Buy-in from top schools helps new online courses tell story

Does the benefit of pursuing higher education outweigh the drawbacks?

Does the benefit of pursuing higher education outweigh the drawbacks? More students are asking this question as the US' collective student debt has reached $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, while job prospects continue to wane for many.

Once a near-ironclad guarantee for career advancement, a college education does not provide access to the professional success it once did.

As a result, higher-education institutions around the country are building strategic online partnerships to strengthen their reputations and provide greater access to education at a lower cost. Universities are making their most popular classes available as massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Prestigious schools such as Stanford University, Harvard, and Princeton now offer free courses through such MOOCs as Coursera and edX. Classes initially offered no credit, but that's changing, and many signing up seek classes that increase their skills in specific areas as diverse as IT or history.

Duke signs up

Coursera's effective media strategy played a part in getting Duke University to offer classes through the platform, according to Peter Lange, university provost.

“We were aware of the news reports and Stanford University's involvement,” he says. “We saw it becoming more organized, more systematic, and we knew it was something we had to interact with.”

Response to the courses Duke offers through the online platform may influence how professors teach its students as well as extend the reach of its faculty and show their intellectual strength on a global scale, adds Lange.

Duke courses will appear on Coursera this fall.

Boom in numbers
The average age of students using distance learning is 40. Of those, more than nine out of 10 are currently employed and looking for a promotion, according to the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC).

Coursera, a for-profit online higher education venture, has more than 1 million students from around the world as of August 2012. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched nonprofit MITx in December 2011 with more than 150,000 students enrolled worldwide. MITx morphed into edX when Harvard joined in May.

"Hundreds of thousands of adults who had no experience with higher education are enrolled in online learning at no charge," says Michael Lambert, executive director of the DETC. "This in turn will create expanding new markets for online schools."

Top-tier state schools such as University of California, Berkley have also joined edX.

This particular school is an example of an institution whose reputation has taken a beating in recent years. Several protests on campus have turned violent as student ire grows in response to swelling tuition costs.

Shortly after joining edX this summer, Robert Birgeneau, university chancellor, cited "distributing higher education more broadly and enriching the quality of campus-based education" as its reasons for taking the step.

Coursera and edX, which are still relatively new, have been seeking to increase their profiles in an effort to attract more university and student involvement. Coursera teamed with LaunchSquad this past spring, while edX tapped Weber Shandwick late last year.

LaunchSquad wants to establish its client as the market leader by highlighting the prestige of its academic partners.

"You can be anywhere in the world and as long as you have an Internet connection you can take a course from a school like Princeton," says Jesse Odell, a partner and cofounder of the agency. "That's a powerful storyline."

Focus on standards
Partnering with such high- caliber schools also allows Coursera to get across "that we have high academic standards and are not just arbitrarily picking random people to teach, but the best courses from the best universities," says Daphne Koller, a cofounder of Coursera.

Still, trade groups such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities are concerned with some messaging gaps around MOOCs.

"Most prospective students do not realize that these new experiments aren't really comparable yet to a 'real' college course," says Debra Humphreys, VP for communications and public affairs at the association.

"In these MOOCs, students are doing a lot of their own self-learning using online lectures, tools, exercises, or self-paced tutorials," she adds. "In that respect, it's not that different than going to a library and teaching yourself a subject."

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