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Coursera Announces Big Expansion, Adding 17 Universities

Coursera, an upstart provider of free online courses, announced 17 new college partners on Wednesday, nearly doubling the number that have agreed to use the company’s platform to offer MOOC’s, or massive open online courses.

The new partners come in a mix of shapes and sizes, comprising state flagships like the University of Maryland at College Park, liberal-arts colleges like Wesleyan University, specialized institutions including the Berklee College of Music, and foreign institutions like the University of Melbourne, in Australia. The speed at which colleges are joining is remarkable: The company began operations only in January.

Most partners will offer only a handful of free courses each to start out; Coursera officials recommend that each partner offer five at first. The colleges consider the efforts an experiment, with plans to review them in the near future and decide whether they want to continue to offer the free courses. The agreement between each institution and Coursera is nonexclusive, so the colleges are free to work with other MOOC providers as well.

One benefit for participating colleges is marketing: Coursera courses typically attract tens of thousands of students each. So far, the company says, more than 1.3 million students have signed up for at least one course. Many of the students sign up but then never watch the lecture videos or complete the homework assignments, but even so, the colleges are offering a sample of their best professors’ teaching to a wide audience.

Leaders joining this week emphasized that their main motivation was to expand access to education and try out new forms of teaching that can be applied on their own campuses.

At least one Coursera course might soon be taught in Chinese. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is among the new partners, and Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, said he hoped the institution would teach at least some courses primarily in Chinese.

And one new partner, Columbia University, is no stranger to ambitious online efforts. In 2001, Columbia invested nearly $15-million in an online spin-off called Fathom, which ultimately failed.

Coursera officials have not decided whether they will add some kind of plagiarism-detection software for written assignments, after dozens of incidents of academic dishonesty were reported this summer.

“Most of the plagiarism-detection software is not really geared to what we’re doing,” said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a professor at Stanford University, explaining that existing products are designed for classes of tens to hundreds of students rather than tens or hundreds of thousands. “It would need to be adapted in the right way, and we don’t want to do something quick and poor just for the sake of doing something.”

The issue of cheating was a concern to at least some of the college officials who have signed up for Coursera. Emory University, for instance, has not yet decided how it will handle offering certificates to students who complete the courses, which is one proposed way for the efforts to bring in money.

Emory wants to have some assurance that students who take the courses are who they say they are and didn’t cheat, said Earl Lewis, who is Emory’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Once you start moving to certificates, it may be a step in the process to theoretically some kind of degree offering, so you want to make sure all the checks are in place,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Plenty of other colleges are in talks with Coursera. The University of Texas at Austin has indicated that it is considering participation, and Mr. Ng said he expected to double the number of partners again within a year.

Following are the new college and university partners:

Berklee College of Music
Brown University
Columbia University
Emory University
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Ohio State University
University of British Columbia
University of California at Irvine
University of Florida
University of London
University of Maryland at College Park
University of Melbourne
University of Pittsburgh
Vanderbilt University
Wesleyan University

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