Higher education for the masses

Lauren Williams's picture
Friday, June 7, 2013

Larry Sabato doesn’t need to teach a free online course to become a celebrity professor. The director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics is one of the most visible and quoted academics in the country, analyzing topics as broad as presidential elections and as close to home as your local House of Delegates race.

But this fall, Sabato will enter the brave, new world of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs. Sabato will lead a free online course examining the administration of President John F. Kennedy and his legacy in the half-century since his assassination. The noncredit class will be offered through the educational technology company Coursera, a Silicon Valley startup that partners with some of the nation’s top universities to offer free online courses.

Sabato said he was willing to conduct the course as part of UVa’s experiment with MOOCs, one of the hottest trends in American higher education. Companies such as Coursera and Udacity and the nonprofit edX have partnered with scores of universities in the U.S. and abroad to offer online courses on their sites, potentially expanding the institutions’ reach to millions of students worldwide.

Virginia Tech, which has developed its own strong distance-learning program, is not making an institutional push to experiment with MOOCs. Nor is it discouraging faculty from exploring opportunities. The Roanoke Times reported Monday that Tom Sanchez, a Tech urban affairs and planning professor, teamed with an Ohio State colleague to teach a course through Coursera for 21,000 students.

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