t’s been 25 years since I last set foot in a university classroom and,
to be honest, the thought of doing so now makes me a little uneasy.
Not that I’ll be in a classroom per se this time round. The 10-week
course on modern and contemporary American poetry that I’ve enrolled in through Coursera is taught solely online.
An introductory email from the instructor, University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis, assured me that I didn’t need to
know a thing about poetry to succeed in the class. But he too admitted
to some trepidation. It would be a challenge, he wrote, to judge how
well everyone is doing – all 30,000 of us. We would use online chat
groups to discuss the poems and peer-to-peer grading to assess one another’s
writing assignments. There would be weekly quizzes and four short essays
and if I complete them all, I’ll get a certificate.
Week one gets under way with a look at the poetry of Emily Dickinson
and Walt Whitman. After reading Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility –” I
watch a 20-minute video of the engaging Dr. Filreis and his TAs parsing
its meaning. We are invited to do the same on one of the several chat
groups that have sprung up on the site. At the end of the week I attempt
my first quiz, two short multiple-choice questions. I score 100 percent on
the first question and 80 on the second. All in all, not too bad a beginning.
Depending on who you talk to, my foray into online learning is either the
vanguard of a new wave that will upend higher education as we know
it – or just a bunch of hype. Online courses and degrees have existed for a
couple of decades, and universities are increasingly experimenting with
blended learning. But this newest crop of online courses, usually referred
to as Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, is different. Enrolment
for a single course can run into the tens and even hundreds of thousands
of students. No prerequisites are required and neither are there credits or
degrees to be earned. And did I mention that they’re free?
Over the past year dozens of elite institutions – including two Canadian
universities – have jumped on board. “We can officially declare ... MOOCs
as the higher education buzzword of 2012,” says George Siemens, professor
at Athabasca University’s Centre for Distance Education. He estimates
that $100 million has been invested in various MOOC ventures in recent
months. Enrolment among the three largest providers – Coursera, edX
and Udacity – is nearing two million students.
20 / www.universityaffairs.ca /December 2012
Dr. Siemens, in fact, and a small cohort of Canadians were the pioneers
of the model that has taken the higher-ed world by storm. In 2008, he
and Stephen Downes, senior researcher at the National Research Council
of Canada, launched a course on learning theory through the University
of Manitoba. About 25 paying students enrolled in the course, along with
some 2,300 online students who took it for free. Dave Cormier, a colleague
of Dr. Siemens and manager of web communications and innovations at
the University of Prince Edward Island, dubbed it a “massive open online
course.” (Visit universityaffairs.ca for more on the Canadian connection.)
It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm behind MOOCs. Andrew Ng –
who along with his Stanford University colleague, Daphne Koller, founded
Coursera – describes it this way: “Most people today will never get to take
a U of T class or a Caltech class. But I would love to see a future where
the University of Toronto is teaching not just thousands of students but
millions. And the world will be a much better place for it.”
This fall, U of T is offering three courses through the Coursera platform
and plans to offer two more in the new year. The University of British
Columbia just announced that it, too, has joined Coursera and will offer
three courses using the platform, starting next May.
Geoffrey Hinton, a computer science professor who helped drive U of T’s
decision to join Coursera, has volunteered to teach a course on machine
learning. He won’t be paid for his efforts, at least not at first. But he was
eager to be part of an educational experiment that will allow him to teach
thousands of students at a time. Dr. Hinton’s typical undergraduate class
at U of T consists of about 50 students; his Coursera course has 22,000.
“That will mean in one Coursera course I’ll teach as many students as
I’ve taught in my entire lifetime,” he says. He believes Coursera may improve the learning experience for his paying, on-campus U of T students,
too, because getting them to watch his pre-recorded Coursera lectures
will free up class time for more discussion and one-on-one interaction.
According to Irwin DeVries, director of instructional design at Thompson Rivers University, “this whole MOOC movement is a catalyst for
change and certainly for dialogue.” It feeds into the desire for lower-cost
alternatives to traditional higher education, he says. “There’s a rising need
worldwide – a massive need – for higher education, and maybe this is just
one window or access point for learners to do that. I see it as an opportunity.”