University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan addresses supporters after she was reinstated June 26. (Steve Helber/AP)

Whether Dragas knew of the deal between U-Va. and Coursera is an important consideration. Last month, she chastised the university’s leadership for failing to answer the ambitious online initiatives launched by Harvard, Stanford and MIT over the past year.

The university’s perceived failure in this area loomed large in the rector’s decision to remove President Teresa Sullivan, who was forced out June 8 and then reinstated 18 days later.

“I applaud the President, deans, and faculty members for their efforts and results,” Dragas said today in an e-mailed statement. “I think it’s fair to say that work was going on that some members of senior administration may not have known about.  I think it’s also fair to say that they do now, and that accelerated work is being supported at the highest level of administration.  The Board’s focus is on what’s truly relevant here — UVA is moving forward in an energetic way.  It’s all good for our institution.”

In an e-mail to a group of campus leaders Tuesday morning, Sullivan said she approved the Coursera deal over the weekend. She didn’t say when she learned of it.

“I agreed to the contract with Coursera on behalf of the University,” Sullivan wrote. “ ... Before entering upon any agreement, we needed to know whether we had any faculty interested and also whether their deans were willing. We also needed to examine the educational and financial implications. This weekend, I was assured that we had four faculty who were interested in offering a course through Coursera. Upon the recommendation of two of our deans, the provost, and the vice president and chief information officer, and after receiving legal advice about the details of the contract,  I agreed orally over the weekend to the contract with Coursera and my electronic signature was affixed to the contract on Monday.”

Coursera is part of a new wave of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, a trend that seems to have sparked a war of escalation among higher-education industry titans. Coursera launched last fall at Stanford, then expanded in April to Princeton, Penn and Michigan. MIT and Harvard responded the following month by re-launching MIT’s global online initiative as edX, with a $30 million investment from each school. Coursera struck back this week by adding 12 new schools to its consortium, including U-Va., Duke, Johns Hopkins and CalTech.

Seven of the top national universities (as measured by U.S. News) are now involved in the MOOC push, along with U-Va., Georgia Tech and the universities of Illinois and Washington among the top publics,

The universities will use the edX and Coursera platforms to offer their courses online to the public at no charge, a comparatively modest form of online instruction. Students won’t get college credit for the courses. The universities can use the online consortia as a way to develop new online models for their own students, and as a means to build an internal online culture, something that has been slow to take seed at the top universities.

U-Va. announced this morning that its online courses will begin in 2013 with four offerings, three from the core undergraduate college and one from the Darden graduate business school.

Darden faculty made first contact with Coursera in April after learning that the consortium had attracted venture capital and was expanding.

Sources at U-Va. said yesterday that they weren’t sure whether either Sullivan or Dragas knew of the Coursera talks. But it appears increasingly likely that neither woman knew.

Had they known, then the monthlong debate about the need for U-Va. to join the MOOC movement might have been averted. Dragas repeatedly cited the urgency for U-Va. to answer the Stanford and Harvard initiatives.

When Dragas issued a 10-point critique of U-Va. under Sullivan, this was Point No. 2:

The changing role of technology in adding value to the reach and quality of the educational experience of our students. Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight. Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, predicted that “there’s a tsunami coming”, based on the response to online course offerings at Stanford (one course enrolled an astounding 160,000 students). Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon are all taking aggressive steps in this direction. The University of Virginia has no centralized approach to dealing with this potentially transformational development.

It is hard to imagine that Dragas would have written those words had she been apprised of the looming Coursera deal: A couple weeks earlier, a large Darden delegation had visited the Coursera offices in Silicon Valley. And it’s hard to imagine that Sullivan wouldn’t have tendered a specific reply to that challenge if she had known her institution was about to join Stanford’s experiment.

In an early-morning statement, Sullivan said the Coursera courses “will in no way diminish the value of a U.Va. degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village.”

In another statement issued Tuesday morning by the university, Dragas added, “It’s important that we begin to experiment with many new initiatives in order to see what works and what doesn’t. And we’re certainly in good company as we enter into this venture with Coursera.”

In an e-mailed statement to The Washington Post last night, Dragas wrote: “This is good news. Experimentation with new initiatives in technology use is an important part of the substantive inquiry that will help inform the University’s academic leaders about the best course of action in this area. The Board of Visitors’ primary interest is in promoting the highest order of excellence in our students’ learning and enrichment, especially in a resource-constrained environment.”

That statement, as careful readers will note, is a variation on a statement Dragas issued last week as I was preparing a broader story about the online question at U-Va.

A flurry of op-ed columns this spring portrayed the elite online initiatives as a game-changer in higher education. “In five years, this will be a huge industry,” Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times. “Let the revolution begin.” An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal stated, “The nation, and the world, are in the early stages of a historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.”

Those musing seemed to sway Dragas. She sent the WSJ piece to Mark Kington, then the vice rector, under the heading, “why we can’t afford to wait.”

But some observers in the higher-education community say the Harvard and Stanford initiatives have been profoundly overhyped.

Critics say that all that the institutions are doing, in effect, is to record some of their classroom lectures for the public to watch. That is a rather humble application of online technology; anyone with a television has been able to watch university courses on public-access channels since at least the Wayne’s World era. As U-Va. computer scientist William Wulf told me, it’s somewhat akin to the early movies that were merely filmed performances on theater stages.

Coursera spokeswoman Emma Starks said in an e-mail that the consortium’s product is “much more complicated than just recording lectures and putting them online.” Class videos “are chunked into small parts with quizzes interspersed,” she wrote, “a technique proven to increase retention of material in studies. Students have a forum for questions and discussion that was engineered to handle a huge audience and avoid duplicating questions. Coursera has also pioneered peer grading technology, an essential feature needed if you wish to teach classes on any of the humanities or social sciences. It’s very much more than just online video.”

Coursera and edX are backed by powerful higher-education brands, and they already are serving vast numbers of students. But so far, the model shows no promise of delivering academic credits, the coin of the higher-ed realm, and there is no sign any participants stand to make any money on the venture.

“I know it sounds like they’re doing something different. But they really aren’t,” said Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation and a leader in online innovation. “Recording lectures has been done for decades.”

Starks, the Coursera spokeswoman, notes that it is entirely possible that Coursera will eventually “monetize” its classes, hence the interest of venture capitalists.

Some leaders in the online higher-education industry believe that the MOOC arms race is merely a competition playing out among the nation’s top universities to match each other, blow for blow, in online experimentation. Whether the experiment succeeds, and whether any of the universities benefit, might be secondary considerations.

“The way I see it, it’s a really big marketing initiative for them,” said Burck Smith, a Williams College graduate who now sells general-education courses online at minimal cost through his company StraighterLine.

“Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. They don’t care.”

This post has been updated since it was first published.