University of Virginia Sparks Debate with Online Education Initiative

Online Education

July 18, 2012

Last month a very public battle raged within the University of Virginia's leadership. The issue: whether the school was prepared to adapt to an increasingly digitized market. Yesterday's headlines painted a much different picture, however, as the University announced its participation in what The Atlantic calls the "single most important experiment in higher education" -- free online education for the masses.

According to The Washington Post, U-Va. is one of a dozen institutions that plan to offer free, non-credit courses through Coursera, an online learning system. None of the participating schools nor Coursera will exchange funds; schools need only donate staff time. Other big-name schools participating in the program include John Hopkins University, as well as founding schools Stanford University and CalTech.

"These are some of the best universities in the United States," U-Va. Vice Provost for Academic Programs Milton Adams told The Washington Post. "This is a great opportunity for us to experiment ourselves, and to try to learn from our colleagues."

While many schools have signed on to the Coursera program, The Washington Post notes that U-Va.'s announcement has drawn additional attention following last month's very public debate between University President Teresa Sullivan and Rector Helen Dragas who leads the governing Board of Visitors. The Post notes that Dragas expressed concerns about Sullivan's perceived unwillingness to embrace online education. Sullivan was dismissed, but later reinstated. Now, it seems, the scuffle was all for naught: U-Va. had initiated a partnerships with Coursera in April, months before Sullivan's temporary dismissal.

According to The Daily Press, Sullivan issued a statement Tuesday that applauded the move, noting that the courses will help raise U-Va.'s profile as a global higher education leader. "They will in no way diminish the value of a U-Va. degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village," she wrote in a nod to the institution's founder.

Not all are as optimistic as Sullivan, however. According to The Atlantic, a recent Inside Higher Ed poll revealed that 58 percent of professors said they were more afraid of online learning than excited by it, and a full two-thirds say they fear online courses are less beneficial than traditional classroom instruction. Not even all U-Va. administrators are on board.

"There's no income from (the Coursera program)," Marva Barnett, director of the Teaching Resource Center at U-Va., told The Washington Post. "Nobody's made a case that there will be any income from it. Why is this such a desirable thing?"

Still, The Atlantic notes that reputable schools across the country are exploring the viability of online education, either through Coursera or its chief rival, edX, which boasts partnerships with Harvard and MIT.

"I think people are recognizing that this kind of experience is where a lot of the future of higher education lies," Daphne Koller, a Stanford computer scientist and co-founder of the Coursera initiative, told The Washington Post.

The Daily Press notes that U-Va. will begin by offering just four Coursera courses in 2013. More than 680,000 students from 190 countries have already taken part in Coursera since its inception last year.

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


"The Single Most Important Experiment in Higher Education,", July 18, 2012, Jordan Weissmann

"U. Va., 11 other schools to join online platform,", July 17, 2012

"U-Va. takes major step in online education,", July 17, 2012, Daniel de Vise

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