Starting this September, the University of Toronto will offer free web-based courses through Coursera, an online education platform used by some of America’s leading universities.

Co-founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, computer science professors at Stanford University, announced on July 17 that U of T would be one of their company’s 11 new partners.

Initially launched in the fall of 2011, Coursera brought Stanford, Princeton, Penn State and the University of Michigan on board in April of this year. U of T is the first Canadian partner to join and currently offers five courses.

Coursera users are able to subscribe to lectures, browse reading materials, and take final exams for over 100 different courses, all for the price of an Internet connection. While Coursera classes do not count for official university credits, students do earn certifications of recognition.

Paul Gries, a lecturer in U of T’s computer science department, says that Coursera follows the efforts of the Khan Academy and Wikipedia to make quality education more accessible through technology.

To date, the company has over 680,000 students from 190 countries, which means more than 1.6 million course enrollments.

For the University of Toronto, Coursera is an opportunity to enhance its global image as a leader of innovation.

“U of T already has an international status,” says Gries. “This partnership reinforces a message that’s already out there.”

The U of T and Coursera partnership is not only a branding tool, but also a way to break down the elitist and exclusive stigma that surrounds universities, says U of T professor Charmaine Williams.

“This is a way for U of T to have an impact out there in the real world,” she says. “Our communities give a lot to universities and it’s good for universities to give back.”

Williams imagines Coursera will be a powerful resource for those who are unsure about going to university.

Gries and colleague Jennifer Campbell add that high school students may use Coursera to take classes their school does not offer, such as computer science. Coursera may also serve as an ongoing education tool for teachers.

For students worried that U of T’s online offerings will cheapen their own degree, professor Geoffrey Hinton insists that while “it will be nice for people not at the university, it will be even nicer for the people at the university.” He says that instead of threatening the value of a U of T degree, Coursera will enrich it.

The overlap of material between Coursera classes and U of T courses mean that Coursera’s online offerings can be used as supplementary study tools.

Coursera could also be used by U of T students to take classes that their degree may not allow.

“Coursera is a low-pressure opportunity to pursue further learning at [students’] own pace,” says U of T professor Jean-Paul Restoule.

Professors on board with the project agree that access to online material is no replacement for teacher interaction.

“In order to advance properly and achieve excellence, you need a more well-rounded experience,” says Gries.

“There is an opportunity for more depth, interactivity, and relationship-building in the pursuit of a degree,” says Restoule. “There is more wholism to a degree than a set of courses taken from Coursera or other online learning platforms.”

Indeed, many professors view Coursera as the next step for U of T’s current “inverted classroom” model. Inverted classrooms offer fundamental course material online so that class time can be more interactive.

Coursera’s online courses currently focus on programming and technology and only 13 classes out of 116 are categorized as “Humanities and Social Sciences.” Social science courses face unique challenges for classes with thousands of students.

“It’s the evaluation that’s the challenge for online humanities courses,” says Williams. “We’re not dealing with issues where this a right or wrong answer.” Williams will be teaching The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness with Coursera this year.

Restoule  also sees unique challenges for his online humanities class.

“There is a community-building process and an intimacy of sharing stories that takes place in the classroom that will be difficult to replicate online,” he says.

Campbell, however, notes the potential for peer assessment in these cases: the professor can outline a rubric and examples so that students may grade each other and judge their own progress.

The platform has the potential to expand beyond its current university base. “Right now Coursera is very North American. But why wouldn’t I want to take a course in India?” asks Williams.

Coursera’s financial prospects are  heavily debated. The startup has $22 million in investments, and Ng and Koller admit that a pay system is possible in the future.

Charging for access to Coursera may encourage schools to offer full university credits online, but Coursera would have to sacrifice its accessibility.

Despite this uncertainty, U of T faculty insist that it is important for the university to be on board with this new wave of education innovation.

“Nobody really knows where this is going to go. But it seems like a good idea for U of T to be involved in the initiative,” Hinton says. “It’s much more important for them to be involved in this technology, however it turns out, instead of being conservative and not put resources towards it. The amount of resources being putting in is minor compared to the significance of this kind of education.”

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