In the nine months since Fast Company profiled the launch of online learning platform Coursera, MOOCs—aka massively open online courses—have taken both the mainstream media and the world of higher education by storm. MOOCs typically consist of a series of short lecture videos interspersed with comprehension questions, assignments and discussion forums—sometimes with crowdsourced assessments. Many people are debating how MOOCs will, for better or worse, vaporize the university system as we know it.
But a new Coursera announcement suggests that a lot of this conversation has been either exaggerated—or beside the point. Coursera is partnering with 10 major public flagship and state university systems, from the State University of New York to West Virginia University, that collectively enroll 1.25 million of the nation's 21 million college students. Coursera's existing university partnerships with schools like Stanford and Penn mainly involve professors creating and offering online courses to several million users on the platform. These new public partnerships, however, are aimed at using MOOCs to enhance teaching, learning, and collaboration not only for online students around the world, but also for students already physically attending classes at these universities, and high school students who hope to enroll there.
"We're looking at this from a few different angles," says Carey Hatch, the Associate Provost in charge of instructional technology at the State University of New York. "We’re thinking about how can we use Coursera content and courses in our own offerings. We're also talking about the option of embedding our faculty in courses from other institutions, or giving our students the chance to engage with international students [online, through the platform]." They're also looking to expand their online enrollment from 200,000 to at least 300,000 with the use of MOOCs.
Daphne Koller, cofounder of Coursera, compares the rise of MOOCs in education to the rise of electronic health records in medicine, or distributed computation in gene sequencing and astronomy. All cases involve the power of crowdsourced data and analytics to drive innovation. When you take a course inside an online platform, unlike a face-to-face course, a computer is collecting data on how you learn. This learning data is now being studied to figure out the best ways to promote mastery in a particular subject, or what factors contribute to a student's risk of dropping out.
If MOOCs catch on, basic courses, such as Intro to Chemistry, would no longer have to be reinvented from scratch at every single one of America's 4,000-odd colleges. Instead, a handful of MOOCs designed at a few leading institutions could provide a "backbone" for offerings at public universities nationwide. And professors on different campuses in different states teaching similar material could form a "community of practice" enabling them to apply analytics to continuously improve their students' experience.
Of course, to reach this level of integration, Coursera, Udacity, and edX will have to overcome severe opposition from faculty who perceive new educational experiences to be an existential threat to higher education as they've known it. While Koller acknowledges that she sees the supremacy of the traditional, large, face-to-face lecture course fading in an age of new alternatives, she says that the death of the university has been greatly exaggerated.
"I think people are misinterpreting the goal of the MOOCs as being a substitute for a college education," she says. "That was never the intent. What we are looking to do here is help institutions that are serving the vast majority of students in this country to leverage technology, infrastructure, and content to offer the best educational experience to students in their states and everywhere."
Here's the full list of public universities partnering with Coursera:
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