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Coursera doubles university partnerships

MOOC Host Expands
September 19, 2012

Coursera continued its ambitious expansion in the growing market for MOOC support today, announcing accords with 16 new universities to help them produce massive open online courses — more than doubling the company’s number of institutional partners and pushing its course count near 200.

The new partners include the first liberal arts college, Wesleyan University, to leap formally into the MOOC game, as well as the first music school, the Berklee College of Music.

Coursera also announced deals with name-brand private universities, such as Brown, Columbia, Emory and Vanderbilt Universities; some major state institutions, such as the University of Maryland System, the Ohio State University and the Universities of Florida, and California at Irvine; and several international universities, such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the Universities of British Columbia, London, and Melbourne.

The company already boasted the most courses and student registrations of any MOOC providers, having registered 1.3 million students for its courses (although far fewer have actually stuck with a course). Andrew Ng, one of its co-founders, said Coursera will probably double its university partnerships at least one more time before it stops recruiting new institutions.

“I think we’ll wind up with at least twice the universities that we have now, but we’re not sure what the number is,” said Ng in an interview.

Coursera's Newest Partners:

Berklee College of Music

Brown University

Columbia University

Emory University

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Ohio State University

University of British Columbia

University of California at Irvine

University of Florida

University of London

University of Maryland

University of Melbourne

University of Pittsburgh

Vanderbilt University

Wesleyan University

The company’s rapid expansion also raises questions about how broad a range of disciplines might be effectively adapted to the MOOC format.

A report released last week by Moody’s Investors Service predicted that the new breed of open online course could eat into the business of for-profit providers of conventional online higher education. This will depend, the authors said, on whether MOOC providers such as Coursera are interested, and capable, of replicating vocational courses at scale, for free.

“We believe that the long-term effects on for-profit institutions will be dictated by the breadth and nature of the career-oriented offerings, ultimate cost to students, type of academic credit received, and value of that academic credit to potential employers,” they write.

The jury is still out on all that. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week put out a call for a platform that might support MOOCs aimed at remedial students. That RFP was greeted with skepticism in some circles, with some experts wondering aloud about whether an online, highly scalable, mostly automated platform can be an effective way to teach students who historically have struggled in the classroom.

For their part, Ng and co-founder Daphne Koller have made it a priority to approximate a traditional university curriculum before thinking about expanding into vocational MOOCs. But they are not ruling out other kinds of higher education for the future. “There aren’t any topics we’re avoiding because we’re not interested,” said Ng.

He added that they had been pleasantly surprised by the success of some courses — here he cited a sociology course the company hosted for Princeton University — that might not have at first seemed well-suited to the MOOC format.

While demurring for now on vocational courses, Coursera will be looking to chart out new territory through its partnership with Berklee, which will offer the company’s first MOOC for musical performance. Gary Burton, a professor and former vice president at the college, is slated to teach a course on jazz improvisation.

Burton is planning to adapt an existing online, credit-bearing course he teaches at Berklee for $1,400 (or $1,200 for no credit) — albeit to 20 students per section, rather than several thousand.

Students who enroll in the MOOC version of Burton’s improvisation course, for free, will not earn credit. Nor will they have the opportunity  to submit performing assignments, which usually involve sending homemade audio recordings to Burton and getting personalized feedback, or participate in the weekly, hourlong chat sessions Burton holds for the 20 students in each of his conventional online sections. “There are certain elements of music,” said Burton, “that remain better to teach in person” — or on Skype, at least.

What they will get in the MOOC version, according to Burton, is free access to nearly 100 instructional videos made by the professor, as well as automatically graded quizzes on the academic material associated with the course. In that way, Burton said, it will be much more like an interactive lecture series than the performance-based course he teaches for credit.

However, the jazz professor declined to say the barriers to assessing musical performance at scale necessarily equate to a barrier to credit-worthiness. Performance quality varies by a student’s experience level, and it is assumed that a student’s playing will improve with practice, said Burton. A student’s ability to demonstrate, intellectually, his grasp of the academic part of the course dictates the bulk of his grade even in a conventional version of the course, he said. And that is the part Coursera is better-positioned to replicate.

The question, said Burton, is how reliably an automated quiz platform can test a student’s grasp of the academic principles of jazz. And that could take a few bars of improvisation, pedagogically speaking. “I won’t be able to answer that for sure until I finish creating the course material and seeing it in action for a while,” said Burton.

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