Louis Bloomfield is accustomed to speaking to classrooms of 25 or 30 students, but now he is preparing a syllabus for a crowd so massive that it wouldn't be out of place at a Justin Bieber concert.
The University of Virginia physics professor has jumped head-first into the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses, more commonly known as MOOCs, that supporters claim -- and skeptics fear -- is on the brink of revolutionizing the way postsecondary education is conducted.
Mr. Bloomfield and his UVa. colleagues, along with academics from around the world, must adjust their curricula to serve classes where as many as 60,000 "students" are enrolled.
The open online courses are seen as the next step in distance learning, an increasingly popular option in postsecondary education.
Although MOOCs typically don't offer college credit, they allow scholars such as Mr. Bloomfield to share their knowledge with an unlimited number of students, whether they be on campus or halfway around the globe. In addition to dozens of top-tier American universities, including Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, schools in Canada, Mexico, Europe, China, Singapore, Japan and Australia also have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.
"Academics don't really like change, but change is coming because of technology, money, the whole works," Mr. Bloomfield said. "This isn't classroom teaching. It's like low-budget television."
Mr. Bloomfield, who earned his doctorate in physics from Stanford, has been teaching at Virginia since 1985. He will begin offering his introductory physics class -- called "How Stuff Works I" -- as a six-week MOOC starting Monday.
The expansion of MOOCs has been driven largely by companies such as edX and Coursera, which bills itself as a "social entrepreneurship company" that partners with universities to offer free courses anywhere on the planet. Scholars from the Berklee College of Music, the University of Michigan, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and about 30 other institutions partner with the company to offer more than 200 classes.
Critics within and outside the academic world have raised questions about the classes, especially their lack of cost. They worry that free online courses will, as has happened in print media and other industries, undercut the traditional financing model for colleges and lead to university closings and an overall decline in higher education.
They also are concerned about how students will be graded for their work, whether students will take the courses seriously and with how much control instructors truly have over classes that number in the tens of thousands.
An apparent lack of quality control led Richard A. McKenzie, an emeritus professor at the University of California at Irvine's business school, to quit teaching his Coursera MOOC.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. McKenzie appeared to be frustrated with students who would not buy or read assigned texts.
"I will not cave on my standards. If I did, any statement of accomplishment will not be worth the digits they are printed on," he wrote in statements posted to the class website last week.
Classes also have come under fire for being poorly organized and controlled.
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.
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.
He thinks they ultimately will be successful in some form, though they may look different from what they do now.
"I think we are trying to figure out not only mass online classes, but how to best leverage technology for higher education," Mr. Lenox said.
• Staff writer Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.
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