More universities in Maryland offer online education

An initiative to offer new, online-only certificates in the fields of data science and cybersecurity was announced last week by the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, College Park and a Silicon Valley-based start-up.

The “specialization certificates” are a new experiment, although universities in the state, including Hopkins, previously have embraced online-only, for-credit classes. The classes will be taught by professors at the colleges through Coursera, an education company founded by Stanford University professors in 2011. The courses are open to anyone starting this spring, and will cost less than $500. The certificate, though not for credit, will bear the logo of the university and the signature of college officials.

As universities in Maryland and across the country experiment with teaching and learning online, including massively open online courses (MOCCs), the partnership with Coursera is the latest offering. While other colleges take materials from Coursera to use in lectures, the University of Baltimore is offering its own open online course in civil rights this spring, taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, the first such class for the University System of Maryland. Students can easily be drawn by MOOCs from Coursera and other companies, which are usually free.

Experimentation offers broad benefits, although critics are skeptical about the effectiveness of MOOCs.

“We’ve had a long history of over 10 years now of participating in open education initiatives, even before Coursera,” said Stephen Gange, an associate dean at Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, which is sponsoring the certificate in data science. “Coursera is kind of the natural evolution of that model, where we think part of our mission is to educate the world on public health.”

It will take three to six months to complete the certification, and students will pay $49 for each class and a capstone project. While the data science certificate from Hopkins requires nine classes, students take four classes in the cybersecurity track from College Park, such as cryptography and software security. Professors from College Park and Vanderbilt University teach classes in another certificate program on computing on mobile devices.

Many universities around the country have expansive online degree programs. However, online-only degree options are mostly limited to the University of Maryland and University College in Maryland. Nonetheless, according to a survey from the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the number of individual online-only classes offered by colleges in the state is growing rapidly, nearly doubling at public universities from 2008 to 2011. Most online-only degree options are at the graduate level.

University officials said the reasons behind offering the certificates aren’t financial, despite Coursera attracting millions of dollars in venture capital.

“We are sponsoring quite a bit of faculty time,” Gange said. “Even if it would cover our costs, I think the financial model for this kind of endeavor remains to be seen.”