As educators across the country work to reduce class sizes, some at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been thinking about creating courses that could draw thousands.

The trend toward massive open online courses -- known as MOOCs -- is a quandary for universities nationwide. On the one hand, it makes education freely accessible to everyone. On the other, it’s a threat to anyone who makes a living from education.

At UNL, the issue is far from decided.

In September, Chancellor Harvey Perlman charged a nine-member faculty committee with considering the question.

“The responses range across the spectrum, as is often the case when technology has the potential to change the way we do things,” said Steve Goddard, task force chairman and head of the UNL Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “There’s excitement. There’s fear. It’s the unknown.”

The committee met four times and submitted its report to university leaders, who have yet to decide how to use it.

The group looked at why some universities offer MOOCs and how they benefit, Goddard said. Often, they’ve used them as marketing tools and to enhance their brands.

Most offerings so far have come from elite universities: Harvard, MIT and Stanford.

Typically, a widely respected professor teaches a course for free. One offered by MIT on circuits and electronics drew 155,000 students, while a course offered by Stanford on artificial intelligence drew 160,000 students from 190 countries.

Several companies and universities have created MOOC platforms, including Udacity, edX and Coursera, which boasts 3.5 million students.

Most of the online courses are in computer science, Goddard said, but those on math, philosophy, history and other subjects are becoming more widespread.

Universities typically don't offer credit for the classes.

“They don’t get anything for it,” Goddard said. “They get an education. They learn something.”

But that is changing.

In February, the American Council on Education, which provides credit recommendations to college presidents, endorsed five courses ranging from algebra to "Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach" for credit.

Still, UNL History Department Chairman William Thomas views the online approach with skepticism, saying students likely won’t gain as much as they would from educators they meet in person.

In addition, the online platforms developed so far -- largely video lectures delivered without opportunity for viewer feedback -- allow for little discussion.

“MOOCs as currently developed seem to be featuring a kind of one-way flow of information,” Thomas said.

Online education holds promise but it must be far more interactive, said Thomas, who has a scathing response to those who say online education will one day replace classroom instruction.

“The idea that it’s going to replace or render unnecessary classroom instruction is nonsense and I think foolish,” he said. “It’s obscured, I think, the real hard work we have to do.”

Goddard said UNL’s task force also struggled with whether the university's largely traditional undergraduate student body of mostly 18- to 22-year-olds would take advantage of free courses that don't result in college credit.

Nearly 75 percent of people who take the courses already have college degrees, he said. Many are professionals seeking to advance their knowledge.

Additionally, about 10 percent of people who start actually finish the courses.

Completing a free online course that won’t affect a GPA or pocketbook requires a great deal of self-motivation, Goddard said.

“You have to be fairly motivated to go through this because you don’t have that personal connection that we see in a typical college class,” he said.

University leaders may create a second task force to decide whether to develop MOOCs, Goddard said.

If UNL decides to offer one, it likely would differ from courses already provided, highlighting the university’s academic strengths, such as digital humanities, Goddard said.

“That (might) bring people, researchers, scholars to UNL who really want to study that more,” he said.

In Crete, Doane College is considering whether to accept the MOOC credits endorsed by the American Council on Education, said Janice Hadfield, dean of graduate and professional studies. The college typically accepts transfer credits for council-endorsed courses. However, most of the endorsed courses involve paid training, she said.

“Now we’ve got a different situation,” she said. “People never paid anybody for the credits.”

Another issue is how universities can be sure students who’ve completed MOOCs learned what the course provider says they learned. Some online course providers have begun to offer exams at a cost to students.

“Are we going to participate in the philosophy of education for all?” Hadfield asked. “If we do, it would just be wonderful, but we might not be able to keep open our doors.”

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or