Melbourne Uni signs on to Coursera with others expected to follow

Universities around the world are gearing up to make it easier for students to learn from home, for free. Matthew Gilbert

Melbourne University has become the first Australian university to join the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider Coursera.

Coursera offers free study subjects to anyone with internet access, with Melbourne University joining 16 universities from around the world that have signed on this week.

“The past year has seen an explosion in interest in online opportunities that will challenge traditional ways of delivering education,” Melbourne University acting vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil said in a statement.

The university will begin putting single subjects online early next year and expects to have about 10 subjects available through Coursera by the end of 2013. Courses currently include climate change, principles of macroeconomics and animal behaviour.

More Australia universities are likely to follow suit, said Andrew Norton, program director of higher education at the Grattan Institute.

“This is hugely motivated by prestige considerations so Melbourne University’s competitors will be reluctant to let Melbourne Uni have any monopoly on this.”

Mr Norton added that all of the courses on offer from Melbourne University were non-local, ensuring it did not undermine its local business model.

“This is the dilemma, they want to be part of this fashionable thing but don’t want to lose revenue from students enrolling in similar sounding subjects.”

Professor Sheil said as well as opening up to online offerings, the university is looking at ways to increase its use of technology in existing campus based courses.

Jeff Borland, who will be teaching an economics subject called “Generating the wealth of nations”, said the good thing about world economic history is it should hopefully offer something of interest to everyone.

“In terms of the material I’ll be covering, I won’t need to change it at all – world economic history is world economic history … So I think everyone, wherever they are can get some perspective of the development of their region.”

He added that he was excited about using the course as a basis to develop some online resources that could also be used in his local teaching.

“One challenge is to teach the course as a six week unit rather than 12 weeks and the big thing is the format of presentations. At the moment, I’m used to giving one hour lectures, whereas this format which I think is a good idea for keeping people interested, is to have shorter lectures.”

In April, Coursera announced it had raised $16 million in venture capital funding to help expand its platform and develop more partnerships. This week it revealed it had received additional private equity funding and $3.7 million from Caltech and Penn universities, bringing its total of Series A funding to $22 million.