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US: Wake Forest University not ready to offer free online courses

Wake Forest University

Wake Forest University

Wake Forest University is continuing to explore the rapidly changing world of online higher education, but it’s not yet ready to join other prestigious universities in offering free online classes.

Known as massive open online courses, or MOOCs, these free classes are the latest trend in higher education, with seven of the top universities in U.S. News and World Report’s annual compilation agreeing to put a host of classes online for anyone to take.

Duke University is the latest to join the MOOC movement, announcing last week that it has joined Coursera, a startup company that has teamed with 17 universities to offer free online classes, ranging in everything from astrobiology to world music.

Other Coursera partners include Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania. Another company, edX, features courses from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Most universities do not offer college credit for the classes. However, the University of Washington, one of the new Coursera members, said it will offer college credit to be used toward a degree, for a fee. More than 650,000 people from 190 countries have taken classes through Coursera since it debuted last fall.

The staff and faculty at Wake Forest have debated the merits of free online classes for several months, with no decisive stand coming from those talks, said Rogan Kersh, the university’s new provost.

“To rush headlong into a new, exciting mode of delivery because it’s new and exciting is a mistake,” Kersh said. “There’s a whole set of providers and ventures and combinations and coalitions of schools, and Wake is in that conversation on a bunch of fronts.”

The debate often centers around two opposing viewpoints, Kersh said.

“You could view it as an end of itself, that this is how higher education should be and will be delivered,” he said of MOOCs. “On the other hand, there’s a perspective that this is a wonderful set of tools that can enhance the pedagogical experience, but it’s not an end of itself, that you’re not providing the full education experience when you’re putting it online.”

None of the 16 universities in the UNC system is offering free online classes, but administrators and members of the board of governors are interested in this trend, said Joni Worthington, a spokeswoman.

“Certainly online learning is an area of interest and focus, but there hasn’t been any discussion to date about partnering with one of these initiatives,” she said.

Davidson College is not interested in free online classes because it doesn’t offer graduate programs or continuing education classes, said spokesman Bill Giduz. Most people who take online classes are graduate students or people with an interest in a particular subject.

Until Wake sorts out whether it wants to offer free online courses, it is tapping into the power of the Internet in other ways. This fall, Wake is offering its first online degrees, a Master of Arts in counseling and a Master of Arts in human services.

Sam Gladding, the chairman of the counseling department, said interest in the counseling program has been high, with about 250 inquiries over the past three months. The number of applicants will be capped at 30, doubling the number of students allowed in the on-campus program.

“So we can more than double the number of people in the program and teach people who could not afford to come to campus because of jobs or other circumstances,” said Gladding, adding that students from as far as California have enrolled in the program. “I see it as an exciting and inviting way of offering education.”

Winston-Salem State University and Salem College have no plans to offer free online classes but do offer fee-based online degree programs.

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