SEATTLE -- The University of Washington and 29 other institutions of higher learning are offering free online courses this fall through a new company called Coursera.

Sounds like an amazing deal, right? Here s the catch: They are non-credit courses.

Still, for online learners like Tracy Arakaki, who earned a couple of credentials through UW after getting her Ph.D., it is an appealing option.

Free is great, Arakaki said. Not too many things are free today.

Coursera is part of a growing trend of Massive Open Online Courses, also called MOOCs. Another MOOC, called Edx, features free courses from MIT, Harvard and UC-Berkeley.

Anyone with a computer can access the online courses, which include pre-recorded video lectures, Powerpoint presentations, and interactive exercises and quizzes.

For instructors like Eric Zivot, speaking to a video camera instead of a classroom is a new experience. As of last month, his course on computational finance had more than 17,000 students from across the globe signed up.

I think 17,000 students in a class, it s a flattering experience to think that there s that many people there, but it s also a bit frightening, Zivot said.

UW leaders believe there is good reason to join forces with Coursera.

As a public institution, we want to provide a wide, broad access to the educational resources of the institution, said David Szatmary, vice provost for educational outreach at UW.

But putting together free courses is not cheap. So UW is hoping to generate some money by giving students the option, through Coursera, to pay a fee and enroll in enhanced online courses for credit.

We re hoping out of, say, 100,000 students to get 50 students who might want that credential from the institution, Szatmary said.

For now, UW is offering classes from a few departments through Coursea, including applied mathematics, computer science and computational finance. More courses could be added in the future.

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