A Texas A&M faculty committee has recommended partnering with a nonprofit group to offer free online courses.
The committee released a nine-page report Monday that urges university officials to join EdX -- a nonprofit organization started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that offers the massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
Provost Karan Watson, for whom the report was prepared, said she was initially supportive of the recommendations, but wanted to gather more faculty input before making her own proposal to Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin.
MOOCs, a controversial and growing trend in higher education, typically are provided through third-party companies at little or no cost to anyone with an Internet connection. They are delivered almost exclusively online and are not for credit -- although most award certificates upon completion.
There are hurdles to clear before A&M offers such courses, but administrators said that, by as early as 2014, people all over the world could learn from the university's top scholars for free, without having to enroll at A&M.
"What we're mostly focused on in this is how to make the learning experience for our students much more effective and better," Watson said.
The committee made seven suggestions in addition to joining EdX. The suggestions include garnering administrative and faculty support, using a bid process to determine which faculty members participate in MOOCs and forming a MOOC advisory council.
The benefits of offering MOOCs, according to the report, include promoting the Texas A&M brand, enhancing recruitment, engaging alumni and fulfilling the university's mission to provide educational opportunities to Texans.
Potential problems include ensuring quality, the cost of joining the nonprofit group, the business model of offering the free courses and incentives for faculty participation.
Watson said EdX sets the membership fee, but the cost to A&M would be "well under $5 million" -- the price that the University of Texas System paid to join EdX in 2012. An A&M System spokesman said Monday that the flagship university, and not the system, was evaluating a partnership with EdX.
There will be development costs for teaching materials in addition to the membership fee, according to the report.
Becoming a part of EdX, or another company that offers MOOCs, would allow A&M to share course materials with other member universities, Watson said. It would also allow the university to track data it couldn't otherwise collect, such as how many students were regularly reading their electronic textbooks.
Watson stressed that the most important part of joining with a nonprofit group such as EdX was not MOOCs, but rather the ability to share materials between universities.
"It looks good to me," Watson said of the report. "It looks like it's important for Texas A&M to be ever more engaged in how we use technology to enhance our students' learning experience. I don't think it will replace faculty one-on-one education with students ... but I do think it can enhance it."
Watson said she was still evaluating how to motivate faculty members to participate and that reducing job duties could be a way to free up their time.
"We need for both a faculty member to be motivated that they have a good idea that would appeal to a lot of people to take it and we would have to be confident the faculty member has the skill set to do it successfully," Watson said.
Faculty Senate Speaker Walter Daugherity said he is soliciting feedback from faculty. He said the senate's Executive Committee will formulate a recommendation to Watson in late July. Watson said she plans to meet with the deans this month and to have a recommendation to Loftin in August. Depending on the recommendation, and how much taxpayer money is involved, the proposal might need the blessing of regents, who next meet in August.
A move for A&M to offer MOOCs would follow what is well underway at the state's other premier public university. The UT System announced in February it would offer nine courses in the 2013-2014 academic year. Just three days after offering enrollment into its first classes in April, the UT system reported that nearly 15,000 students had enrolled.
Harrison Keller, vice provost of higher education policy and research at the University of Texas, said the implementation of the courses through EdX has been going well. He said much of UT's offerings are, for now, entry-level courses and that the audience for MOOCs is global and typically highly educated.
He said the UT System committed $1.5 million for the development of the first nine MOOCs and that the flagship university also invested resources. He said the university offered a stipend of no more than $10,000 for each faculty member awarded a MOOC, and that university administrators selected the nine courses out of 23 proposals.
The initiative garnered high praise from the state's top decision maker -- Gov. Rick Perry.
"The UT System's partnership with EdX is great news for Texas and exactly the type of effort I hope more schools will consider as we aggressively pursue the goals of improving graduation rates and making a college education more accessible and affordable," said Perry in an October press release.
The MOOCs have similarly received the blessing of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
"I support MOOCS that do take advantage of the technology to offer a radically lower price than the current credit hour cost at traditional universities," said Thomas K. Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education with TPPF.
Lindsay said he was supportive of the A&M committee's recommendation to offer MOOCs.
"I think that it shows they are recognizing that the ground has moved beneath the feet of the traditional higher education model," Lindsay said.