Pushing Free Online Learning in a New Direction

Posted by: Alison Damas

Business professors from several top universities in the U.S. are among a dozen instructors participating in one of the online education market’s latest experiments, a new website called the Faculty Project. Like many free online course offerings, the program, launched in late January, allows professors to upload free courses and supplementary course material. What makes it unique is that it also allows professors to interact with students, and students with each other, via online discussion boards. It is an offshoot of Udemy, a for-profit company launched in 2010 that lets people design and sell courses through its online platform.

With the Faculty Project, Udemy’s founders want to create a venue where professors from leading universities that might not have established free online course offerings of their own can broadcast their lectures and reach a wider audience of students, said Tim Parks, director of the Faculty Project. There are currently 12 classes in varied disciplines being offered on the website, taught by professors from schools like Duke University, Dartmouth College and the University of Southern California, all of which are free and not offered for credit. Professors are not paid for designing the classes, Parks said.

“We realized there was some amazing OpenCourseWare materials out there led by institutions such as MIT, Stanford and others. But what there hasn’t really been is a place where professors from top universities can come together and use a single platform to design a series of free courses,” Parks said.

Some education professionals question whether the website will be able to attract as many professors as it hopes; Udemy says its goal is to have 100 professors signed on to the Faculty Project by year’s end. To date, most online learning platforms modeled on the OpenCourseWare movement (launched by MIT in 2002) have been associated with a university, said Roger Schonfeld, manager of research at Ithaka S+R, a higher education strategy and research organization.

“I find myself wondering what is the model for incentivizing faculty members to participate in something that isn’t associated with their university,” Schonfeld said. “It will be interesting to track over the course of time because I imagine there will be a variety of different motives, from professors wanting to reach a wider audience to trying to expand one’s influence.”

Students visiting the Faculty Project Web site can find classes on Russian literature and politics, but so far the Faculty Project’s three business-oriented courses appear to be generating the most interest. Nearly 3,000 people have signed up for “Foundations of Business Strategy,” a course taught by Michael Lenox, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. His first video, a 10-minute lecture on strategic analysis, was posted last week, and is a supplement to the class he teaches at Darden on the topic, he said. He also likes that he’ll be able to reach students beyond Darden’s walls.

“The ability to reach a broader audience with these materials is definitely appealing,” Lenox said.

Another popular class is “Operations Management,” taught by Gad Allon, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Nearly 800 people have signed up for it, so far, Parks said.

Allon, who’s in the midst of taping his first lecture, said he plans to engage with students via online discussions, give students supplementary reading material and address questions they might have on the topic.

“It will help students know what it is like to take a class at Kellogg, and give them a glimpse into the classroom,” Allon said.

In the next few years, the Faculty Project plans to offer more business classes, especially core courses typically taught in MBA programs around the country, such as marketing and finance, Parks said.

“We think we’re going to see some real interest in our MBA-level courses,” he said.

Ren Atkins, 38, a university administrator from Melbourne, Australia, is currently signed up for three classes through the Faculty Project, including Allon’s class on operations management and Lenox’s class on business strategy. She’s just started an online business degree, and says she is using the classes to augment her degree and advance her career.

“This takes the concept of free online classes a step further than being something you put on your iPod while doing the washing up,” she wrote in an email. “The Faculty Project more closely replicates the student experience by encouraging discussion, questions and idea-sharing.”

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