Share story

Adding to its growing catalog of free online-course offerings, the University of Washington announced Tuesday it is joining another free course provider — this one run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Beginning in January, the UW will offer four new courses through
edX, a not-for-profit Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider pioneered by Harvard and MIT. The UW already offers 14 courses through Coursera, a for-profit started more than a year ago by two Stanford University professors.

MOOCs are free courses taught entirely online, usually through video lectures and multiple-choice quizzes. They’ve emerged as one of the hottest trends in higher education today, and some education experts say they have the potential to remake college education — opening higher learning to a wider audience and possibly bringing the cost down.

But thus far, almost none offer credit or any kind of widely recognized credential for students who finish them. They can’t be gathered together to create a degree program.

And some critics have labeled them a distraction that keeps policymakers from wrestling with more serious questions about cutbacks to higher-education funding, or ways to boost the nation’s low college completion rates.

EdX differs from Coursera in that it emphasizes research and data-gathering about how students perform in the online classes, which can help university researchers figure out what types of online instruction work best, said David Szatmary, UW vice provost of educational outreach.

“All the partners have access to all of the data on edX — we can do all sorts of experiments,” he said.

The two learning platforms also present their courses a little differently, so the UW might offer one class on Coursera and another on edX and see which works best, he said.

EdX has fewer university partners and a smaller catalog of courses, but on Tuesday it unveiled partnerships with 15 new education institutions, including the UW, bringing its total to 27. Many of the new universities are in Asia, and the list also includes Cornell University, Boston University and the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Szatmary said the UW has not decided which courses it will offer through edX. Carrying on the “X” theme, the UW’s offerings will appear under the brand UWashingtonX.

Coursera has 70 university and college partners. Originally, Coursera told the UW it would partner only with premier international institutions and schools that are members of the Association of American Universities, an association of 62 leading public and private research universities, ”but they’ve gone a little beyond that,” Szatmary said.

Still, he said the UW is happy to be part of both. “We’re in good company with Coursera, we’re in good company with edX,” he said.

MOOC courses typically consist of a series of video lectures, often broken down into short segments, and weekly quizzes or assignments, plus quarterly or final exams. The format, style and design of the course varies from professor to professor.

Szatmary, who said he has taken a few MOOCs himself, said he thinks of them as the next stage of the college textbook — one that offers video lectures rather than text, and includes a community of students who can discuss the content.

The classes attract tens of thousands of students; for example, more than 30,000 students signed up for the UW’s Coursera offering “Introduction to Computational Finance and Financial Econometrics.” Typically, a much smaller number actually finish the course.

Although all of the UW’s online offerings are free, the university was one of the first in the country to also offer some MOOC classes with an option to earn credit — for a fee.

But only 10 students so far have participated in the for-credit classes, which cost about $1,000 and involved extra assignments and evaluations, Szatmary said. To contrast, about 200,000 students have signed up for the UW’s free online MOOC offerings.

“We’re not making money — we’re just trying to break even,” Szatmary said. “It’s a lot of time for faculty. The jury’s still out on how these are going to be sustainable.”

He said one professor, with the aid of student teaching assistants, logged 500 man-hours creating a single MOOC course.

Szatmary said some faculty members have been very interested in MOOCS and have wanted to create their own, and “some are ambivalent — it spans the gamut. Nobody is opposed to them. Everyone’s sort of waiting to see what happens.”

Beyond the MOOC platform, the UW also offers online graduate degrees, undergraduate online degree completion, certificate programs and undergraduate courses — all of which cost money, but provide credit and a credential.

Starting in the fall, the school will begin offering its first all-online undergraduate degree completion program, in early childhood education.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.