Course-Management Companies Challenge MOOC Providers

Two software companies that sell course-management systems, Blackboard and Instructure, have entered the race to provide free online courses for the masses.

On Thursday both companies plan to announce partnerships with universities that will use their software to teach massive open online courses, or MOOC’s. The companies hope to pull in their own college clients to compete with online-education players like Udacity and Coursera.

Instructure has released a new platform called Canvas Network, which allows colleges and universities to offer free courses. A dozen institutions have already agreed to deliver courses on the platform, including Brown University and the University of Washington.

The courses, which will begin in January, are a “response to the MOOC phenomenon that’s been going on,” said Josh Coates, chief executive of Instructure. The courses—20 of them, for starters—will cover a wide range of topics, including one on college algebra and another on gender in comic books.

“EdX and Coursera and some of the other MOOC platforms are quite exclusive,” Mr. Coates said. “They only allow Ivy League schools or research institutions to participate. We see this as a democratization of MOOC’s—we want to allow anybody to participate in online learning, and we also want them to do it their way.”

Some universities using Canvas have expressed interest in charging tuition for the online courses in the future or offering course credit for them, Mr. Coates said. The company may also expand the new Canvas Network into secondary education.

Though Blackboard’s CourseSites platform has been available for more than a year to individual instructors interested in putting their courses online free, the company planned to announce on Thursday that three universities had decided to designate Blackboard as their “default option” for MOOC’s.

Arizona State University, the State University of New York’s Buffalo State College, and the University of Illinois at Springfield chose Blackboard after considering other MOOC providers.

Instructors may be drawn toward teaching MOOC’s on those platforms rather than Udacity or Coursera because they are already familiar with the companies’ course-management software.

Because the Springfield campus has used Blackboard for years, instructors will be able to teach MOOC’s more comfortably, said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning and director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service. “There are plenty of challenges with MOOC’s, aside from just the technical challenges,” he said. “The different languages, the different cultures, serving thousands of students at a time—this platform allows us to focus our energies on those things instead.”

But some universities may decide instead to experiment to see which platform works best for them. The University of Washington and Brown University already offer MOOC’s through Coursera.

“Very few of the big MOOC providers are exclusive, so I think we can expect to see some universities branching into several outlets,” said Richard A. DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st-Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s not clear to me that we’re in a position to say any one platform is going to be the winner—we’re only several months into this.”

Update: Gordon D. Wishon, chief information office for Arizona State University, said that Blackboard’s characterization of the university’s agreement with the company is “not factual.” “The initiative referred to by Blackboard is simply a pilot effort limited to only one college, and we have conducted no comprehensive evaluation of alternatives. ASU has made no institution-wide commitment to any partner or provider for support of MOOCs.” A Blackboard official said they stand by their characterization of the arrangement.

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