Princeton University has dipped its toe into the water of MOOCs — multiple open online courses — during the tenure of President Shirley Tilghman. Her successor, Christopher L. Eisgruber, who has led Princeton’s move in that direction and was recently named to the academic advisory board of Coursera, is not likely to scale back the involvement.
At his introductory press conference on Sunday, April 21, Eisgruber cited several “tough questions” the university will have to address in the near future. One was related directly to MOOCs — “What does the advent of online education mean for Princeton, and how do we wish to participate in it?”
Eisgruber, an Oregon native and Princeton Class of 1983, majored in physics, won a Rhodes Scholarship, earned a law degree from the University of Chicago, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and taught at New York University Law School for 11 years. Returning to Princeton in 2001 as the director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, he was named Princeton’s 11th provost — the university’s chief academic and budgetary officer — in 2004.
He is married to Lori A. Martin, Wellesley Class of 1985 and a securities litigator with the firm of WilmerHale. They have a son who is a freshman at Princeton High School.
In an interview with the undergraduate newspaper, Eisgruber said he would “rotate off” the Coursera advisory board but that he hoped his successor as provost would resume the role.
With regard to Coursera, the incoming president said he has been glad that “we’ve jumped into the pool and we’re learning how to swim. We have a set of faculty members who instead of saying, ‘You know, this is very foreign to what we do here at Princeton,’ are instead saying, ‘I’ve been doing this, and it’s helping my teaching in my own classroom here on the Princeton campus, and it’s also a blast to reach students as far away as Kathmandu.’ That’s been important.”
“Although we’ve been very active with Coursera, there are other respects in which we are the most conservative university in the country with regard to these things,” he said, referring to the fact that Princeton still offers no online course for credit or online certificate program. But, he added, “we do need to ask ourselves, ‘given how fast things are changing, and given our mission to make a difference in the world, is this the best place for us to be?’”
In an interview with the alumni magazine, Eisgruber noted that “right now, as part of our Coursera project, we’re in partnership with a state flagship university. Some of our lectures are being used there as part of classes which also have an on-site component. If this works well, we may be able to help change the cost curve at institutions that are facing a lot of pressure, while helping them sustain the quality of what they do.”
But, Eisgruber cautioned, “It would be a mistake if we, as a country, start making education less expensive by making it less good. But if there are ways that we can keep education equally good or even better while making it less expensive, that is something important for Princeton and for higher education.”
Eisgruber will hold a public “meet and greet” Wednesday, April 24, from 3 to 5 p.m. on the campus outside of Alexander Hall.