You’ve no doubt heard a lot lately about massive open online courses — popularly referred to as MOOCs. When University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was fired last summer, a disagreement with the Board of Visitors about how quickly to act regarding MOOCs was reportedly at least in part to blame. UVa has rehired Sullivan, and the institution joined Coursera, a company offering free online courses.

As of early October, 33 institutions offered free courses through Coursera, and thousands of students sign up for the courses. But what do MOOCs mean for your institution? Will they change the way your institution does business? Will the availability of free material online affect enrollment? Might students soon be able to collect “badges” from online courses and present them instead of earning degrees?

Currently, courses offered through Coursera attract mainly a professional audience looking to enhance their education, said David P. Szatmary, vice provost for education outreach at the University of Washington. Traditional-aged undergraduates want the on-campus experience, he added.

But institutions are already using OpenCourseWare materials to lower the cost of degrees, said Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education, distance learning and summer session at the University of California - Irvine Extension. He expects systematic ways of assessing learning and granting credit for courses taken through MOOCs to be in place in the very near future.

To understand why MOOCs’ offerings are expanding so quickly, it is important to understand how the trend ties closely to several other major trends in higher education, Matkin said. Those include:

A search for ways to commercialize Open-CourseWare. OpenCourseWare has been around since about 2001, Matkin said. Some courses received a lot of traffic, and officials looked for ways to sustain their efforts and make money, Matkin said.

The open courses attracted venture capitalists who provided start-up funds for commercial efforts.

The drive to create low-cost degree options. “Higher education in the U.S. is being pilloried for costs and tuition going up,” Matkin said. There’s a notion that the segment is resistant to change, he added. A number of institutions and states are developing low-cost degree options, and officials are using available free materials to help bring costs down, he said.

Keep costs down by repurposing materials

Creating courses is a time-consuming and expensive proposition. But you already have materials you can offer for free.

Courses are being authored every day, Matkin said. “New technologies are coming along that make the authorship, delivery and means of distribution very inexpensive,” he added.

For example, installing technology for making videos of lectures doesn’t cost much and can capture courses that are already being offered, he said.

And if faculty members create their notes in a digital format, rather than on lined paper, they can easily share them, Matkin said.

UW had a strong infrastructure in place to provide online courses when the institution joined Coursera, Szatmary said. With extensive for-credit online offerings, the institution had 25 staff members in distance learning design, he added.

But offering free courses through Coursera is still expensive, he said. Officials are hoping to cover the costs by also offering for-credit versions of the courses. UW charges tuition for those. When prospective students choose the for-credit offering through the Coursera website, they are redirected to a UW site where they can register and pay.

Students don’t have to be admitted to UW to enroll in the for-credit courses, and the courses are offered in groups of three with a certificate available for students who complete all three.

The courses are offered in sequence during the autumn, winter and spring terms.

Students in the for-credit courses take proctored exams at testing centers around the world, Szatmary said. UW has used those testing centers to ensure academic integrity since the institution started offering correspondence courses before online courses were a possibility, he said.

The free courses are designed to run with little time required of the instructor. Students watch lectures and take machine-graded quizzes, Szatmary said. But the for-credit courses include group projects, readings, and a moderated discussion forum.

Officials don’t expect huge enrollment in the for-credit courses because of the cost and because they are at the graduate level, Szatmary said. But if turnout is overwhelming for the faculty member, additional paid instructional staff will be added.

Email Gary Matkin at Gary.Matkin@unx.uci.edu and David P. Szatmary at dszatmar@uw.edu.