PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The University of Maine at Presque Isle has put a new twist on a program offered at colleges such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they say will help expand higher education to more people.

And, the entire program is free to anyone who wants to sign up.

Officials said the new UMPI OpenU project will allow learners of all ages to participate in online college courses for free, as long as they aren’t seeking college credit.

Ray Rice, chair of UMPI’s College of Arts and Sciences and coordinator of UMPI OpenU, said during Thursday’s press conference the program is simple and easy to sign up for, and could be a good fit for home-schooled students or high school students who want to get the feel of what a college class is like before they enter the higher education system. It also can help older learners looking to expand their horizons or get a feel for college.

As part of OpenU, each participant will have full access to the designated online courses and all of the materials related to them, including direct interaction with the instructors responsible for designing and delivering the courses. Participants will be able to take part in specific UMPI online courses at no cost for either the class or the books. Participants don’t have to live in The County or the state to do it, or even in the United States. Any person living abroad can enroll, as long as they have Internet access and an interest in the material.

To create the program, campus officials first selected the courses that initially will be offered through the project. Each course remains a for-credit class that degree-seeking UMPI students can take and also is available to OpenU learners. Both will have access to Blackboard, the system UMPI uses to deliver online courses. OpenU participants will be able to engage in Blackboard’s discussion boards, UMPI’s email system, and other asynchronous and synchronous activities with enrolled students and the instructor, such as written or recorded lectures.

All materials used as part of these courses are either public domain works, such as writings by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, copyright free or created and delivered by the instructor through Blackboard. Public domain works will be available to participants either as PDF files through Blackboard or downloaded as digital copies, through e-readers such as Kindles or Nooks.

Rice said he experimented with the program this summer with his Literature of The Sea course. He used public domain works and students read material online or with their e-readers.

“The students really appreciated it,” he said. “It worked out very well, and those that downloaded the material to a Nook or Kindle was able to access the material anytime and anywhere.”

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Sonntag said Thursday that the college is very proud to be able to offer this opportunity.

“There are many people out there who would love to learn the things that are taught in a college course, but may not necessarily be interested in earning college credit toward a degree in order to gain that knowledge,” he said. “Our OpenU project gives people that opportunity.”

Initially, the project will involve a slate of English courses: Introduction to Literature; Introduction to Creative Writing; Major Authors including Austen, the Brontes, and Dickens; The British Novel and The Pastoral Novel; Studies in American Literature before 1900; and Literature of the Sea.

As an OpenU participant, you cannot receive academic credit for the courses you take. UMPI OpenU learners will have the option during UMPI’s add-drop period to enroll in the courses for credit, thus becoming an UMPI student, but the courses may not be added for credit once the add-drop period is over.

Sonntag said that they began putting the program together after the spring semester ended, so they were not able to discuss the venture with as many professors as they would have liked. Sonntag said he thought more faculty would jump on board if the project is successful, and Rice said he already has heard such interest from business and political science faculty members.

“The OpenU project allows UMPI instructors to make their expertise, knowledge and love of their subject matter available to interested individuals everywhere,” said Rice. “And you don’t simply watch a recorded lecture or listen to a podcast, you get the opportunity to interact directly with the instructor and matriculated students, to ask questions, engage in conversation, and be fully involved in the course. This is not a passive or ‘canned’ experience, and it comes at absolutely no cost to the individual, a principle to which every instructor involved in this project is dedicated.”

Sonntag said this type of program has primarily been undertaken by larger and private universities such as Harvard and MIT, and he is proud that UMPI has generated its own kind of initiative.

To learn more about UMPI OpenU, visit or call 207-768-9416. The first UMPI OpenU classes will be offered starting fall 2012. There are limited slots, so individuals interested in this opportunity are encouraged to register early.