For the first time this spring, students who want to take a class at the University of Baltimore with a Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian won't be bound by the university they chose to attend.
The class, taught by local author Taylor Branch, is the University System of Maryland's first crack at offering an online, credit course for students from any of the system's 14 institutions, including Coppin, Towson and the University of Maryland, College Park.
They will be able to communicate and interact in real time with classmates and with Branch, best known for writing the trilogy "America in the King Years." Officials are also in talks with universities and institutions outside the state who could license the course for a fee and allow their students to participate.
"We've got something of high quality," Joseph S. Wood, UB's provost, said, adding, "Taylor Branch is unique."
UB and USM officials drew inspiration from the nationwide rise of massive open online courses, dubbed MOOCs, which have drawn hype as well as skepticism since their introduction a few years ago. If the format is a success, they hope to offer similar interactive, open online classes at UB and other Maryland universities.
MOOCs can draw hundreds of thousands of students, but Wood said they are usually video-recorded lectures, which can limit the educational experience because they don't allow those taking the classes to interact with the professors. The Branch course, he said, will be more modest in size, have the "spontaneity" that MOOCs lack and could draw in students across the country who otherwise would not get the chance to take a class with the author.
"What we've actually designed is an anti-MOOC," said Wood.
Students in Branch's course, called Citizenship and Freedom: The Civil Rights Era, will hear from guest speakers — Branch said he's in talks with various figures including Clarence Jones, who was Dr. Martin Luther King's lawyer and carried his Letter from a Birmingham Jail out of the facility. They will also read excerpts from some of his books.
Branch said he hopes younger students in the class will see the civil rights movement as not something that happened in the past but a force that is still taking shape today.
"It's beyond the common historical interpretation to think young people make history," he said.
UB's course will be offered at a time of debate over how effective MOOCs are at teaching students. Supporters of the format had high hopes the concept could be a game-changer, bringing affordable higher education to the uneducated masses.
But Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford University professor who is considered the godfather of the format, said this month the courses are "lousy." Studies have found while the massive, open classes are popular, many students either don't finish, don't pass or are already well-educated.
The University System of Maryland, which has offered some course materials online for around a decade, is in the midst of experimenting with other new ways of teaching students using the Internet. Through Ithaka S+R, a research arm funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, some professors are replacing a few of their lectures with video instruction from other universities around the country.
Independently of the Ithaka program, Frostburg State University announced late last month it would allow freshmen the chance to take their first semester of classes entirely online starting next year.
The style of online class that UB will offer next semester may be the first of its kind nationwide, said Raymond Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois, Springfield who studies MOOCs.
Schroeder said he believes other universities across the country may adopt similar online classes, but it will likely take time.
"I don't expect it to be in widespread use in the next semester or the next year," Schroeder said. "But it's hard to predict in this field."
UB is working out licensing agreements with other USM colleges so the class can be offered with at least a 10 percent discount on the typical tuition. Officials hope such classes can lower costs for both students and universities.
Some UB students will also likely take the class face-to-face with Branch. For every 25 students enrolled in the class, the university will hire a teaching assistant to grade papers and otherwise help with assignments.
The room where Branch will teach seats about 150, and officials are still figuring out how large the class can grow online without sacrificing personal interaction.
Branch taught the same class last spring, with students learning face-to-face in a classroom. To test the online format, the university allowed more than 100 students to audit the course.
In a special assignment, Branch instructed students — online and in the classroom — to seek out an experience that would take them beyond their comfort zone. One black woman, who had never cut her hair, went to a salon to get it chopped, he said. Another student spent the night on an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. Several students visited homeless shelters and encampments.
Eileen Cain, a community college professor in Honolulu who audited the class last semester, said it helped her find several people to interview for a book she is writing about King's visits to Hawaii, inspired when she saw a picture of the civil rights leader wearing a lei.
Those auditing the class could watch it from live video cameras and sent messages to each other or to a teaching assistant, who passed the messages along to Branch. Cain said her only suggestion for improvement on the format would be adding a way for online students to communicate with students in the classroom. But she said she learned a lot from the other people auditing the course.
"I could communicate with other people like me who lived through the civil rights era," said Cain, 52. "I miss the class, frankly."
MJ Bishop, director of USM's Center for Innovation and Excellence in Learning, said the ongoing experiment with taking some material from MOOC publishers and tailoring it to classes at Maryland universities has had some success. But she said educators have run into hurdles in splicing pieces of material from what were intended to be stand-alone classes. An initial report from Ithaka, released in October, reiterated those concerns but said many of the kinks will likely be worked out as the formats evolve.
Still, Bishop said "hybrid" courses that combine face-to-face classroom time and online components, and courses like the one Branch will teach can free up scarce university resources.
Using some video lectures from another source can give a professor more time to delve into student questions, Bishop said. She said faculty should not be worried about losing their jobs, as hybrid classes and online classes taught by adjuncts will remain a complement to regular university courses.
"It will allow [professors] to do what most want to be doing, which is interactions with students, leading them through those 'Aha!' moments," she said.
Schroeder said that UB would at some point face a cap on the size of the online classes, because if they grew too large, professors would no longer be able to interact with students.
"I have every reason to believe [Branch's class] will be successful, but it will be a smaller one," he said.