University of Virginia Announces Partnership with Coursera

Helen Dragas, who last month took to task her school, the University of Virginia, for falling behind the curve on online education, was pleasantly surprised to find out about the recently announced partnership between UVA and Coursera. The institution will be joining the Stanford University Initiative and will be using the Coursera platform to offer university-level courses online for free.

UVA’s failure to take advantage of the possibilities offered by online education was said to be one of the main reasons for Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation on June 8th of this year. This weekend, in a university-wide email, Sullivan said that she had given the final approval to the deal between the school and Coursera, one of the pioneers in the field of massive open online courses.

“I agreed to the contract with Coursera on behalf of the University,” Sullivan wrote. “ … Before entering upon any agreement, we needed to know whether we had any faculty interested and also whether their deans were willing. We also needed to examine the educational and financial implications. This weekend, I was assured that we had four faculty who were interested in offering a course through Coursera. Upon the recommendation of two of our deans, the provost, and the vice president and chief information officer, and after receiving legal advice about the details of the contract,  I agreed orally over the weekend to the contract with Coursera and my electronic signature was affixed to the contract on Monday.”

In addition to UVA, Coursera, which was founded by two former Stanford University professors, also has partnership agreements with Princeton, Penn and Michigan, and has recently announced that it has signed up 12 more schools, including Duke, and CalTech.

Although MOOCs tend to draw students in the hundreds of thousands, it is still a fairly conservative step for a school looking to expand its online academic offerings. In addition to being free, the courses almost never give college credit and while some give students certificates of completion, they do not have the weight of college diplomas or even job training certificates. UVA officials said that the MOOCs will allow the school to fine-tune its approach to online instruction, and use this experience in designing actual degree-granting programs with substantial online component. The new courses — three modeled on core undergraduate classes and one graduate-level course — will be offered for the first time next year.

In an e-mailed statement to The Washington Post last night, Dragas wrote: “This is good news. Experimentation with new initiatives in technology use is an important part of the substantive inquiry that will help inform the University’s academic leaders about the best course of action in this area. The Board of Visitors’ primary interest is in promoting the highest order of excellence in our students’ learning and enrichment, especially in a resource-constrained environment.”