Massive open online courses (MOOCs) may be shaking up the world of higher education.

So it makes sense that the foundation started by Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates would be interested in investigating the role of online courses in college degree programs.  Inside Higher Ed writer Steve Kolowich offers the details.

The new agreement between Coursera and the American Council on Education (ACE) was not the only project unveiled on Tuesday that will aim to scrutinize the viability of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as part of a traditional college curriculum.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving Ithaka S+R, the nonprofit research group, $1.4 million to conduct a multicampus study of MOOCs as a deeply integrated instructional resource at an array of public universities in Maryland.

“Over the next 18 months, the University System of Maryland will serve as a test bed for various online or hybrid courses, including Coursera, edX, and possibly other MOOCs, in a variety of subject areas on different campuse,” wrote Debbie Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

“Ithaka S+R will monitor, assess, and document lessons learned from these implementations,” she continued. “Rigorous assessment of how students fared using these technologies will hopefully help reassure those concerned about educational quality, while documentation of obstacles encountered and overcome will help those struggling with implementation.”

One of the most important questions Ithaka hopes to answer is whether MOOCs might enable universities to maintain or improve the quality of their courses while reducing the per-student cost of teaching them, said Kevin Guthrie, the president of Ithaka, in an interview.

Ithaka earlier this year published a study exploring whether the same could be said about machine-guided learning software. That study, led by Guthrie and William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton University, concluded that teaching software from Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative could reduce the amount of face-to-face interaction without harming learning outcomes.

Although MOOCs typically include automated assessment tools, studying their ability to make traditional courses more efficient will be a slightly different undertaking, said Guthrie. The new study will seek to compare student success in traditional versions of courses against alternate versions that “wrap” MOOCs in the accouterments of a normal course — particularly opportunities to interact with live instructors.

Like machine-guided teaching software, MOOCs occasionally have stoked anxiety among professors that the discovery of “efficiencies” might lead to faculty layoffs.

Martha Nell Smith, the chair of the university senate at College Park, the Maryland system’s flagship campus, said she and her colleagues have not been formally apprised of any research project that involves the deployment of MOOC-centric courses.