In an effort to keep pace with continuously advancing educational technology, the University of Wisconsin announced Wednesday it will offer four massive, open online courses, two of which will start this fall.

The experimental pilot program will be part of a higher education delivery system geared toward expanding courses to new spaces, according to Jeff Russell, vice provost of Lifelong Learning and dean of UW’s Division of Continuing Studies.

Wisconsin and 28 other other universities worldwide have partnered with Coursera, an online education provider that offers the massive open online courses, according to the statement. 

These four courses will be free to students, and an unlimited number of participants can enroll, regardless of whether they are students, according to a UW statement. However, none of the classes will count for credit yet, Russell noted.

These MOOCs will not inhibit funding for other educational innovations or campus initiatives, the UW statement added. 

Interim Chancellor David Ward launched the university’s Education Innovation endeavor last year to evolve academic programming through cutting-edge technology to provide educational alternatives.

“MOOCs are a means to increase the range of ways we can offer education to learners,” Ward said in a statement. “The future of learning is connecting with people where they are at – increasingly, those places are online.”

The statement added these new courses will include: “More than a High Score: Video Games & Learning,” “Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy,'” “Human Evolution: Past and Future” and “Markets with Frictions.”

If this pilot program is successful after evaluation, Russell said UW will consider expanding the program and making three to six additional MOOCs available through Coursera in 2014.

Russell noted interaction between students and instructors will decrease with MOOCs. Instead, he said, professors structure peer-to-peer communities to foster this communication.

“When you think about a MOOC compared to a traditional, credit-based course, the level of engagement throughout the course is going to be very different,” Russell said. “You can’t have 100,000 students in a course and get the same engagement.”

The online platform of Coursera’s educational environment allows for UW evaluation of its offerings to adjust the program as necessary, he added.

Much uncertainty remains, however, as to whether UW will be able to cut rising education costs by adopting MOOCs or how academic credibility can be ensured.

Russell said UW has not given much thought to ensuring authenticity and student identification for their coursework.

Noel Radomski, director and associate researcher for the Wisconsin Center for Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said guaranteeing academic credibility is possible, but comes at a cost.

“How will you know whether John Doe, who is registered, is doing all the work”? Radomski asked. “There are tools out there but that adds to costs. If you want to built authenticity into the MOOC, that adds time and resources.”

When more proctoring needs become more complicated and expensive, faculty tends to lose interest, he said.

While questions linger, according to Russell, the benefit of MOOCs stems from meeting the needs of those who cannot physically attend classes in Madison.

“Part of the online courses, whether you’re a resident or not, deals with the flexibility it gives you,” Russell said. “If you can’t physically be there at that time, you can still get access to that knowledge and still be able to make progress against your degree.”