make higher education vastly more accessible. Free classes taught by MIT professors have had tens of thousands of students all over the globe.

UNM administrators have been keeping tabs on MOOCs and looking into potential partnerships for more than a year, associate provost for curriculum Greg Heileman said.

"This movement is happening. It's moving . . . UNM is the flagship university, and it needs to be in the game. It needs to be experimenting with these things," Heileman said. "We need to understand how they work and how we use them."

The university has joined a long list of state higher education institutions that will be part of the Coursera family, starting in the fall, which is when courses could be offered. UNM joins the University of Colorado, University of Tennessee and University of Houston systems, along with the University of Kentucky, University of Nebraska and West Virginia University.

UNM's role with MOOCs comes down to what faculty decide to do.

For example, UNM can, through its partnership with Coursera, allow students to take other universities' courses for credit here. Or UNM can offer the courses to its own students, as well as those around the world. That's what provost Chaouki Abdallah is hoping faculty will do, Heileman said.

"It really does help build this reputation if you're doing these things right and you're doing them well," Heileman said.

Abdallah said in a news release that creating MOOCs could give UNM faculty an opportunity for extra income. Students who take the courses for credit must pay a fee to Coursera, which gives a portion of that back to the course professor.

Abdallah said UNM faculty can teach courses that are specific to UNM and the region, such as Southwestern literature or arts, Spanish courses or anthropology, he said.

Faculty Senate president Amy Neel said she was cautiously optimistic about the online courses.

"The Faculty Senate will be keeping a close eye on their use. I especially hope we will develop MOOCs for widespread use that capitalize on our strengths in Southwestern issues, multiculturalism and bilingualism," Neel said.

Faculty this year endorsed "the exploration" of MOOCs for UNM credit, declaring that the courses would not "displace UNM faculty," as some have feared.

But there are skeptics, and there are challenges, including the difficulty of assessing student performance, high dropout rates and financial profit. Heileman said UNM is still working out those issues. He said the next step is to work with faculty on how to use the Coursera partnership.

"It's just a resource that people can use for learning. It does really open up education to anybody," Heileman said.

Source: (c)2013 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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