UT-Austin at the Front of New Online Learning Partnership

The University of Texas at Austin will be leading the UT System in a global initiative to provide massive open online education courses.

The UT System Board Of Regents voted Monday to approve a partnership with edX, a non-profit company providing free online courses. The $5 million deal, with an additional $5 million dedicated to course development, will include the entire nine university system and its six health institutions, is part of a push to integrate online learning for greater accessibility. The UT System’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence,” a planning document adopted last year, includes the expansion of online courses as one of its imperatives.

edX not only provides online course technology, but also allows the University to track user trends, something administrators stress as an important factor. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, company was founded through a partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The University of California, Berkeley joined the consortium in July. The UT System decided on edX after negotiations with both it and Coursera, a competing online-courses company.

The massive, online open courses, or MOOCs, provide free worldwide access to courses at Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and soon UT-Austin. The UT System will add four open courses in the coming year, according to UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. Most if not all are likely to be from UT-Austin, the flagship. While the initial offerings in 2013 will be “open to the world for free,” Cigarroa says the System is planning a tiered model that will include credit-bearing courses with tuition.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said UT-Austin president Bill Powers. The effort is all part of a trajectory toward course transformation over the last four years that UT-Austin has largely spearheaded. The flagship university has committed to online and blended models of learning, establishing the Course Transformation Project, a program meant to increase student success in large entry-level courses like economics, statistics, and biology. Using tools that help focus class hours on interaction and supplementing classes with online materials, participants have seen higher attendance, higher average GPA, and higher passing rates than in traditional classes.

Experience with the blend of both in-class and online content has positioned UT-Austin to lead the edX consortium in developing courses that count toward a degree. Bill Powers stresses the road that has led to the partnership, calling it the product of “four years of work.” He points to the Course Transformation Project often, and emphasizes its hybrid nature and success in rising student achievement.

“It’s beyond a camera in a classroom,” he says. Over time, the University will now have the chance to develop that capacity alongside other world-class institutions.

Creative Commons photo of keyboard by Jeroen Bennink on Flickr. Photo of President Powers and UT officials by Preston Broadfoot, courtesy of The University of Texas.


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