The latest trend in online education is taking the academic world by storm.

From around 2011, a group of U.S. universities or professors launched start-ups to provide courses taken at elite universities free to anyone with Internet access.

By signing on to a website that merely requires user name, email address and password, people can take the massive open online courses, or MOOCs provided by renowned professors at top-tier universities, including Harvard and Stanford.

The impact has been huge, drawing tens of thousands of students from all over the world.

The explosion is having an impact on Japanese universities as well. Starting this fall, the University of Tokyo began providing two courses in English via Coursera, a for-profit U.S. MOOC provider. In April, Kyoto University will kick off its first course via edX, a non-profit MOOC platform developed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Next spring, 13 Japanese universities plan to provide courses via the first MOOC platform to be based in Japan.

Here are some questions and answers about open online courses for the masses:

How do the courses work and how popular are they?

MOOC courses target a large number of participants.

Unlike the open courses some universities provide, including free texts and lecture videos online, MOOCs provide free quizzes, homework and exams. People can watch the lectures and ignore the assignments, but if they complete them and pass the tests, they receive a certificate of participation.

MOOCs gained wide recognition last year when U.S. platforms, including Coursera, Udacity and edX, debuted, offering selected courses from the world’s leading universities.

The outcome has been big. Coursera, a for-profit start-up founded by two computer science teachers at Stanford University, has had 17 million enrollments from 190 countries since its April 2012 launch. As of Sunday, it was offering 534 courses from over 90 elite schools, including Yale and Stanford, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Tokyo.

Why are universities offering courses for free?

One goal is to democratize higher education and provide high-quality schooling to everyone regardless of location or financial status.

MOOCs also help promote universities overseas to attract foreign students, experts say.

Yuhei Yamauchi, an associate professor of education technology at the University of Tokyo, said the course is a powerful tool for raising the profiles of universities worldwide.

According to Yamauchi, an online course taught by University of Tokyo physics professor Hitoshi Murayama via Coursera this fall drew 48,393 registrants from more than 140 countries, compared with the school’s total enrollment of just over 28,000. The age of the online students ranged from 9 to 90, he said.

“The impact has been more than I imagined,” said Yamauchi, who leads a MOOC team at the university. “We have been able to reach the people we couldn’t approach before, and they were grateful. . . . Some asked us to send information on our postgraduate courses, saying they want to study here, and some even offered to donate to an organization Murayama belongs to.”

Yamauchi also said the University of Tokyo joined Coursera with the aim of gaining know-how on the latest online trends before it is too late.

How are the course providers making money?

There is no concrete business model for MOOCs yet, experts say.

Some schools are making money by issuing “identity verified certificates” for $30 to $100 when courses end, confirming students’ identities.

It is not clear how many people will pay for certificates bearing their name if they can’t be used as legitimate credits toward a degree. If schools begin issuing official credits for MOOCs, the potential could be huge.

To do that, educators will have to strengthen verification to prevent cheating and impersonation, and find ways to guarantee their testing and evaluation systems. In one recent case, a dog in Britain reportedly earned an MBA from an online school just by “paying” a fee.

Coursera also makes money by offering employee-matching services to companies.

Is the ID verified certificate useful in finding a job ?

It can be listed on one’s resume but its effectiveness and credibility remain open questions.

In an Internet age where hacking and cybercrime is rife, course providers must find a way to prevent cheating or impersonation if verified certificates are going to have any credibility, they say.

Some MOOC providers have installed webcam and key-logging systems to monitor students’ typing styles during tests to prevent cheating.

How many Japanese are using MOOCs?

The number is considered small by Western norms, mostly because of the English skills needed to participate, experts say.

According to Coursera Blog, among the 1 million people enrolled as of August 2012, Japanese accounted for about 0.6 percent, or 23rd by nationality. Americans made up the bulk of the students at 38.5 percent, followed by Brazilians, Indians, Chinese and Canadians.

What will the Japan-based MOOC platform be like?

On Oct. 11, Japanese companies and universities, including NTT Docomo Inc., Sumitomo Corp., and the Open University of Japan, launched JMOOC, a committee aimed at creating Japan-based MOOC platforms.

While the U.S. MOOC providers target people from all over the world, JMOOC will be more regional, offering courses mostly in Japanese by Japanese universities, said Yoshimi Fukuhara, JMOOC’s executive director. In the long term, JMOOC hopes to offer classes in other Asian languages, he said.

Starting next April, 13 universities, including the University of Tokyo, Waseda University and Keio University, will provide at least one free course online.

Among the courses, the one by Darren J. Ashmore, an associate professor of Japan studies at Akita International University, will be taught in English. The remainer will be in Japanese, Fukuhara said.

Apart from localizing courses for Japanese, is there any other reason for starting a Japan-based platform?

The data on MOOCs may be useful in developing or enhancing educational tools, like text books or online teaching methods. Japan needs to gather its own data by establishing a Japanese platform, Fukuhara said.

He said many educators and companies feel a sense of crisis over the situation because U.S. educators are gleaning massive amounts of data through the services, leaving Japan behind.

“If Japan doesn’t accumulate user data (like the U.S.), Japan will lose the chance to upgrade information and communications technologies to make the nation’s education better,” Fukuhara said, noting Japan needs its own platform to grasp the study habits and tendencies of Japanese to develop better materials.

Will JMOOC enjoy the same success as U.S. MOOCs?

It is too early to tell, but JMOOC is shooting for 1 million users.

Fukuhara said that it will be crucial to improve the credibility of course certificates issued to expand participation.

If more Japanese companies recognize the certificates as proof of knowledge, then more people will see online learning as an effective tool, he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

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