Coursera expands to 17 new schools

By Ben Atlas, For the Daily
Published September 24, 2012

Students wishing to expand their education beyond a physical university campus now have more options, as 17 universities recently joined the free online education website Coursera.

Coursera announced last week that the additional universities — including Berklee College of Music, the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Melbourne in Australia — have joined in the organization’s mission to provide free education to individuals worldwide. There are now 33 participating institutions. The website allows professors at participating universities to create open online courses in their areas of expertise.

The University was one of four original participating institutions when Coursera launched in April. Martha Pollack, the University’s vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, said the University is proud to be among the founding schools for the program and is happy with Coursera’s success thus far, adding that participating faculty members have provided positive feedback.

Since the program’s onset, the University has offered seven courses, ranging from Introduction to Finance taught by School of Information Prof. Gautam Kaul to Internet History, Technology and Security led by Business Prof. Charles Severance. The University’s inaugural courses had enrollment numbers ranging from 15,000 to 133,000 students.

Pollack also discussed the University’s participation with Coursera at the University’s Board of Regents meeting on Thursday, lauding the program for its ability to connect with users in innovative ways.

“We think this is a very valuable and exciting way to connect with our alumni, prospective students and with the citizens of the state,” Pollack said after . “And since I’m the budget person, it provides potentially even revenue, and we’re really looking into that.”

In a Coursera course, students watch recorded lectures on their own time and pace, and have the ability to skip through things they don’t want to watch and slow down areas they want to grasp more completely.

The online teaching experience has helped Engineering Prof. J. Alex Halderman, who teaches the Securing Digital Democracy Coursera class, him develop new course material and improve his traditional lecture practices, he said.

“Someday, maybe you can go to class having already watched the core of the lecture at home on your own time and you’d be going to class and have a discussion with the professor already knowing the material,” Halderman said.

Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Chris Haddlesey, who is taking the Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World course taught by English Prof. Eric Rabkin, said the flexibility to engage with the material when and how you want to is appealing.

“Even though the course was very demanding, it didn’t require you to get online at a certain time,” Haddlesey said. “It’s very flexible. When you felt like you wanted to do work, you could.”

Interactive quiz exercises, exams or essays often accompany the core video lecture. In Halderman’s course, the program interrupts the video lecture intermittently to present one-question quizzes, which he believes help people stay focused and gives him feedback on student comprehension of the material.

Rabkin’s students hail from every continent but Antarctica, and include retired educators, business professionals and high school students. He said that international students have even created their own forums to discuss material in their native language. Students who live near each other have also arranged in-person meetings to further their knowledge of course material.

While Coursera has created a wider audience for professors, Pollack explained that the online format still lacks many of the qualities a live, on-campus education can provide. She said Coursera is great for “knowledge transfer,” but it still leaves a void in other areas of the educational experience, such as one-on-one interaction with professors.

“You can have a really high quality textbook and you can read the textbook, but that’s not the same thing as going to college,” Pollack said.

Still, Pollack said she feels that the University and its professors can use the Coursera platform to supplement and enhance the traditional in-class experience, especially to foster more active, engaged and hands-on learning.

Through his Coursera experience, Halderman said he is starting to realize that the traditional classroom experience will undergo inevitable change.

“I think there’s still a lot we have to figure out in terms of how to use technology like this in the classroom and how to use it most effectively online on its own, but I think the momentum is here, and there’s no going back,” he said.

In addition to making better use of technology, there is much to be decided about the online courses regarding monetization and establishment of a credential system. While the experience will remain free for the foreseeable future, Pollack acknowledged that Coursera has begun to develop plans to monetize its courses by selling certificates of completion.

Business sophomore Ray Batra, who took an introductory computer science course through Stanford University and a Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act course through the University of Pennsylvania, said he would like to see the coursework transfer as credit.

“(Awarding credit) would entice people to take courses more seriously and be more consistent in doing things on time,” Batra said.

Though Coursera has not yet enforced a uniform policy regarding credentials, some professors have taken it upon themselves to create their own guidelines. Students in Prof. Scott Page’s course Model Thinking were informed Monday that in order to receive a certificate for the course, they must complete the quizzes and exams with an average score of 70 percent.

This summer, the University formed faculty committee was formed to develop policies about creating new online courses. Pollack said the University will develop new courses soon, though she is not sure how many, as it will depend on faculty interest and the business model.