Riding The MOOC Wave

As mayor of Rancho Mirage, Calif., Scott Hines is in charge of a town of about 17,000 people in the Coachella Valley. As the chief operating officer of World Education University, a new company that says it “will forever alter the landscape of post-secondary education” by offering free courses online, Hines is now in charge of the personal information of about 50,000 prospective students and more than $1 million in seed funding.

But as World Education University continues to raise money and populate its database with the personal information of curious students, some observers in the higher education community wonder whether the company, which is not authorized to award degrees and has no formalized academic program, may be a mirage — an idyllic fantasy that is more likely to dissolve into the landscape than alter it.

The company’s official unveiling earlier this month was timely. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have created huge buzz in higher education and beyond by offering anyone the ability to take online courses from professors at top universities — including Stanford, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — at no charge. Coursera, which has signed deals to host MOOCs from professors at more than a dozen institutions, last week announced that it had exceeded 1 million registrations. Udacity, a competing MOOC provider, has also attracted hundreds of thousands of curious learners.

Although its ambitions are sprawling and largely abstract, World Education University, which goes by WEU (and encourages you to pronounce it “We-You”), makes a similar proposition. “What if you could get a course from the top educator in the whole world — from Harvard, or Cambridge, or Stanford, or USC, or the University of Colorado, or wherever you want — for free?” says Steve Vicory, a marketing and advertising consultant and an “advisory board member” at WEU, in a YouTube testimonial.

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