On April 17, 2012, the University embarked on a project that will have lasting effects on the institution and ensure its competitiveness for decades to come. The University signed a contract with Coursera. The California-based company partners with universities to provide massive open online courses, in which a huge number of students participate in an online classroom via the Internet. For example, about 90,000 students participated in the first MOOC offered by the University.

MOOCs provide an opportunity to change the game of higher education. They dare to provide universal access to courses from prestigious universities. In Thomas Friedman’s op-ed in The New York Times, “Revolution Hits the Universities,” he paints a picture of the perfect world MOOCs will create. However, like much else in the world, online courses will not be perfect in practice. And we need to prepare for this reality.

This reality poses potential problems. We can head them off through deliberate discussion and conscious efforts to address them. For better or worse, Coursera will change how students and educators interact with the University as digital coursework is further integrated into the classroom.

Before exploring the implications of this change, it’s important to understand why the University is making it. Until recently, prestigious universities seemed content with not offering online courses. Sure, the University had already augmented its courses with technologies such as projectors and CTools. However, education primarily took place in a physical classroom. Even when for-profit universities, such as the University of Phoenix, invested heavily in online courses, the University didn’t budge.

Why budge now? Because prestige and money are at stake.

Prestige attracts talent and talent builds prestige. The University administration recognizes this and seeks to spur a positive feedback cycle between the two. Prestige dictates the degree to which the University can compete with other top schools. It’s competing for high-caliber students, distinguished instructors and a spot at the top of college rankings. If not now, MOOCs, like Coursera, will give the University an edge over its competitors in the near future. Of course, it depends on how deeply and successfully the University integrates online courses into physical ones.

In terms of money, Michigan’s state legislature annually slashes appropriations to the University, and the Board of Regents passes the cost onto students by increasing tuition rates. The University needs new sources of revenue to offset losses elsewhere. To that end, monetizing its online offerings through Coursera will help.

The contract with Coursera provides insight into how to monetize its online courses. The contract, which was obtained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests — among other ideas — embedding advertisements in the course webpage, charging tuition fees per course and allowing employers to use courses to vet employees or prospective employees. In addition, the University, along with the other participating institutions “ … will get six to 15 percent of the revenue, depending on how long they offer the course.”

The University stands to gain substantially from its relationship with Coursera. However, we must consider what effect it will have on the University experience in the long run. The electronic nature of online courses will change the University experience for students and instructors.

For students, we must avoid introducing elements that undermine the University’s strengths. In addressing this, we should consider the following questions: Will students have access to the same support, services and opportunities regardless of how they access the University? And what will the effect of embedding advertisements in courses and catering to enterprise audiences have on the college experience?

We also must consider the effect that integrating online technologies into the University will have on instructors. Will instructors be fairly compensated for the courses they teach? Will teaching online courses distract instructors’ and adversely affect the other demands of their positions? And will this drive the University to expect all instructors to teach online courses in the long run?

Last week, the University appointed its first special counsel for digital education initiatives. The University intends to continue working with Coursera and understands that the future depends on it. Now that it’s set on this course, the University community must discuss how to ensure that a Michigan education doesn’t lose its value.

Kevin Mersol-Barg can be reached at kmersolb@umich.edu.

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