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.
Michigan 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 of Michigan 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.
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 prerequisites or test scores. The classes do not count toward a degree and students do not earn academic credit.
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, Fitzgerald said.
The Coursera "courses are for additional knowledge," 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."
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, Fitzgerald said.
"The benefit is knowledge," Fitzgerald said. "And sharing and gaining that knowledge."
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