The January 22 E-mail from Edinburgh, Scotland, 3,319 miles away from my home in Trenton, announced the good news. I was enrolled in a new class offered by the University of Edinburgh’s philosophy department. The good news continued: texts would be provided, there was no fee, classes would be at my convenience, and I would not be away from family or miss a day of work.

But there were few differences from a normal class. While the university would provide a certificate that recognized the satisfactory completion of the course, no credit would be offered. Since philosophy can be translated as “love of knowledge,” I was in that spirit and not really concerned about that. Given the reality that 90,000 individuals around the world also had signed on to this free online course, I was not alone. And that is the biggest difference.

While a story of connecting to major league education from anywhere in the world may seem new today, in the near future it will be a ho-hum fact, joining the likes of new ideas that are now common place: Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other technological conventions that have displaced past best practices. And given the staggering number of students who signed up for one class, this development indicates that the business of education is changing with digital speed.

The University of Edinburgh course was just one of a few dozen offered by Coursera, the online education platform that began offering free classes from top-tier learning centers last April. A year later it is being heralded as a world innovator in education and constantly referenced by people in higher education with the phrase, “It’s big.”

Coursera uses massive open online courses, MOOCs, designed to be open to anyone who can connect with a computer and sign up.

While both non-profit and profit making colleges (such as University of Phoenix) have utilized computers to conduct college classes, the courses usually followed a typical class room model. Coursera MOOCs uses new technology to advance new approaches.

The unprecedented possibility that these courses provide is something Princeton University professor Mitchell Duneier experienced last summer when he conducted the university’s first Coursera class, Introduction to Sociology.

Duneier says he was unsure of how to handle the 40,000 students from 113 countries who signed up for the free non-credit course. A top concern was being able to explore a subject (sociology) that presented norms and beliefs that varied from the various cultures. “ Was it really possible, I asked myself, to provide quality education to tens of thousands of students in more than 100 countries at the same time? And in a way that would respond to the diversity of viewpoints represented from six continents?”

Duneier, the recipient of a 2009 Princeton President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, says his anxiety was compounded by leaving the familiar classroom procedure of standing in front of a student audience to talking before a single camera. “I had no clues as to how the students might be responding. Staring into this void, it was hard for me to imagine that anyone was listening.”

But students were doing more than listening. “When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands.”

He adds that he discovered ways to follow online discussions, have live global exchanges via video chat rooms, and direct discussion to issues that were raised in online postings. There were also revelations: “Along with two Princeton students, our online seminar included university students from Nepal, Siberia, Iran, and Nigeria, a travel agent from Georgia, a civil servant from Singapore, and a fireman from Philadelphia. Their comments often revealed precisely how American sociology’s assumptions about social life need to be analyzed and reconstructed in light of experiences elsewhere.”

Then he adds an astonishing admission. “Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching.”

Duneier sums up the experience by saying, “Before the class began, I had played down this kind of teaching as inevitably a pale reflection of on-campus learning, both in terms of student-faculty interaction and the residential college experience. Yet as I got to know some of my students, I came to feel that the difference was not of the sort I had imagined. For most of them, the choice was not between an online course and a traditional university. It was, as one student put it, ‘a choice between an online class versus no class.’”

Princeton University professor of history Jeremy Adelman came to the same conclusion when he taught a world history class to what has been called the world’s largest class of history students: over 92,000 students.

Princeton University was one of the first universities to sign up with Coursera (Rutgers University announced its involvement in February). University spokesman Martin Mbugua says that the university’s “participation in Coursera is part of its broader efforts to support and encourage innovative uses of technology in teaching and learning, and to explore opportunities to enhance the academic experience both on campus and internationally. Coursera was chosen because of its features and potential to augment learning at Princeton, and the university remains interested in exploring other technologies or collaborations that are able to achieve similar goals.”

In addition to making classes available across the globe, “the Coursera platform provides features that can enrich classroom teaching. Online supplements including recorded video lectures with embedded quizzes, interactive exercises to reinforce concept retention, and collaborative forums for students to discuss materials, pose questions and offer increased feedback allow classes to be conducted in ways that address areas that require increased focus.”

While there are other viable MOOC providers (edX and Udacity are two), Coursera is the powerful first wave of what college administrators are calling a tsunami hitting traditional higher education.

“It changes not every week or every day, but every hour, and I think it’s just a constant surprise to us how quickly the landscape is shifting,” says Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller in a recent interview.

Koller, a MacArthur Award recipient, and fellow co-founder, Andrew Ng, are Sanford University computer science professors. Both work with artificial intelligence and participated in the development of the university’s own free online classes. They are also included in Time Magazine’s 2013 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Koller, born in Israel in 1968, arrived in the United States in 1989 as a doctoral student. She says she is “committed to making great education available not just to those students lucky enough to attend Stanford, but to everyone around the world. Education should be a right, not a privilege, and I believe Coursera is a way to make that happen.”

The 37-year-old British-born Ng agrees. “I want to give everyone access to the best professors in the best universities in the world, for free,” he says.

In 2008 Koller began to explore using artificial intelligence to improve student engagement. At the same time, Ng developed software for online courses that allowed faculty members to video record themselves in a virtual classroom. The two combined their interests and skills to explore ways to provide low cost learning.

One night in 2011 Koller and her husband, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and business leader Dan Avida, had dinner with venture capitalist Scott Sandall. Avida mentioned Koller and Ng’s success of registering 100,000 students for a single online course. Sandall, who was interested in investing in an education technology project, immediately saw the power of numbers and signed on as an initial investor.

While Coursera’s founders and administrators declined to explain why they decided to become a profit-making venture, the possibility may be in what former Princeton University president William Bowen and recent MOOC convert calls “donor fatigue,” referring to the need for outside support. Bowen says that in such an initiative “some regular, predictable source of revenue is needed for sustainability. There is real danger in announcing that something is ‘free’ without knowing who is to pay the ongoing costs, which are all too real and cannot be ignored.”

Chronicle of Higher Education writer Jeffrey Young writes that Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups: Build fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists — and even two universities (California Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania) — have invested more than $22 million in the effort already. Young quotes Koller: “Our VCs keep telling us that if you build a website that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow.” It’s a point that others have made, noting that the economic success of Google and Facebook came after they were established and widely used.

However, the potential of costs and incomes are already being addressed. Details of the nonpublic contracts between Coursera and its university partners came to light through Coursera’s contract with the public supported University of Michigan. The Chronicle of Higher Education obtained the contract through the Freedom of Information Act and posted it.

The contract noted that participating universities will get between 6 to 15 percent of revenues and then 20 percent of the gross profits, after accounting for costs and previous revenue paid.

While there is an unresolved contract issue regarding professors sharing in revenues from a highly successful class, a report says they may potentially be able to get royalties for successful and innovative classes in the future. Additionally Coursera claims no intellectual property rights to the courses (reflective of its founders’ belief that the universities should control the content completely), and universities are also not bound to remain with or to offer classes solely through Coursera.

As for profit, the University of Michigan contract contains a list of “possible company monetization strategies.” They include charging students for certificates, offering students assessments, employment services that charge employers to search the Coursera database for accomplished students, student screening services for colleges, and personal tutoring for students.

The contract also mentions offering course content to community colleges to create a customized versions of a free course as a credit courses, and letting universities offer Coursera courses on their own campuses for credit. One formula noted that a participating university would pay Coursera $25 per student for those who pay tuition to take the courses.

Other income potentials that Coursera’s leaders have discussed include charging a subscription fee for post-class discussion forums, fee-based follow up to previously taken courses, proctoring exams, and allowing advertising on its web pages. A small stream of revenue currently trickles in from Coursera’s affiliation with Amazon, with the college receiving a percentage of the transactions that its students use to purchase course-recommended textbooks or related Amazon products.

A quick hypothetical situation gives an idea of some of the money matters. Imagine that Coursera offers a university course led by an industry leader, and 100,000 students sign up. The course is free, but Coursera offers a certificate of participation for $30. If a little over a third of the class takes the option, Coursera receives $1 million for just one class. If this situation is replicated several times over an academic year, Coursera will make several million dollars. While the universities will take an agreed upon percentage, the backbone of the entire effort — the faculty member — currently is not in line for any of the profits. It is just one of the many scenarios that will have to be addressed when classes start generating income.

Yet money may be coming faster than predicted. While Coursera announced the addition of 29 schools, 90 courses, and three languages in February, the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education (ACE) concluded a study that it began last November, and approved five Coursera courses for college credits. That followed Coursera’s creation of an advisory panel to “demonstrate sound strategic academic and business decisions.” Comprising nine senior academic officials from universities working with Coursera to offer online courses, it includes Princeton University provost (and president-elect) Christopher Eisgruber (see sidebar, page 42).

Add to this, notes the Chronicle, a bill recently introduced in the California legislature that would compel colleges and universities “to accept credits earned in massive open online courses, bringing the controversial courses into the mainstream faster than even their proponents had predicted.”

Coursera founders’ insistence on providing free yet high quality education — without credits or certificates — is having another positive effect across the academic community: the potential of making college education more affordable.

In 1966 then Princeton University professor and labor economics expert William Bowen and his economist colleague William Baumol published “Performing Arts, the Economic Dilemma; a Study of Problems Common to Theater, Opera, Music, and Dance.” That study concluded that some culturally significant activities (such as playing in a specific string quartet) were bound to consistent time factors and related costs that resisted technological advances. Their argument, called “Baumol’s cost disease,” was extended to include university instruction.

While the time taken to present education has remained fairly consistent since the Middle Ages (giving the lecture, conducting the discussion, and giving and grading the tests within a specified time frame), the costs related to supporting the personnel and structures to do it are affected by various economic factors and conditions (such as inflation and costs of living). According to the two economists, there was no cure for the cost disease in education.

Bowen — who then served as president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988 and founding chair of ITHAKA (a non-profit that helps the academic community use digital technologies to advance research and sustainable teaching) — now sees some potential cost cures related to MOOCs and their ability to provide inexpensive yet high-quality education.

Presenting his thoughts last fall in a Sanford University lecture that became the basis for his newest book, “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” released this month by Princeton University Press, Bowen says that ITHAKA mounted a study of the learning outcomes associated with the use of a prototype statistics course developed by Carnegie Mellon, taught in hybrid mode (with one face-to-face Q&A session a week).

“Although this study had limitations of its own,” he says, “it was, we believe, the most rigorous assessment to date of the use of a sophisticated online course by the kinds of public universities that most desperately need to counteract the ‘cost disease.’ We found no statistically significant differences in standard measures of learning outcomes (pass/completion rates, scores on common final exam questions, and results of a national test of statistical literacy) between students in the traditional classes and students in the hybrid-online format classes.”

He then went on to dispel one of the arguments against MOOCs: successful students came from affluent or culturally advantaged environments. “This finding is relentlessly consistent across not only campuses, but also across sub-groups of what was a very diverse student population. Half the students in our study came from families with incomes less than $50,000 and half were first-generation college students. Fewer than half were white, and the group was about evenly divided between students with college GPAs above and below 3.0. The finding of consistent outcomes across this varied population rebuts the proposition that only exceptionally well-prepared, high achieving students can succeed in online settings.”

Adds Bowen: “A related point is that the cost-effectiveness of MOOCs in their ‘direct to student’ mode stems largely from the fact that their one-size-fits-all structure drives the marginal cost of serving even an extra thousand students close to zero.”

The headline of a December Bloomberg News report asks “Have We Found the Cure for Baumol’s Disease?” and says, “Despite the shortcomings of current online programs, the emerging wave of innovation poses the greatest challenge to how we educate since Horace Mann. The ultimate promise of services such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity is to remake the model of education. If they succeed, they will do so by transforming education from a rationed service into one that’s widely accessible, eliminating the limits to the scale of education as we know it now.”

As with the introduction of any new enterprise or disruptive innovation, some are critical. Doug Guthrie, dean of the George Washington University School of Business, seems to speak for others when he writes in a Chronicle of Higher Education article “Jump Off the Coursera Bandwagon:”

“Coursera and its devotees simply have it wrong. The Coursera model doesn’t create a learning community; it creates a crowd. In most cases, the crowd lacks the loyalty, initiative, and interest to advance a learning relationship beyond an informal, intermittent connection.”

He asks why academicians should be impressed with an online course can reach 100,000 students at once, saying that it celebrates massification and elevates volume as an objective. “Our goal,” he says, “should be to design a customized program that matches technology with a student’s day-to-day objectives, not just course objectives or weekly learning objectives. We need to operate on a small scale where the online course or program is calibrated to meet the need of the individual student.”

Guthrie accepts technology yet argues for a more cautious approach, “No doubt MOOCs will lead to innovations in the online delivery of education, just as the Internet brought about innovations in delivering news content. Yet already institutions have started down the path of the print industry by not broadly envisioning how best to deliver and customize the material and leverage the power of real-time data. The MOOC model is fine for the informal student or academic dabbler, but it is not the same as attaining an education. Whether face to face or online, learning occurs when there is a thoughtful interaction between the student and the instructor.”

In an article for Inside Higher Ed, technology reporter Ry Rivard brings up a concern regarding Coursera’s statement that it “will ‘only’ offer classes from elite institutions — the members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) or ‘top five’ universities in countries outside of North America.”

The problem, he explains, is “Given the AAU’s research university orientation, most liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and regional public universities could never join — and many public research universities haven’t been asked either. Regional colleges and universities, in particular, face ‘significant risks’ if they are left out of emerging online educational offerings such as Coursera, according to an analysis last year by Moody’s.”

Those risks involve the desire to be both competition and in existence. Bowen says that elite — and the striving to be elite — universities are subject to the “relentless pursuit of reputation.” Meanwhile, small state-supported colleges may be placed in situations where trustees and politicians will pressure them to cut rising institution costs while hoping to increase revenues that may not be available, as in a Coursera arrangement.

Additionally, as a February New York Times article points out, Coursera has attracted 2.7 million students to its 222 courses since it was started last spring; however “most MOOCs have had dropout rates exceeding 90 percent.”

While others offer additional problems (online courses becoming Edu-tainment and providing less personal connection), Forbes Business Magazine recently proclaimed, “A revolution is coming to U.S. higher education, one that will sweep away an archaic business model, erase the value of many venerable brands, and enhance the brands of new entrants and nimble incumbents. It will be a tough time for many U.S. colleges and universities but great news for the rest of the world.”

With all revolutions, tsunamis, and introduction of disruptive innovations, all that anyone really can claim is that nothing is for sure.

Meanwhile over the winter, I created a regular Monday night schedule, based on the Monday release of the video lectures and assignments, and followed a weekly session with the University of Edinburgh philosophy staff, literally. Each week different instructors appeared on my computer screen and guided me through thinking about a different topic. Some were basic — what are philosophy and knowledge? Others were more complex and probed the validity of scientific theory and the metaphysical potential of time travel. During the presentation questions suddenly appeared to make sure that I was getting the concepts and not drifting off. Review tests followed.

While I was a dedicated student and ready with pads and pencils, I also had other thoughts regarding my approach to the class. Since I had never had an online course before, I decided that above anything else it was going to be an immersion into learning and an active exploration of ideas and process. Additionally, having attended a pass-fail college as an undergraduate, I decided to put my attention to engaging the concepts rather than worrying about test scores (and while I had the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and retake tests to get a better grade, I chose not to).

I also chose not to get involved with the student discussion groups, although I would check to see if students from central New Jersey were interested in meeting (they were not) or if there was a good point being made. Periodically I would make a brief comment, but nothing to invite protracted discussion. Sometimes I checked to see if I missed something and discovered that fellow students were experiencing the same problem I had: questions in one test were not covered in the lecture or reading.

I soon found that I took to the MOOC approach and quickly learned the ropes. When the lecturer spoke too fast or I felt as if I missed something, I played back the lecture and listened again until I got the idea. Scottish and other European accents were mitigated by a click of the closed caption button. The segments were spaced nicely to allow reflection, note taking, and a break. Sometimes I decided to have a glass of wine as I listened to a professor talk about Descartes.

I could take the tests right away or think about it for a while and take it later. I appreciated that the faculty were struggling to be engaging in front of a camera. While some were comfortable, others seemed a bit shaky. When one professor appeared in a costume (looking like a Victorian-era time traveler), I disconnected (even though I worked in theater I am not a fan of people appearing in costumes without a stage and script).

But in the long run I got what I signed up for. I learned some new concepts that can help me evaluate ideas and see things anew. I was engaging with scholars thousands of miles away. And I was also participating in the future of education.

Then on April 15 more good news arrived. A digital certificate announced that I had “successfully completed the University of Edinburgh’s online offering of Introduction to Philosophy.” Nice, I said to myself, but then started to think about my second MOOC: the Justice class from Harvard University.

Philosophy, knowledge, MOOCs, Coursera, new teaching approaches, new opportunities for world learners, and the change of education as we know it — now that is a lot to think about.

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