Without leaving Ashland and her post as an assistant research professor at Oregon Health & Science University, Annette Totten is taking an eight-week Health Policy course from prestigious bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel — and it's free.

Without leaving Ashland and her post as an assistant research professor at Oregon Health & Science University, Annette Totten is taking an eight-week Health Policy course from prestigious bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel — and it's free.

She's doing it by "sitting" in a class of 40,000 students and streaming the course online via Coursera, a new animal on the stage of higher learning that offers 111 courses, most taught by authors and professors from tier-one research universities.

Every Monday, the new lecture for the week is posted, along with homework and test questions, which pop up onscreen and pause the lecture, forcing students to research and write their answers before proceeding, says Totten.

Drawbacks of the system are the lack of college credit — though credit is starting to be offered at the University of Washington — and huge class size, which forms an obstacle to authenticating who is doing the coursework and also makes it hard to grade individual students, says Hart Wilson, distance education support specialist for Southern Oregon University.

"The difference between MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) and the online courses offered here is the question of scale," says Wilson. "MOOC sounds like most of the interaction is between students, not with the professor. Our online courses have 20 to 30 students and a great deal more quality interaction."

While MOOC classes are scattered across the whole country, interaction does happen, says Totten, with five fellow students evaluating short essay responses, 200 to 300 words each, of any one student, checking off main points that should be there.

MOOC, sometimes called "Mob Open Online Courses," welcomes anyone of any age, student or not, with or without credentials, and has the advantage of connecting students with the most accomplished, creative and credible figures in their field.

It offers courses in biology and life science; computer science, programming and software engineering; economics and finance; health, society and medical ethics; mathematics; statistics, data analysis and scientific computing; business and management; humanities and social science; medicine; robotics; artificial intelligence; electrical and materials engineering; information technology; computer systems, security and networking; and physical and Earth sciences, according to the Coursera website, www.coursera.org.

Though college credit is starting to be offered (with UW asking for additional work to substantiate the learning), Wilson says: "It's pretty hard to see how you could track an individual's performance in a class of tens of thousands to the extent that you could legitimately award credit. I anticipate it will be quite some time before most schools are willing to grant credit. ... I could, however, envision the possibility that students would participate in these mass enrollment courses and then take advantage of opportunities to test out of college courses."

If there's no credit, why take the courses?

"It's for people who want to learn or be able to say they took a course from a prestigious authority in their field," says Wilson. "It's not all about credentialing. This is an opportunity to study with a world-class researcher."

MOOC awards "badges" for course completion, and Totten says she would consider it "a positive thing, something that shows initiative" if prospective research assistants showed up with MOOC courses on their resumes.

One criticism of MOOC is that face-to-face learning with a professor is better than online, but SOU business professor Curt Bacon says he's seen cyber courses level the field for older students who might be "tuned out by younger students" in the classroom but who are equal online.

The big obstacle for MOOC, says Bacon, is that it's hard to tell who's taking the tests. But he notes that could eventually be overcome by technology. SOU works with "Proctor U," in which students have to take exams in front of an online camera to validate their identity.

"It's too early to decide if MOOC can substitute for face-to-face classes," says Bacon, "but the exciting thing is the content, presented in a logical and verifiable way, from a quality research institution. It's ultimately a good thing, getting these ideas to millions of people. Democracy runs better with good information."

"My sense is that it will be a long time before regional public schools like SOU grant or accept credits for mob courses," Wilson notes. "I just can't see accrediting agencies going for this model any time soon, and without accreditation, a school would essentially be out of business."

The platform was created by two Stanford University professors in partnership with Stanford, Princeton and the universities of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Edinburgh, with many more schools now added, including Duke, Rice and Johns Hopkins. Similar systems are in use at EdX and Udacity.

Most courses are free, but some charge a minimal fee.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.