By Jessica Bakeman
ALBANY, N.Y. -- To sign up for an archeology course at Brown University, a biostatistics class at Johns Hopkins or an engineering seminar at Stanford, all you need is a computer and Internet access.
The State University of New York will soon join these educational institutions and others from around the world in offering some courses for free online in an effort to extend its virtual reach.
SUNY announced Thursday it signed an agreement to partner with Coursera, a website with 3.7 million users that is a leader in offering what are called "massive open online courses." Universities worldwide, including private schools in New York like the University of Rochester, upload video lectures and course materials onto the website in an effort to enhance educational access.
Starting with a course from Stony Brook University in the fall, SUNY is planning to offer some courses through the site, although how many is unclear.
The system is also exploring how to offer credit for students who complete the free classes.
"We are looking at providing prior learning assessment credits for courses that might have been taken on a platform like Coursera, where the student has shown that they've actually completed, and successfully completed, the course," said Carey Hatch, SUNY's assistant provost for academic technologies and information services.
There might be a fee associated with the assessment, he said, but students would not have to pay SUNY for the credits, which would essentially act as transfer credits.
"There would not be a per-credit fee. It wouldn't be like OK, you took this course, now you have to pay me tuition for the credits I am going to give you," Hatch said.
Whether to offer credit for courses taken outside a SUNY college would be at each campus' discretion, Hatch said. But presumably, a student could take an online class from a SUNY campus through the Coursera platform for free and then apply to get transfer credit.
SUNY allows only one-third of the coursework for a degree to be transferred.
"There would be a limit," SUNY spokesman David Doyle said. "It's not like you could get a free degree."
Also, the number of SUNY courses offered on the website would be limited. Not every campus would have the capacity to create the virtual content, Hatch said.
"The Coursera platform right now is built for a particular kind of course, which is heavily video-based. And right now, most of our online courses are more text-based and animation-based. So the production cost on the course itself is relatively high," he said. "It's not going to be for everybody."
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced in January the system's upcoming "Open SUNY" initiative, a push to increase SUNY's online bachelor's degrees by 25 percent and make all online courses accessible to students at any of the 64 campuses.
Through its partnership with Coursera, SUNY will also be able to incorporate other universities' course materials into the traditional classroom environments.
"This new partnership with Coursera will be invaluable as we launch Open SUNY, which will give our students increased access to the online courses SUNY faculty offer in New York and worldwide," Zimpher said in a statement Thursday.
In addition to SUNY, Coursera recently partnered with nine other state university systems, including those in Texas, Colorado and Kentucky.
"We have an amazing opportunity to improve higher education in the U.S. through technology," Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said in a statement, "both to serve students and give professors better tools for teaching."