The University of Kentucky is dipping its toe into the mostly uncharted waters of free online education.
UK announced Wednesday that it would join nine other universities across the nation in signing up with Coursera, one of the first online platforms for massive open online courses, called MOOCs.
The venture will use MOOC technology to improve college access and completion rates; in UK's case, the UK Chemistry Department will develop a free online course designed to prepare high school students for college-level chemistry.
UK officials said the course would allow students to perform better on Advanced Placement chemistry in high school or at the college level. Chemistry is one of the most popular majors at UK.
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The course will be developed during the summer and fall of 2013. It will be available to students across the country during the spring term of 2013-2014.
Students will take the courses online, with a combination of video lectures and interaction with faculty in discussion boards. Coursera provides data that can identify gaps in subject matter and where students are having trouble.
Mark Meier, chairman of the UK Department of Chemistry, said two popular chemistry teachers, Allison Soult and Kim Woodrum, will develop and offer the class.
"I think there's some potential to do a lot of good for a lot of students," Meier said. "It allows you to reach out to a lot of students you cannot usually reach, who want to go to college and be in a better position to be successful in one of the courses that scare people."
Faculty could also use other MOOC content for their own classes, continuing more "hybrid classes" that combine online instruction with classroom time.
"We are actively incorporating more and more technology in our department," said Meier.
For example, students might watch lectures online and use class time for questions and interaction with faculty.
"We want to engage students more actively rather than them spend their course time listening to the guy at the front of the room," he said.
UK's University Senate is a partner in the project because that body is in charge of curriculum and coursework, even if it's offered to high school students.
"The faculty want to ensure that courses and instruction offered through this platform are done so in a manner that is consistent with the level of excellence expected at a flagship institution of higher learning," said Lee Blonder, the University Senate Council Chair.
Some UK Board of Trustees members have been urging the administration to get involved in this emerging trend. It's not yet clear how either the universities or the platform providers will make money, although the classes presumably become intellectual property of both.
However, MOOCs are also seen as a trend that could revolutionize or even overturn traditional higher education.
Vince Kellen, UK's senior vice provost for academic planning, analytics and technologies, said UK approached Coursera about getting students better prepared for college, and they were interested. UK could pay Coursera licensing fees if the school wanted to incorporate more of their technology into coursework.
Coursera was an early provider of MOOCs, which were quickly picked up by elite institutions such as Yale and Stanford. Other MOOC providers include Udacity, and EdX, which is a collaboration between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"We think the coming decade will see a transformation in the way education is delivered, where teachers and online content come together to serve better students on campus and beyond," Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said in a statement.
The nine other schools are the State University of New York, the University of Tennessee System, the University of Colorado system, the University of Houston system, the University of Nebraska, the University of New Mexico, the University System of Georgia and West Virginia University.