By Stephanie Simon
BOSTON (Reuters) - A leading U.S. provider of online college courses on Thursday announced plans to expand into introductory level classes such as algebra and composition, marking a shift for a fledgling industry that has until now focused on specialized material.
Coursera, a popular for-profit provider of massive online open courses - known as MOOCs - will host a series of basic general education classes to be developed in partnerships with 10 state university systems across the United States.
"If we really want to move the needle, we can't just stick with offering continuing education to lifelong learners," said Daphne Koller, the Stanford computer scientist who co-founded Coursera. "We have to help people achieve degrees that will help them get a better life."
Another top MOOC provider, Udacity, is launching a similar program this summer, teaming up with California's San Jose State University to offer five introductory courses.
Until now, MOOCs have mainly focused on specialized courses - like computational neuroscience - taught by professors at top universities. Those MOOCs attracted millions of students, but the vast majority already had completed college in more traditional settings.
At Coursera, for example, 80 percent of registrations come from students who already have at least a bachelor's degree.
The new partnerships will provide the first significant evidence to date of whether students without a college background can succeed in MOOCs, which require participants to be self-directed and highly motivated.
Students who have struggled or are new to college "are the ones who most need a teacher who looks them in the eye and figures out how to motivate them," said Greg Graham, who teaches introductory writing at the University of Central Arkansas.
Vince Kellen, a senior vice provost at the University of Kentucky, acknowledges the challenge but says it's worth trying to expand the world of MOOCs. "We think this is a reasonable way to reach some students," he said.
Kentucky is among the states joining Coursera for the new initiative. Others include New York, Colorado and Tennessee. Some states plan to grant credit to students who complete the online work while others will urge students to take the MOOCs to prepare for classes with high failure rates.
The deals coincide with a rising backlash against MOOCs.
Earlier this month, the provost of American University in Washington, D.C., announced a "moratorium on MOOCs," saying a serious debate was in order on issues such as educational quality. Faculty at Duke University voted down a proposal to offer online courses for credit.
And in a biting public letter, the philosophy department at San Jose State University last month condemned MOOCs as a threat to the very existence of public universities. Signatories argued the trend would push college professors out of jobs, stifle diversity of thought and deprive students of discussions.
Similar concerns were raised this spring by faculty at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Deeming MOOCs too impersonal and industrial, the faculty rejected a proposed partnership with nonprofit online course provider EdX.
"When the rubber hits the road," MOOC promoters "don't have any idea what education means," said Adam Sitze, an assistant professor of law and social thought at Amherst.
MOOC backers disagree; they say their courses will not replace professors or dismantle universities, but will make quality education more widely available. Some are even testing ways to use MOOCs to expand the role of faculty.
Coursera and EdX, for example, are testing "blended" models that bring students together for face-to-face instruction that augments the MOOC videos.
The MOOC market "is too big, too diverse, for one-size-fits-all," said Anant Agarwal, the president of EdX. "This intense experimentation phase will continue for a while."
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Lisa Shumaker)