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Coursera counters by pointing to a survey of some 45 studies by the U.S. Department of Education in September 2010 that concluded online learning methods can be as effective as traditional classroom instructional techniques. Coursera said on its website that the federal meta-survey also found that hybrid methods, mixing face-to-face and online instruction, “are considerably more effective than either method alone.”

MOOC proponents acknowledge that the course design and model still need refining. But Michael Lenox, a business professor at the University of Virginia, said he considers himself an educational pioneer by teaching a MOOC on business strategy.

“Everyone involved at this point sees them as a pilot,” said Mr. Lenox, whose students will be graded based on quizzes at the end of each lecture along with final projects.

Mr. Bloomfield will grade his students based on completion of multiple-choice questions at the end of each section of his class.

Professors also are discovering the best online learning methods for their courses.

One big question centers on how companies and universities eventually will “monetize” their products. The question has bedeviled entrepreneurs in scores of industries facing the Internet’s “everything-is-free” ethos.

Coursera and edX are eyeing models in which course participants pay fees to earn college credits and are experimenting with the technology to allow verified coursework and proctored exams.

Creating ‘episodes’

Mr. Bloomfield said he decided the best way to engage his students was through “episodes” that show everyday ways to apply physics, something he does in his on-site classes.

For one of his examples, Mr. Bloomfield threw different objects off the third floor of the university’s physics building. He wanted to videotape the objects as they fell, so he tracked down a durable sports camera to throw out the window with a variety of balls.

The balls seemed to hover in midair along with the falling camera — exactly the effect Mr. Bloomfield wanted.

“But it took hours and hours of work,” he said, adding that every hour of video requires roughly 100 hours of production labor.

In his Foundations of Business Strategy class, Mr. Lenox will give his students case studies to discuss ideas and practices used by major companies. At the end of the week, he will tape a lecture based on what was asked and discussed on the forum.

In their final projects, students will give strategic analyses of businesses and organizations. In part because of the number of students, Mr. Lenox is encouraging entrepreneurs and nonprofits to ask students to use them for their final projects.

“Students may actually have an impact on these businesses,” he said. He said this final project was another “pilot” program, much like MOOCs as a whole.

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