Bakersfield College has jumped on the bandwagon of schools offering free online courses to anyone who wants them.
Massive open online courses, known in academic circles as MOOCs, are free of charge and you don't have to be a registered student to take them, but students don't earn college credit toward a degree.
BC launched a pilot class last week designed to teach participants how to build and maintain a website. It covers HTML and RSS, a web feed format for distributing frequently published information such as blog entries and news items.
The teacher of the BC class is Bill Moseley, a professor of computer studies.
"This all started when BC realized that there's a lot of value in opening up our educational material to the community," he said. "We have a lot of really good professors and classes, but historically the audience has been limited to people who could commit the time and money to earning college credit.
"There are a lot of people who could benefit from just having the information who don't necessarily need college credit."
The pilot project isn't costing BC any money because Moseley is donating his time and the course materials are all free, open-source content available online. The web-based platform for it was developed in-house, not purchased.
Depending on how the pilot goes, however, Moseley hopes one day professors will be paid a small stipend for teaching classes for the public.
For now, Moseley's reward is data. He's interested in the whole MOOCs movement and wants to gather statistics on how many of the people who sign up for the classes actually complete them.
Enrollment at MOOCs can potentially run into the thousands (the M stands for massive, after all), so there's little, if any, personal interaction with the instructor. That's led to high dropout rates at other schools that have offered the courses despite teacher aides, study groups and other efforts to provide support.
Bakersfield stay-at-home mom Kim Moore, 48, signed up for the class because she's writing a children's book and thought a website would be a good way to promote it once it's done.
"I'm pretty tech-savvy, generally, but websites are beyond the realm of my experience," Moore said.
When her three children are at school, she views videos and follows links to download software.
"So far it's been pretty easy," Moore said.
BC is late to the MOOCs party.
Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Stanford are among the elite schools that have been offering free, non-credit courses online since Canada's University of Prince Edward Island pioneered the field in 2008.
Usually the courses are offered in partnership with private companies that specialize in the necessary web platforms such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.
Coursera alone offers more than 400 classes created by 85 universities from 16 countries. The courses have drawn about 4 million students.
BC plans to archive its inaugural class so that current students can review material or catch up if they miss a class, and people who miss the course entirely can go in and check it out after it has concluded.
The HTML class won't be meeting live at a set time, so students will be able to do the work at whatever time is convenient for their individual schedules.
But Moseley said the college will be creating opportunities to build camaraderie among classmates, such as local study groups.
"We don't want people to feel totally isolated, like they're completely on their own," he said.
So far, about 50 people have enrolled in BC's inaugural class, but only about half of them are actively participating, Moseley said.
It's not too late to join, and there's plenty of room for more.
"We designed it so that we could still accommodate people even if it grew by a factor of 10," Moseley said.
Bigger schools that have offered MOOCs have deep pockets to pay for them, or in some cases access to venture capital money. They're doing it in part for marketing purposes, hoping that some of those students will be inspired to enroll at the universities and work toward a degree, said Una Daly, community college outreach director for the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, which has about 240 member schools.
Community colleges have another motivation. They're frequently using the classes as a bridge between high school and college, Daly said.
"Community colleges typically get a lot of students who aren't quite ready for college," she said. "In general they're offering basic math or basic reading to help prepare nontraditional students who've been out of school for a while."
As a group, community colleges have been offering online courses for credit for more than 15 years in order to reach students busy with families and work, Daly, said, so they have some expertise in this area.
Still, nontraditional students also have barriers to taking even a MOOC.
"Online learning can be very effective, but it also has some challenges," Daly said.
And not just for the students.
One issue for colleges is the cost of offering the courses, of course. The classes are expensive to develop, and it's not at all clear how much longer schools will be able to give away instruction for free, Daly said.
Some of the MOOC platform companies are already starting to charge for a certificate indicating students have passed the class, and more and more businesses that use MOOCs for corporate training can expect to pay a fee.
Moseley considers his class an extension of BC's mission to prepare the community for a university or the workforce, so he's committed to keeping it free.
"One of our primary charges is to service the community we exist in," he said.