Freshman tuition could cost more than $20,000 at the University of Michigan this year, but in June, the university launched a program to teach the world -- or anyone with a computer and an Internet connection -- for a much cheaper price: free.
UM joined a group of top universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and MIT, that will offer select courses online for free through Coursera, a California-based online education company.
The move, which expands higher education to a global audience, also serves as marketing and recruiting tools for the universities because their teaching is showcased worldwide.
"Perspective students could get a glimpse at what this handful of professors is like," said Rick Fitzgerald, university spokesman. "Our professors are really excited to share their knowledge with a wider audience."
So far, at least seven University of Michigan professors are offering free online courses on such diverse topics as computer vision, fantasy and science fiction, Internet history, finance, and electronic voting.
A pilot course, Model Thinking, registered more than 50,000 people when it launched in February. Enrollment numbers were not available for courses that began this summer. The university plans to add more classes in the future.
The classes were developed specifically for Coursera and aren't offered on campus. They include video lectures, interactive quizzes and assignments, and online forums.
There aren't any required prerequisites or test scores. The classes do not count toward a degree and students do not earn academic credit upon completion.
Student loan debt reached an all-time high in 2011, surpassing $1 trillion, as college students borrow their way through higher education. Despite their sophisticated and technologically advanced design, the Coursera courses will not equate to the classroom version for which university students pay, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
"[The Coursera] courses are for additional knowledge," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "They're not like the classes we offer on campus. It's peer-to-peer evaluation. There is no personal interaction with the professor. [Coursera] students can't go to office hours and get additional help."
Seneca Weirich, a second-year student at the University of Toledo College of Law, isn't concerned that universities are offering free classes to the public while she'll spend years paying back tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
"It doesn't bother me because they're not getting credit for it," said Ms. Weirich, 25, of Toledo. "It can't be used for anything other than personal knowledge."
Corey Revenaugh, who attended Youngstown State University on scholarship, said the free courses will give people who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend the universities a chance to do so.
"A lot of people can't get into those schools, so for them to have access to those classes is great," said Ms. Revenaugh, of Toledo. "And if you've graduated already, it's nice to be able to get some additional courses."
Ohio State University offers free undergraduate and graduate level courses to Ohio residents age 60 and older. (Not through the same company, though.)
More than one million students from 172 countries have enrolled with Coursera, and it recently received a $16 million investment, according to a Coursera press release. The company's Web site is Coursera.org.
Classes vary in length and despite high enrollment numbers, not all students complete the courses. While those who complete them won't receive a degree, they receive something that is valuable, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
"The benefit is knowledge," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "And sharing and gaining that knowledge."
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