Updated Monday, December 24, 2012 at 10:01 PM
They tuned in from Russia and India, Colombia, Canada and California — in all, more than 25,000 signed up for a free online course at the University of Washington last quarter called "Information Security and Risk Management in Context."
Thousands more signed up for two other course offerings, one on computational finance and the other on scientific computing.
That the courses were popular was clear. Less clear: whether the UW can find a way to break even on the venture.
In the past year, the UW and dozens of other universities have begun offering free online courses through for-profit companies like Coursera, a fast-growing California startup, and nonprofits like the MIT-Harvard partnership edX — sometimes for the prestige, sometimes simply to reach a broader swath of students.
At the same time, the UW has debated whether it makes sense to give away courses when it is having to cut other expenses because of the state's financial woes.
Now it is among the first universities to experiment with offering a more rigorous, for-credit version of a free online course, calculating that if it can get 30 to 40 students in each Coursera course to take it for credit, the classes will pay for themselves, said David Szatmary, vice provost of UW Educational Outreach.
But at least so far, just a few students have shown interest in getting credit.
Five people took the information-security class for credit. The low participation rate could be because the notice of the for-credit sign-up came late and was not well-advertised on the Coursera site, Szatmary said.
Last quarter the UW also offered a computational-finance class through Coursera with 30,578 enrollees, two of whom paid to receive credit; and a scientific computing class with 14,374 enrollees, none of whom paid.
The courses are popularly known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.
"We'll give it a year and then decide how many other courses we want to put on," Szatmary said. "Right now we're serving a lot of people who would not otherwise be touched by the University of Washington."
The UW charged about $1,000 for the for-credit version of the information-security course. Students who took the class for credit also received extra work, and could join in by physically attending the class or by participating through a live video/audio.
Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, who directs the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at the UW's Information School, taught the information-security course. She came away from her first MOOC convinced that the idea is here to stay.
"It's not going to replace the classroom, but it is going to occupy a space," she said.
In university circles, there's a debate over whether the courses are academically robust, but "there's no doubt in my mind that learning takes place, that people are seriously interested in learning" when they participate, Endicott-Popovsky said. About half the students who enrolled completed the class, she said.
Endicott-Popovsky said she got to know some of her online students fairly well, and they were highly qualified in their fields, working from locations that spanned the globe.
Some of her students formed a study group that walked Green Lake in Seattle while discussing the course. Another study group formed in Germany. More than 200 worked together on the course in Moscow. (The course does not cover highly technical, proprietary information, nor does it cover secret information, she said; its focus is information security in business and commerce.)
Endicott-Popovsky plans to teach a follow-up course in January — the three-course series will earn for-credit students a certificate in information security — and she's planning to adjust the way she teaches slightly to better fit Coursera's model of short video lectures followed by online, multiple-choice quizzes to reinforce what was learned.
She also found that teaching to a worldwide audience is quite different from teaching to a U.S. audience. "I had to become mindful of the examples I was using," she said. "Different countries, different cultures see privacy differently, see intellectual property differently."
Endicott-Popovsky had a chance encounter with one of her students at Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C. The student — who was a Transportation Security Administration official checking identification in the security line — took one look at her ID and immediately recognized her.
"He looked at me and he said in a big voice, 'You're my teacher,' " Endicott-Popovsky recalled. The student apologized for being behind in his work.
"It was terribly cool," she said. "It's a small, small world."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.