University continues to expand online course offerings with Coursera

Photo Illustration by Marlene Lacasse/Daily
LSA senior Sara Boer engages in a discussion for an online pharmacology class at the Law Library on Wednesday. Buy this photo

By Will Greenberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 10, 2013

While the traditional Wolverine traverses the Diag between classes, a new wave of students can simply navigate with a mouse and a keyboard.

The University has partnered with online course company Coursera and now offers nine free ‘massive open online classes’ — nicknamed MOOCs — to individuals seeking an education without the University price tag.

The courses are not intended to serve as a replacement for the traditional education or experience and thus do not offer credit but instead award a certificate of completion.

According to their website, Coursera currently offers 395 online courses and sees a total enrollment of over 4 million “students”. The website has partnered with 83 educational institutions including, Northwestern University, University of Maryland, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin.
A handful of University professors have already posted classes, with subjects ranging from thermodynamics, classical music and science fiction.

The curriculum is designed by the professors with assignments that are completed and submitted online. Coursera provides online forums where students can connect with each other as well as ask questions to be answered by the professor.

Because online classes often times see high enrollment figures, professors often face the challenge of answering such a high multitude of questions.

Music, Theatre & Dance Prof. Kevin Korsyn said his Coursera class is structured with eight 90 minute-long lectures posted online. Throughout the semester, as more and more questions pile up, Korsyn will post response videos that address the most common questions.

“I think that instructors need to have realistic expectations about what can be accomplished in each setting,” Korsyn said, “An online course for 10,000 students cannot have the same intimacy as a seminar for ten people, but this is also true for live lectures that have several hundred students.”

Former University President James Duderstadt said a major advantage of online classes is that they are like textbooks in that students can access and learn from them at their own pace.

Duderstadt said as a public institution with a mission of reaching out to those who might not be able to afford a college education, the University is better positioned than many private colleges to expand their free available online classes.

“In a sense, (private universities) got the early visibility but I think it will be the large public universities that, if this outreach really is as successful as many people hope it will be, I think the lead will rapidly shift to public universities like Michigan and University of California,” Duderstadt said.

However, Duderstadt stressed that the online classes are only courses, not a “college education”. Duderstadt said there was an “enormous” difference between online and traditional classes, noting factors like the high level of self-motivation needed to complete online courses.

“Most of the learning in true universities, like Michigan, is an endeavor that depends very heavily on people-to-people and human interaction,” Duderstadt said. “That’s not something you can replicate at a distance.”

Business Prof. Gautam Kaul, who recently added a finance class to Coursera, explained that the goal of MOOCs is not to replace the classroom. Kaul said the three goals are to provide public access, experiment with the current technology and to advertise the University.

“We don’t want to be in the game of making education a commodity,” Kaul said, “We want to be in the game of being known to experiment with technology to enhance learning.”

Kaul said as a professor, creating a curriculum for an online class has helped him become a better instructor since he had to reconsider the different ways that students learn.

Duderstadt said as the University continues to learn from experimenting with MOOCs, it is difficult to determine the future of online material due to the rapidly changing technology they are faced with.

“What we don’t want to do is say, ‘Five years from now every classroom on the campus will have taped all the video lectures that our faculty gives and that’s how you go to class,’ because we would be terribly wrong.” Duderstadt said.

While Duderstadt said he believes the future for online courses is, “quite impossible to predict,” he also said it will have a “very significant impact.”