MOOC. Another acronym to add to your collection. Stands for Massive Open Online Course. Translation: Free, online courses taught by experts in their fields, featuring professors from the nation’s most elite institutions of higher learning.

If this sounds like some random, sci-fi daydream, think again. University of Kentucky recently signed on the dotted line, agreeing to a partnership with Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based provider of MOOCs. And UK is not alone; nine other public university systems have contracts with Coursera to offer students enrolled at multiple campuses courses for credit.

Besides the University of Kentucky, Coursera’s new partners include the public university systems of New York, Tennessee, Colorado, Houston, Nebraska, New Mexico, Georgia, West Virginia and the Tennessee Board of Regents.

According to the Coursera blog, the agreements with the ten systems of higher learning focus on, “Using MOOC technology and content to improve completion, quality, and access to higher education, both across the schools’ combined audiences of approximately 1.25 million physically enrolled students and among Coursera’s global classroom of learners.”

Coursera is not the only for-profit pioneering MOOCs as a tool for democratizing higher education. Udacity is another organization that comes to mind when MOOCs are mentioned.

“Learn. Think. Do” is the Udacity mantra. The website promises participants that its free interactive college classes will pave the way to the future. “We offer accessible, affordable, engaging classes that anyone can take, anytime,” the copy claims.

With Udacity as the platform, California’s Stanford University offered an online course last winter, Building a Search Engine, taught by two prominent computer scientists – Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor and Google fellow, and David Evans, a professor on leave from University of Virginia.

Once registration for the course opened up on Jan. 23, more than 90,000 students enrolled. This spring Stanford provided 13 open courses, appealing to a world-wide audience. The 23,000 who completed the Artificial Intelligence course successfully received a PDF showing their percentile scores. The Stanford seal, however, was not featured on the certificate.

Stanford provost, John Etchemendy, explains that the process is in the experimental phase, with future direction still being formulated. “Our business is education,” he said. “I’m all in favor of supporting anything that can help educate more people around the world. But there are issues to consider, from copyright questions to what it might mean for our accreditation if we provide some official credential for these courses, branded as Stanford.”

Eli Capilouto, President of UK, envisions the university’s work with Coursera to enhance preparedness of high school students for college level courses. Accordingly, UK’s Department of Chemistry is designing a course for high school students that can be used to determine participants’ probable performance on AP or other placement exams, thus saving tuition dollars and lowering costs.

In school districts that do not provide AP level Chemistry courses, the MOOC curriculum offered by UK will be the equivalent in terms of providing common core standards that are being adopted across the Commonwealth.

The opportunities offered by MOOCs are exciting. Not only is instruction provided by world-class professionals, the price tag is unbeatable. The burden is on the student, however, and those who sign up and then drift away gain nothing. Those who participate fully benefit from the learning that occurs and, in some cases, can actually earn credit.

Although the trend toward MOOCs is clear, the response of academics is less than effusive. In a poll last year conducted by “Inside Higher Ed” and Babson Survey Research Group, 58 percent of professors said they were more afraid of online learning than excited by it. Two-thirds said learning resulting from web courses was inferior when compared to live instruction, but the more experience instructors had teaching online, the more positive they felt about it.

MOOC chatter abounds in higher ed. circles, so it is likely that I won’t be long before there is a MOOC on the horizon.

An article from “The Atlantic” called MOOCs “The Single Most Important Experiment in Higher Education.” The text, by Jordan Weissman, is online at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/print/2012/07/ . A NY Times article on the subject by Tamar Lewin is located at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/education/moocs.

Read Main Street online at www.murrayledger.com. Contact the columnist directly at constancealexander@twc.com.

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