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University online courses attract thousands of students

Information Technology Services releases data, finds six free spring semester classes attract international, national enrollment

Tens of thousands of students have signed up for the University’s non-credit online courses set to begin January as part of the University’s venture with online-learning company Coursera, according to data released by University Information Technology Services.

Online learning became a hot-button issue during the failed ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan this summer. After Sullivan’s reinstatement in July the University announced its partnership with online-course company Coursera following months of dialogue between both parties.

“We’re creating a ‘U.Va. everywhere’ that provides access to people all over the world who won’t have access otherwise and for other people who want lifelong learning, such as U.Va. alums,” History Prof. Philip Zelikow said. Zelikow will be teaching a 15-week hybrid course titled “The Modern World: Global History since 1760.”

Enrollment in each of the University’s six non-credit online courses ranged from fewer than 10,000 to nearly 40,000 per class as of Monday. More than 127,000 total enrollments have been counted so far, though students may have enrolled in multiple courses.

Most enrollees are likely not University students, said James Hilton, the University’s chief information officer.

The University does not receive payment for offering these courses, but it is thinking of the long-term benefits of moving online, Hilton said.

“We’ll get a sense of what we can and can’t do online and we’ll improve,” Hilton said. “We are fundamentally a learning community and it’s an opportunity to learn new things.”

This outlook is not without its critics who have expressed concern about the loss of one-on-one classroom engagement. Physics Prof. Lou Bloomfield initially had a similar fear.

“I don’t have the same sense of audience but I do have a lot of motivation to stay as best I can,” Bloomfield said. “The idea of reaching lots of people is appealing.”

Bloomfield is expanding his physics course “How Things Work” to an online format. He said the online-learning system provided him with an opportunity to let his students experience the curriculum in ways previously not available.

“We can go ride a bicycle, go on a loop-de-loop roller coaster, [and] I can mark up the video,” Bloomfield said.

The sheer amount of preparation for teaching online courses can add to professors’ workloads.

“I’m trying to present my entire work course in video form, so it’s a lot of filming, a lot of planning, a lot of assembling, and it’s almost a crazy adventure in terms of how much there is to do,” Bloomfield said.

Bringing the University to the rest of the world is no mean feat, but Bloomfield said he is optimistic it will pay off.

“I hope I’ll run into these people in the city who will say, ‘Oh, I took your class!’” he said. “I like the idea of projecting the University of Virginia all over the world.”