The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, College Park announced partnerships this week with a Silicon Valley-based startup to offer new online-only certificates in the fields of data science and cybersecurity.
Though universities in the state, including Hopkins, have previously embraced online-only for-credit classes, the "specialization certificates" are a new experiment. Open to anyone starting this spring, the classes will be taught by professors at the colleges through Coursera, an education company founded by Stanford University professors in 2011.
The certificates, though not for credit, will bear the logo of the university and the signature of college officials, and will cost less than $500.
The partnership with Coursera is the latest offering as universities in Maryland and across the country experiment with teaching and learning online, including with massively open online courses, known as MOOCs. The University of Baltimore is offering its own open online course in civil rights this spring, taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch — the first such class for the University System of Maryland — while other colleges are taking materials from Coursera to use in lectures.
MOOCs from Coursera and other companies can easily draw hundreds of thousands of students and are usually free. Though critics are skeptical about the effectiveness of MOOCs, officials at both universities said such experimentation offers broad benefits.
"We've had a long history of over 10 years now of participating in open education initiatives, even before Coursera," said Stephen Gange, an associate dean at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, which is sponsoring the certificate in data science. "Coursera is kind of the natural evolution of that model, where we think part of our mission is to educate the world on public health."
Students will pay $49 for each class and a capstone project, taking three to six months to complete the certification. In the cybersecurity track from College Park, students take four classes in fields such as cryptography and software security, while the data science certificate from Hopkins requires nine classes. Another certificate program on computing on mobile devices has classes taught by professors from College Park and Vanderbilt University.
Jonathan Katz, a professor of cryptography at College Park who is teaching one of the cybersecurity certificate courses, said he looked forward to the challenge of teaching a class entirely online. Planning his lecture in advance would help him "distill" his thoughts, he said.
"What really appeals to me is the ability to reach out to so many students, the ability to reach out to more students at once than you have in your career at a university," he said.
Some other universities around the country have expansive online degree programs, including the University of Hawaii, the University of Florida and Indiana State University. In Maryland, however, online-only degree options are mostly limited to the University of Maryland, University College.
Still, the number of individual online-only classes offered by colleges in the state is growing rapidly, nearly doubling at public universities from 2008 to 2011, according to a survey from the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Most other online-only degree options are at the graduate level, including a master's of business administration program that launched this semester by University of Maryland, College Park.
While Coursera has attracted millions of dollars in venture capital, university officials said the reasons behind offering the certificates aren't financial.
"We are sponsoring quite a bit of faculty time," Gange said. "Even if it would cover our costs, I think the financial model for this kind of endeavor remains to be seen."
Coursera will share about 10 percent of the revenue and 20 percent of the profit from the classes with the College Park campus, a portion of which will go to the professors teaching the classes, university spokeswoman Alana Carchedi said in an email. University officials believe that the different style of teaching that online classes require will help professors become better teachers and can provide important data about how students are learning "at a scale not otherwise attainable," she said.
"Teaching a MOOC is likely to encourage conversations and thinking about teaching among colleagues on campus," Carchedi said. "We have already seen this, and hope that MOOC instructors will use this as an opportunity to engage their colleagues in broader discussions about teaching and learning."