UW Coursera Degree: Too Good to Be True?

By Allison Thomasseau
July 19, 2012

The University of Washington will become even more of a global university this fall by offering 12 to 15 new online classes, available to students outside the university. The UW is partnering with the start-up company Coursera, to provide these classes for free. Sounds too good to be true? If you’re looking to make a degree from it, then yes, it is.

On Tuesday, the Seattle Times reported that Coursera will partner with 12 top-tier universities across the country, including the UW, to offer classes in everything from biology to philosophy. The UW announced yesterday that it would be the first university to offer for-credit classes toward a degree or certificate with Coursera. While the non-credited, open-to-the-public classes are free, the credited classes will have an extra fee attached. The fees cover instructor-enhanced online discussions and video chats, and will be comparable to current charges for online classes at UW, which run $350 per class plus standard tuition.

The plus side of Coursera is that it allows students to supplement their traditional university education with additional online classes that were not previously offered, or work toward a UW certificate or degree without actually becoming a student.

“Coursera allows us a very large gateway to learners across the globe who have UW access and expertise,” says Teri Thomas, UW public relations specialist.

Through Coursera, the UW will offer mostly computer science, technology, and security management classes, as these classes are in higher demand and the university has experts in these areas in-house, Thomas says.

In an era where online classes have a bad reputation for being lower quality than the traditional classroom experience, some are skeptical whether Coursera classes will be considered legitimate. However, UW officials are firm in their stance that the online classes will comparable to established university offerings, as the Coursera credit classes include interaction with current UW professors.

“The credit classes are enhanced, with different assignments and instructor led moderation,” Thomas says. “There is an added value that comes with a UW credential or credit.”

The big question is: How can UW possibly offer all these classes for free, even if the professor-led classes are funded by fees? It’s no secret the university is under financial strife. With a tanked U.S. economy, tuition was raised 16 percent for the 2012-2012 academic year, bringing annual tuition and fees to $12,385 for in-state residents. However, online classes, including Coursera, are not funded with state allocations and operate separately from other university funding. Last year, online learning grossed about $128 million.

“It’s not a mis-allocation of resources, as it will operate on a break-even basis,” says Dave Szatmary, UW vice provost for online learning. “It has nothing to do with the matriculated student increase, as it’s run on a self sustaining basis.”

Still, course development does not come cheap, and it costs between $15,000 to $30,000 to create digital course materials, according to Szatmary. On the lower end of the cost spectrum, the university will rewrite current online classes the university offers for Masters programs in applied mathematics. Revised materials include video with quizzes interspersed and forums for large-scale, peer-to-peer interaction of up to 50,000 students. With this type of programming, Szatmary says one of Coursera’s unique features is its ability to keep track of student learning at different points in the lessons.

“Coursera is interesting, because you can get a lot of data on what is working,” Szatmary says.

With potentially wide-scale influence, Coursera could change our philosophy on higher education. But for now, students will still need to pay an arm and a leg to get it.


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