Coursera, the Mountain View, California-based provider of massively open online courses or MOOCs, announced Thursday that it is partnering with the Department of State, as well as seven international organizations, to launch a series of so-called "Learning Hubs" around the globe. 

At these hubs, students will be able to take MOOC courses together and get assistance from in-class facilitators for free. All of the costs for infrastructure and space are covered by Coursera's global partners, and the facilitators themselves will be volunteers.

The goal of these hubs is two-fold. For one, they'll provide Internet access and computers to people living without either. They'll also attempt to solve a problem that plagues most MOOC providers: the fact that only 10 percent of students actually complete a course. The hope is that by engaging students in discussions, and introducing an element of oversight, students will be more inclined to finish the class. So far, that seems to be the case. In Coursera's pilot tests with the Department of State at 14 locations around the world, the average completion rate was 40 percent.

"There are some students who just come alive in discussion, and it's hard to replicate that online," says Lila Ibrahim, Coursera's president, who recently joined the company from VC firm Kleiner Perkins. "We believe in making education a basic human right, and we do that by connecting people to a great education, but also to each other."

When they first launched, companies like Coursera boldly promised to democratize education by unfettering it from the classroom and putting courses from elite universities online for free. But as these businesses have matured, they've found that students, by and large, still thrive in a classroom setting. For obvious reasons, evidence has shown over and over that when MOOC courses are paired with in-class discussion, both student performance and completion rates improve.

Launching these Hubs is an admirable attempt to improve the quality of education for Coursera students. Yet for all the problems that these physical spaces may solve for Coursera, it's not hard to imagine a slew of new problems they may introduce. For one thing, class size will, by necessity, be limited at each hub, which seems to undercut the notion that these courses are "massively open," in the first place.

"Right now, because we're intent on keeping it small scale, we're leaving it to the facilitators to approach the students who are interested," says Ibrahim, adding that class sizes will range from 10 to 200 students.

In time, of course, the plan is to grow the number of courses at each Hub to accommodate student demand. That means there may be several courses a day, on several different topics, run by several different facilitators. It looks to me like a slippery slope before Coursera is running a global network of schools. As Coursera expands these Hubs, it seems unlikely that, in the long term, its partners will be as willing to run such extensive programs for free. That could introduce substantial overhead for Coursera, a company that, like other MOOC providers, is still experimenting with how to make money and still give courses away.

"This may require a much slower growth scale over time," admits Ibrahim.

For now, Coursera is launching with 30 Hubs in 24 countries on five continents, which Ibrahim considers a test phase for this new model. "We want to treat this as a learning experience, as well," she says. "Our desire is to scale this, but to do that we need to develop best practices first."