Todai, Kyoto U. to offer free online courses

JAPAN - Many universities have found tremendous success in attracting students from abroad by making their lectures available to the public free of charge on the Internet. The University of Tokyo and Kyoto University have expressed their intention of joining the bandwagon of massive open online courses (MOOC) that provide distance education via video and other means.

Hitoshi Murayama recently gave a lecture in English on the origins and development of the universe at the University of Tokyo.

"Today I'll talk about the Higgs particle, which has been everywhere in the news lately," Murayama, director of Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, said as a video camera recorded the lecture.

The lecture will be offered online from this autumn on Coursera, a MOOC site with more than 4 million registered users worldwide.

Massive open online courses offer not only video lectures and open access to educational materials, but opportunities for interactive learning.

Typically registration is free, and participants can engage in discussion with other students and ask the lecturers questions.

Homework is assigned and tests are administered, and a certificate is issued to those who complete the course. Some US universities grant course credits for the certificates.

Coursera, which the University of Tokyo plans to join, is home to many prestigious overseas universities including Yale, Princeton and California Institute of Technology.

Tokyo University Associate Prof. Yuhei Yamauchi, an educational technology expert who serves on Coursera's management team, said, "We'd like to attract outstanding students by offering our university's upper-level coursework." According to Yamauchi, 40,000 students--including some outside Japan--have registered for the two courses that the university plans to offer.

Kyoto University is set to offer classes at a different MOOC site--edX, a site comanaged by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology--next spring. In the United States, a 15-year-old Mongolian boy who received high marks in edX created headlines when he was accepted to MIT.

Some universities have started to incorporate such free lectures into their lessons.

Waseda University Vice President Shuji Hashimoto used lecture videos from overseas universities in his classes last autumn. In a seminar at the School of Science and Engineering on July 17, students held a debate after watching a video of a lecture at George Washington University on artificial intelligence theory.

One student, Daichi Matsuoka, 21, a senior, welcomed the approach. "I think discussion among students helps deepen our knowledge," he said.

Hokkaido University Associate Prof. Katsusuke Shigeta, an expert on educational technology and massive open online courses, said the courses were becoming more common among universities hoping to attract students from abroad.

"Stratification is taking place," Shigeta said. "Some top universities try to attract students from around the world by offering lectures by leading scholars, while other universities have been taking advantage of massive open online courses."

In the United States, observers have pointed out that dependence on other universities' online courses can result in a loss of originality.

Financially strapped state governments have promoted the use of online courses by well-known universities. This has provoked a backlash from educators at state-run universities because dependence on online courses could lead to the downsizing of teaching staff. Faculty at some state-run universities have even refused to utilize MOOCs.

MIT Prof. Shigeru Miyagawa, who has been involved in the university's extension lecture programme, said: "The Internet has transformed university classes from passive, lecture-style instruction to student-centred learning in which students make their own choices and take the initiative in their education. The challenge is how to offer an education that meets the new demands of the future."