This fall, the University of New Mexico is offering three massive open online courses or MOOC’s through Coursera, a company developed by professors at Stanford University to reach out to students who don’t want to step onto campus.

Associate Provost and Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Greg Heileman is offering a web application architecture course for the second time. The first time he taught the course last spring, Heileman thought he might attract 5,000 students. By the end of the course, he had more than 48,000 students from 195 countries - more countries than the United Nations recognizes as members - in his class. He has nearly 19,000 already signed up for the course this fall, which opens Aug. 11.

Vice President for Student Affairs and Professor Eliseo "Cheo" Torres is offering a course on Curanderismo: Traditional Medicine. The class, which opens Aug. 18, has already attracted more than 14,000 students.

Anderson School of Management Professor of Strategic Management Doug Thomas is teaching a course titled, Global Business Environment. The course, which starts Sept. 2, will be offered in English and Spanish. It has yet to open for registration.

Instruction is changing at UNM says Heileman. “I will never, ever teach the same way again,” he said. As the UNM administrator with overall responsibility for curriculum development, he was the first faculty member at the university to venture into the new world of mass internet instruction.

Heileman's course requires students to know a computer programming language. It wasn’t something that would attract the casual student. After all, teaching ways to design and deploy modern web application architectures is a very specific and complex skill. When it attracted nine times his estimate, he realized he had taught more students in one semester than he could expect to teach in a lifetime in his classroom. It also expanded the financial horizons for college administrators.

Thinking about money
Next month, students who take Heilman’s web architecture course will have the option of signing up for the signature track, which verifies that a specific person has taken and completed the course. 

One of the problems with MOOCs is the fact that many students who sign up, don’t complete the course. Since the MOOCs are free, students don’t have an investment beyond their desire to learn. Coursera has contracts with dozens of institutions worldwide and has learned that students who invest a small amount of money are much more likely to finish. 

Heileman’s course will be offered in two ways. Students can take it for free or they can pay $49 and receive a Verified Certificate if they successfully complete the course work. Coursera and UNM will share the tuition.

The value of the Verified Certificate is unknown. Employers in some countries may decide it has value if it proves a job applicant possesses a certain amount of knowledge about web architecture. In some countries a certificate of completion for a course in web architecture from a U.S. university might be valuable to a student.

UNM students cannot take MOOCs for credit, however, the university is trying to work out a plan where a Verified Certificate might be used as a partial credit for a course in the future. MOOCs last from six to eight weeks and cover much less material that a regular course so it’s complicated to calculate exactly how it will translate into course credit for students on campus.

Extending the UNM brand
When UNM President Robert Frank arrived at the university three years ago, he set a goal of making UNM a destination university. Provost Chaouki Abdallah realized MOOCs offered a possible opportunity to expand the reach of the university. He has walked an everchanging line as he navigated faculty concerns over intellectual property and financial concerns over the costs of offering the courses.

Now, thousands of students in India, China and Europe know the UNM brand through the web architecture course. Thousands more have signed up for the Curanderismo course. MOOCs have proved to be an unexpectedly potent marketing tool.

Debby Knotts, the director of new media & extended learning for UNM said, “the biggest impact of the MOOCs has been to expand the reach of UNM. Now we need to leverage the MOOC environment to bring students into the university.”

That’s already happening. Heileman will be working with a graduate student from Ghana who wants to attend UNM because he was so excited by the class.