Early in the fall semester, Coursera announced that Wesleyan University is joining its partnership of schools offering MOOCs—massive, open, online classes that often enroll tens of thousands of people. MOOCs are not uncontroversial. Some see them as triggering watershed changes in higher ed, while others see basic contradictions in how they work. Founded by two computer science professors at Stanford, Coursera envisions reaching millions. Co-founder Daphne Koller’s TEDTalk provides a good sense of the organization’s mission. It was launched with classes offered by professors from Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, and Penn; and this summer a number of fine schools joined the partnership, among them Duke, UVA, Johns Hopkins, and CalTech. In September about 15 signed on, including Wesleyan, and we are the first liberal arts institution to join that has an undergraduate focus.

The idea that Wesleyan will be offering free, massive online classes will strike some as paradoxical. We are a small university at which almost three quarters of the courses are taught in an interactive, seminar style. How is that related to online learning? In important respects, the classes offered through Coursera are very different from the ones taught at liberal arts schools that focus on undergraduates. Although MOOCs start off with huge numbers of enrolled participants, a small percentage do the assignments, and an even smaller percentage finish. The retention rate at Wesleyan is, by any measure, very high. Residential liberal arts education depends on the ongoing interaction of students with one another and with faculty. MOOCs encourage interaction of a different sort: through social media and chat rooms. Nonetheless, we want to understand better how students learn in these contexts, precisely because they are so different from our own. And we think it is simply a good thing to share versions of our classes with the wider world. The Wesleyan educational experience does not scale up—but we can make available online adaptations of our classes so that those with a desire to learn have access to some of what we have to teach.

Our work with Coursera will be an experiment with online education from which we are sure to learn. The courses we are developing now are not for Wesleyan credit—they are vehicles for teaching subjects we care about to a (very) wide audience. Professors don’t grade in MOOCs, but we do create assignments that are either machine-graded or peer-evaluated. We’re starting off with classes in classics, economics, film, statistics, and psychology. And I’m working on an online version of my interdisciplinary humanities course, The Modern and the Postmodern. Even though I’ve been teaching this class for many years, I really don’t know how this will translate to the MOOC context. That’s why it’s an experiment.

Will online teaching have an impact on our education on residential campuses? It already has, with several professors using either a “flipped classroom” or a “blended” approach. This means that instructors assign some lectures to be watched at home, and they use the classroom for group exercises. Of course, our students and faculty use technology every day for research and teaching, and they are connected with others around the world who share their interests and from whom they learn.

Higher education faces stark challenges: the ravaging of public universities’ budgets by strained state and local governments; ever-rising tuition and student debt; inadequate student achievement; the corrosive impact of soaring inequality; and the neglect by some elite institutions of their core mission of teaching undergraduates.

MOOCs won’t solve all these problems, but they will offer another tool for bringing education to extraordinarily large numbers of people around the world. John Dewey argued a century ago that the experience of education is an experience of freedom. We don’t know enough yet about these massive courses to say much about how they compare with more traditional classes, how they will contribute to the experience of freedom. Will they facilitate a more robust exchange of ideas across cultures and social class? Will they enable social mobility, and will they open new modes of thinking and experiencing the arts and sciences? How will the social networks to which the courses give rise compare to social bonds developed in residential contexts? We won’t be able to answer these questions for some time, but we’ve decided to learn by doing, by participating.

Wesleyan has long been a champion of educational innovation, and this partnership with Coursera is just the latest step in that tradition. I think it’s an exciting one. Stay tuned (or should I say, “stay connected?”).UPFRONT