Provosts / Vice Presidents

Essay on what professors can learn from MOOCs

Educators create online courses for the same reasons that they became teachers to begin with: to educate students, broaden their awareness of the world and thereby improve the students’ lives. And with massive open online courses (MOOCs), educators can now reach many more students at a time. But MOOCs offer many other benefits to the education community, including providing valuable lessons to the instructors who teach them.

Online courses inherently allow students to create their own pathways through the material, which forces educators to think about the content in new ways. And MOOCs offer professors fresh opportunities to observe how their peers teach, learn from one another’s successes and failures and swap tactics to keep students engaged. This is, in turn, makes them better teachers.

MOOCs are still the wild west of higher education, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to building one. At Coursera, we’ve been working with educators as they experiment with designing courses for this new format, and for a student body of unprecedented proportions. (For example, Duke University’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Ram Neta has more than 180,000 enrolled students.) We’re reimagining many aspects of what it means to teach a course, ranging from lecture delivery, to assignments, to strategies for engaging the online community of students.

While there are many resources for teachers to learn from when approaching online education, we’ve become aware that there is still a need for a central space for professors to share successful practices, ask each other questions, and showcase examples of what’s worked and what hasn’t in their online classes. Recently, we launched a course called Teaching a MOOC, open to all of the professors on the Coursera platform (we’ll be launching a free, public version soon). It functions like any of the courses we offer, including video lectures that offer guidelines for developing an online course for the first time, discussion forums and a gallery where professors can see examples from other classes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

An educator who’s been teaching in a traditional classroom format faces many challenges and unknowns when creating an online course. The lecture creation process is different. The peer-graded homework is different. The process for managing your “classroom” is different. Even the copyright law requirements are different. Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton University professor who teaches A History of the World Since 1300, explains, “When you lecture into a recording box, it’s different from lecturing to students in person. I have a teaching style that relies on energy from students, and I had to figure out strategies that would transcend [that style] for my class on Coursera.”

Adelman discovered that in putting his course online, he became more focused on what students are experiencing, even though he wasn’t in direct contact with them. “When I lectured, I had to ask myself at all times ‘What is it that I want my students to learn?’ In the old-fashioned lecture hall I was an entertainer, more self-focused rather than teaching-focused, but I was not conscious of this dynamic until I put a course online for the first time,” he says. “For me, the lectures alone were a source of continuous learning and adaptation.”

Throughout the entire MOOC creation process, educators must constantly be student-focused, figuring out what is the most useful content for their students to experience next. With no admissions office, online students are vastly more diverse than the students in a typical college classroom. They vary in educational background, learning ability, and culture. Students are also at different points in their life, and range from teenagers to working professionals to retirees, and may have different learning goals. Educators have to make classes accessible without underestimating student ability.

Stanford professor Scott Klemmer was pleasantly surprised by his experience teaching a Human-Computer Interaction course. His class was the first to use peer grading (in fact, he worked with Daphne Koller and me to design Coursera’s current peer assessment system). After using self-assessment for six years in his class at Stanford, he thought there was “no way” that he could expect students to handle self- and peer-assessment online.

“But it worked amazingly well,” Klemmer explains. “When we surveyed students at the end of class, one of the things they rated highest, in terms of what taught them the most, was the act of assessing peers -- they found it extremely valuable. I put a huge amount of time into designing course materials based on rubrics and assessment techniques that I taught in my Stanford class on campus; I had no idea what it would mean to translate that into the online world.”

There has always been a tendency in distance education to focus on the physical barriers -- the distance between the professors and the students, and between the students themselves. Many people, including those in academia, believe there to be a broadcast quality to online lectures, with one person delivering lectures to students behind screens, where they can’t engage directly with the professor. They wonder, “If the professors don’t see their students, how can it be teaching?”

But through today's technological advancements, online courses are very much alive. They are part of an ecosystem that, if nurtured through community discussion forums, meetups, e-mails, and social media (like Google+ hangouts), can flourish and grow. This allows each class’s community to take on a life of its own, with a distinct culture that’s defined at least as much by the students as the instructor, and which even skillful instructors can only guide, but not control.  Nearly every instructor that I’ve spoken to has been surprised by the  deep desire of students to connect with each other as well as with the teaching staff and professor. 

University of Michigan professor Eric S. Rabkin found his experience teaching Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World incredibly enriching. “I had not anticipated the kindness and excitement I see in this large body of participants. Despite the potential for impersonality, I have received emails of thanks, of enthusiasm, of discovery. I have replied to some of those and some of my replies have been re-posted to the forums by the recipients. The community knows I care and, at first astonishingly to me, cares back. They care enough not only to spend time with each other but to share their experiences, some even through blogs of their own, with the wider world,” he says. “Amazingly, this feels somehow like a family. Not like a nuclear family, but like a suddenly discovered distant city brimming with eager cousins one had never known before.”

“I have been [teaching] the same way for years -- for decades and decades -- without being mindful of the changes in technology, the changes in our students. Online courses blow up the old conventions. But I think it will take us a while to figure out what works and what doesn’t work,” says Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman.

University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, who teaches Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, says that teaching online has given him his “most extraordinary pedagogical experience” in 30 years of teaching. “The course is rigorous and fast-paced, and the material is difficult, but the spirit of curiosity and investigation among the students produced very good results,” he says. “Several eminent poetry critics joined the course to rate the quality of the students' critical writing and came away very impressed -- and surprised. We discovered that a qualitative, interactive humanities course can indeed work in the MOOC format."

With MOOCs, there is so much more potential for educators to go into each other’s classrooms and share resources with their peers.  We’re seeing this happen more and more, especially when it comes to professors adapting online course structures from other professors.

“Online education means that I have shared more stories with fellow professors about teaching than I had in the eight years I’ve spent teaching on campus,” says Stanford professor Scott Klemmer.

We might not have an answer to the question “What defines a high-impact MOOC?” just yet, but universities and professors who have taken the plunge are constantly learning and growing from their experiences. And what we’re seeing emerge from the trenches is an exciting new breed of education.

Andrew Ng
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Andrew Ng is a co-founder of Coursera and a computer science faculty member at Stanford University. He is also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, the main AI research organization at Stanford. In 2011, he led the development of Stanford University's main MOOC platform, and also taught an online machine learning class that was offered to over 100,000 students, leading to the founding of Coursera. Ng's goal is to give everyone in the world access to a high quality education, for free. His Twitter handle is @AndrewYNg.

Yudof to retire as president of U. of California

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After 5 years of budget wars and battling with students, Mark Yudof will retire as president of the University of California.

Catching Up to LEED Buildings

Tue, 02/19/2013


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The case against college is old and flawed (essay)

Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Two years ago the entrepreneur Peter Thiel put up money that paid outstanding high school students to pursue paths and projects away from a college campus. Now, a flurry of articles report about bright, enthusiastic high school students who consciously reject going to college. The latest example is Alex Williams’s “The Old College Try? No Way!” in The New York Times that includes a caption proclaiming that for high achievers, “College is for suckers!” This “case against college” may be heretical to our higher education orthodoxy.  But it is not new.

From 1870 to 1890, enrollments at most colleges declined even though the national population grew.  College presidents were perplexed about the loss of appeal “going to college” held for young Americans. The School of Hard Knocks trumped the College of Liberal Arts if you were an inventor or an investor. Ambitious young Americans wanted to get on with their pursuits and profits. They saw four years of college as lost time and wasted opportunity.

Even the learned professions of medicine and law seldom required a college education – or even a high school diploma. And, for most 18-year-olds whose parents were farmers or shopkeepers, you had to stay home to help with the family business. Tuition was not an obstacle because it was incredibly cheap – seldom more than $100 per year. When college presidents made desperate offers to attract students by lowering tuition and waiving entrance examinations, there were few takers and lots of empty classroom seats. College officials failed to understand that for most American families the loss of a child’s earnings was a more important consideration than even no tuition charge in making a decisive case against college.

But that was then and this is now. The current advocates for the case against college may be correct in pointing out that a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful.  What this ignores is that the overall strength of American higher education in the 20th century has been less spectacular yet important -- namely, to educate for civil society and expertise.

It was true not only for preparing young people for law and medicine, but also pharmacy, engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, teaching, social work, clergy, nursing, accounting, forestry, public health and other professionals – and at the same time helping to educate them to be concerned, informed citizens -- that would lead and staff new organizations in the public and private sector and as concerned, informed citizens.

Let’s reconsider Steven Jobs’s memorable 2005 Stanford commencement speech as Exhibit A in the case against college. First, Jobs did not opt not to go to college. He went to Reed College and dropped out – a very different life choice than not going to college at all. Second, even after dropping out, he stayed close to the Reed College campus – its students, faculty, resources and opportunities – all to his educational and vocational gain. Third, his explanation for dropping out – disorientation and uncertainty – probably were signs that a liberal education was prompting him to consider and confront complex questions of purpose and place. Perhaps Reed College was “doing its job” for Jobs? 

Above all, doesn’t it seem strange and conveniently safe that Steven Jobs gave his inspirational talk to Stanford graduates who momentarily would receive their coveted Stanford degrees?  I wager that most in that audience were delighted with Jobs’s message urging them to pursue their dreams – and equally delighted that they were buoyed by the experience, friendships, faculty and learning  -- and degree -- on all counts that going to college had made opportune. The Steven Jobs inspirational talk would have been more compelling as a “case against college” had he chosen to deliver it to 16-year-olds at, e.g., Oakland Tech. But he didn’t – and for good reason.

Whether in 1880 or 2012, the historical message is that there are good reasons to go -- or not to go -- to college.  And, given the diversity of American higher education, the choices are complicated by the options of where to go – such as two-year vocational vs. four-year liberal arts college or small campus versus large flagship state university --  and what to study, and for what end – an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or perhaps prelude to an advanced degree. We also have in the United States a long tradition of some professions such as performing arts and major league baseball where one need not first have a college education. The spate of current articles do not make the case against college – they make a case, or several cases, depending on an individual’s situation and goals. A maxim of societal behavior is that strident advocacy makes a point and at the same time fosters alternative and counter points. 

In sum, the fervent articles denigrating college unwittingly make indirect and direct cases of numerous good reasons to go to college. Why, of course, the exceptional genius does not need the delay of required courses. Partying by 20-year-olds is going to take place at sports bars quite apart from being enrolled in college. In fact, most accounts of Silicon Valley successful entrepreneurs suggests that unabashed partying is par for their course.  So, why begrudge that or dismiss that as a nuisance and distraction linked exclusively to undergraduate life?

But even an icon such as Mark Zuckerberg did gain from going to Harvard by finding the name and inspiration for “Facebook” – not from Philosophy 101 but from the booklets distributed during freshman orientation week. How to calculate the net worth of that informal collegiate experience? And for the multitude of bright, talented committed high school graduates who were not selected for Peter Thiel’s highly selective program, might not there be a thoughtful choice about college that just might provide some good learning and opportunities? 

The net result is that we do not have “The Case” against college – but the more subtle, provocative question of many cases for and against going to college as befits a complex, diverse and credentialed American society.  Maybe going to college is not such a great idea.  Maybe not going to college is not such a great idea.

John Thelin is a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky.  He is author of A History of American Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Lumina's new strategies for big completion goal

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Foundation picks new strategies for its college attainment push and grant-making, with a focus on metro areas, innovations and results.

Oil boom and trust of conservative lawmakers means more money for North Dakota colleges

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In stark contrast to most public institutions, North Dakota colleges will likely see a sizeable increase in state appropriations, a decision education leaders attribute to a favorable economic climate and efforts to build the trust of conservative lawmakers.


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