When the University of Illinois announced it would offer online courses for free, thousands of prospective students came running.

Illinois' opening registration day for its 10 new, free online courses pulled in around 14,000 enrollments, according to the Chicago Tribune.

U of I joined several top research universities like Duke and the University of Virginia, to partner with Coursera, which calls itself a social entrepreneurship company hoping to give everyone access to the world-class education.

Coursera is part of a trend of "massive online open classrooms," often referred to simply as MOOCs, looking to revolutionize student accessibility to prestigious schools.

The company was founded last fall by two Standford University professors. Coursera and its partner institutions offer and do not charge for over 100 courses in the sciences, arts and more. Students who once found their academic lives restricted by financial straits or strange work hours may now further their educations online.

MOOCs are not the same as traditional credit-bearing online course, as Joshua Kim points out on Inside Higher Ed.

"The critical difference is that a well-designed online course is built around the co-construction of knowledge amongst the students and the instructor," Kim writes. "This knowledge construction requires active and personal engagement between students and faculty."

Kim argues that no matter how well designed a MOOC is, the experience "with 160,000 fellow learners (as in Stanford's AI course) will never be comparable to a well-designed traditional online, blended or face-to-face course."

"They are as much substitutes for traditional courses (online, blended, or face-to-face), as Facebook is for real friends," he adds.

Another MOOC, known as edX, created a partnership between MIT and Harvard. According to The Atlantic around 120,000 students signed up for the first MIT edX course, called "Circuits and Electronics" back in March.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller told the Tribune U of I's most popular course teaches students how to create smartphone applications.

Like U of I's MOOCs, edX's courses are set to begin in the fall.

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  • UMass Law

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  • Maine Community Colleges

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  • Arizona Public Universities

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