The Johns Hopkins University is joining a group of elite universities that will offer free online courses through a company called Coursera, a collective leap that could open higher education to a broader audience.

Though Johns Hopkins already offers courses online, Coursera is considered a potential game changer, because its classes will be available to unlimited numbers of students around the world. Some experts believe so-called "massive open online courses" could de-centralize higher education.

Hopkins officials say the courses will offer a mere taste of the education offered to full-time students. "It isn't really comparable to coming and taking a full degree program," said James Yager, associate dean for academic affairs at the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

But Yager said that the effort could be "transformative" in distributing public health information from Bloomberg to people who would never be able to attend the school full-time.

Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller founded Coursera last year with the goal of bringing high-level courses to far more students worldwide. They said 680,000 students from 190 countries signed up for the initial wave of 43 classes offered by Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

Hopkins was one of 12 universities to join the company on Tuesday; others include Duke, Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia. Coursera is mostly funded by private investors, though Penn and the California Institute of Technology have contributed $3.7 million to the for-profit venture.

In a statement Tuesday, Koller said, "We're fortunate to have the support of these highly-respected academic institutions as we move toward our shared goal of providing a high-quality education to everyone around the world."

Hopkins will not pay to participate in the venture other than by donating staff time and course designs, and the university will not receive compensation from Coursera. If the company eventually becomes profitable, it will share proceeds with the participating schools.

Initial course offerings this fall from the Bloomberg School of Public Health will come in areas such as data analysis, biostatistics and "the principles of obesity economics." Classes could include online lectures, discussion groups and exams.

Though some of the participating universities will offer credits through Coursera, Hopkins will not. Yager said the courses will not offer the level of interaction with professors or the sophisticated evaluations the university demands in for-credit offerings.

But Bloomberg Dean Michael J. Klag said the effort fits his school's mission of "sharing our research and knowledge with the world."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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