“Coursera” is the third person singular, future tense, of the French verb, “to run, race, or chase.”[1] Coursera is also a leading aggregator of online courses of study. Yesterday, University of Virginia and Coursera announced a partnership to place UVA courses online. Darden has agreed to provide one of these courses, starting in January. A race of sorts is in progress, which brings the French verb to mind. The announcement and the volume of subsequent email invite more discussion. What are our aims? What do we have to bring to this? What are Coursera and the partnership all about? Will this be sustainable? Let me explain our[2] view.

What are our aims? We are motivated by one thing only: to advance Darden’s mission, “to improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.” As I said in an earlier blog post, online ed should be animated by a concern for student learning. Period. This partnership is a relatively little bet that can help Darden understand whether and how purely online instruction can serve the interests of our students.

What does Darden bring to this? It is understandable that some people think Darden is simply about face-to-face classroom instruction. In fact, Darden has been exploiting digital technology for years on behalf of what we do best: high-engagement learning. We are a leading producer/distributor of digital case studies and simulations. Our print cases have been digitized for download to iPads and Kindles. And two of our degree programs, EMBA and GEMBA, are “hybrids” that draw on the best advantages of in-person and online instruction. The partnership with Coursera is the logical next step in our experimentation with digital technology.

What is Coursera? Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone, free of charge. Partner Universities develop the courses and own all associated IP rights to the courses. Coursera is the delivery platform for the courses. Coursera was launched in April of 2012 by Stanford Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Coursera’s first partner schools were Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

Along with some courses from UVA and the first partners, Coursera will now also host courses from California Institute of Technology, University of California-Berkeley, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, University of Toronto, University of Washington and other partner universities.

Is this a big bet by UVA or Darden? UVA, Darden and the College of Arts and Sciences will fund the development of the courses that we will offer via Coursera and decide what courses will be offered. Because we control the quantity and pace of course offerings we also control the level of financial commitment we are making via this partnership. Our engagement with Coursera is best conceived as strategic addition to the portfolio of technologies and methods that UVA, the College and Darden use to reach and teach students. UVA’s partnership with Coursera is a non-exclusive agreement with simple terms of exit.

What is a “MOOC”? Courses offered through Coursera and similar providers are frequently referred to as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Some MOOCs have enrolled more than 50,000 students for a single course offering. Research on the efficacy of MOOCs and other asynchronously-delivered online courses support their use in various course settings. Some of the key characteristics of the courses offered via Coursera are frequent assessments of learning and the support of online social communities that form alongside course delivery.

What courses will be offered by Darden and other units of UVA? As part of the partnership announcement UVA has agreed to schedule five courses for delivery. Professor Ed Hess of Darden has agreed to deliver a two-part course, Grow to Greatness I and II. These courses will be delivered beginning in late January of 2013. Faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences have committed to delivering three courses: How Things Work I by Professor of Physics Louis Bloomfield, The Modern World: Global History Since 1760, by Professor of History Philip Zelikow, and Know Thyself by Professor of Philosophy Mitch Green. The courses offered by the College will be scheduled for delivery in late fall of 2012 or spring 2013. This fall, the Darden faculty will commence the process of determining which other courses to develop and schedule for future delivery via Coursera.

Will students earn degree credits at UVA for completing these courses? No. Students enrolled in courses offered via Coursera and who successfully complete these courses receive a certificate of completion, but no course credit at UVA. For their enrolled students, some universities may elect to use their own or other university’s Coursera courses as primers for credit-bearing courses, as supplements to credit-bearing classes or to implement a ‘flipped classroom’ model of course delivery.

Is this sustainable? I don’t know. An important aim is to get some experience and then decide. In my previous blog post, I argued, “online is more likely to spawn losses for the traditional not-for-profit colleges and universities—this stems from the cost of creating digital content and reinventing programs.” The operative phrase is “more likely.” I’ve been mugged by reality enough times on projects involving educational technology that I want to take a hard look at the resource requirements. Here are some of my concerns:

· “Production values” will make online ed expensive to produce. The production of an online course is rapidly moving beyond the use of a stationary video recorder capturing a professor in a lecture hall. It is already clear that there is an arm’s race on the basis of quality. Look for three camera shoots and creative directors coming to campuses soon. You’ll need scripts, a production crew, interactive capabilities, and a sound studio. To go online, you must make investments of several kinds: software and equipment, training for the faculty, and digital content—any one of these can be substantial. My colleague, Peter Rodriguez, produced Why Economies Rise or Fall with The Great Courses and says that the infrastructure used there probably exceeds the resources of most schools. And another colleague, Michael Lenox, produced Foundations of Business Strategy that is hosted on another aggregator, Udemy.com. Any digital delivery will need to be supplemented with systems for tutoring and peer-to-peer mentoring. All of this is not cheap. I have heard of a university that spent $15 million to produce one online course.

· The development of digital courses and materials is not a “once and done” investment. Courses and materials need to be updated. When that corporation you used in a case study goes bankrupt, the old case goes obsolete and must be revised. The theories in a field will change; new empirical findings must be discussed. With digital material, steady changes become expensive. This is why chunking the courses is helpful, especially on the most fundamental courses. But if one competitor incorporates new segments on the financial crisis in Europe, the race is on for all of us to match and get ahead.

· Venture capitalists and other “smart money” are pouring into the online aggregators because higher ed looks like a replay of what happened in the music and filmed entertainment industries: disintermediate the incumbent distributors and gain rights to distribute the content that someone else paid to develop. Coursera is not spending to develop content; Coursera’s partner schools do that. This looks like a “no-brainer” for Coursera. On the other hand, you don’t see venture capitalists or other “smart money” pouring into colleges and universities mainly because they see only big outlays ahead to develop content. The “smart money” is voting with its feet: the flow of funds toward the online aggregators, to the neglect of universities is consistent with my argument that online ed will be costly to colleges and universities.

· The online aggregators are exchanges where the content providers will compete for interested students. Look for a surge of entrants into the exchanges, a shake-out, and the emergence of some popularly-dominant content providers who will likely be the best-known and best-funded universities. This is an important point with many implications for universities. Everyone sees an equilibrium outcome years away when the dust has settled a bit and exits have taken place. Then the scale will pay for development. But the path to that equilibrium will be littered with lots of competing courses, and lots of redundant but costly-to-produce courses. If we want to advance our academic mission, we have little choice but to take at least some risks. And, yet we know they can’t all pay off.

· Learning-by-doing is costly. Most professors are novices at online education and uninitiated in the artistry of high-value production. Like any early-stage industry, we are seeing a great deal of trial-and-error production, most of which will be written off not long after produced. Who bears the cost of this? The universities, not the aggregators. These developments promise tremendous value to the world and to students everywhere. The outcome could be a very positive paradigm shift for access to quality education and lifelong learning. But, for that value to be realized, many losses will be incurred and no one is going to go down without a fight.

If, as you say, the negative outlook is “more likely,” then why bother? Some might suggest that we should sit back and let other schools do the work of developing online courses, and then just ride on their efforts. Many schools will eventually make that choice about online courses. But our commitment to leadership in instructional excellence wouldn’t allow us to take that route. Our mission, vision, and strategy require staying at the leading edge and shaping developments such as this one.

We are glad to join the chase, the race, the run. And we will do so pragmatically and with first priority on the quality of student learning.

[1] OK, it’s a pedantic title to this post: the conjugation of the French verb.

[2] This post also benefits from contributions by my colleague, Peter Rodriguez.