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THE GREAT UNBUNDLING

Last October, Antioch University, in Los Angeles, announced that it would begin granting college credit through Coursera. To pilot its program, it chose two courses produced by Penn: Struck’s mythology class and Filreis’s poetry class.

When the University entered into partnership with Coursera, says Price, “We made it clear that we were not in it to offer credit-bearing courses. Over the long term that may change—if it’s abundantly clear to us that this is a vehicle for providing an educational experience that is, in every respect, credit-worthy and Penn-worthy in that sense. At the moment it’s not clear that that’s the case, for a variety of reasons.”

For Penn, those reasons include worries about Internet-enabled identity fraud and cheating, and uncertainty about just how academically comparable a virtual class is to a traditional one. But other institutions may overcome such qualms more quickly. (Or already have; the University of Washington has offered credit for a Coursera class in a “hybrid model” involving supplemental instructors, and while I was reporting this story Penn was working out at least one other licensing deal with another university.)

When I spoke with Daphne Koller in January, it happened to be the day after Coursera got its “first revenue.” It came from individual students purchasing a premium option entailing identity-verification, which would enable them to earn a special certificate upon successful completion of a course.

Koller and Ng have a lot of ideas about how to make money. That’s one. Another is allowing job recruiters to purchase access to high-performing Coursera students. A third is selling ads on the site. But perhaps most interesting—particularly as it pertains to Penn—are licensing fees paid by institutions who want to use Coursera materials, whether they award credit or not.

The idea of this happening on a large scale seemed a little far-fetched to me when my Coursera experience was limited to Greek and Roman Mythology—especially when I ducked into one of Struck’s live lectures this spring. I had enjoyed his online delivery. Grabbing an eight-minute lecture segment here and a 12-minute segment there was a fun way to break up my day. It was like LOLCat slideshows, only without the brain-cell death. But attending a full 50-minute performance in Stiteler Hall reminded me of the signal luxury of a residential university, which is the chance to sink into deep communion with ideas and people who enlarge them, free from all the distractions that inevitably pinged my inbox and buzzed my phone when I watched the same material online. The difference between Struck in pixels and Struck in person was the difference between TV and live theater. Surely it would be the same for any truly good professor.

Then I started taking single-variable calculus with Robert Ghrist.

It is fair to say that Ghrist, the Andrea Mitchell University Professor, represents Penn’s best hope for a Coursera blockbuster. His lectures are built on nifty, cartoon-style animations that have a hand-drawn feel. More importantly, the first week’s worth overcame long odds to make the concept of Taylor Series lucid to a scribbler who hasn’t encountered a sigma sign, much less taken a derivative, in 20 years.

In February, Ghrist’s course was approved for college credit by the American Council on Education, which oversees the granting of “academic credit for formal courses and examinations taken outside traditional degree programs.”  Calculus students who pay $99 for Coursera’s Signature Track, and pass an “online proctored exam” for an additional $79, may now earn credit at one of some 2,000 universities and colleges that consider (but are not required to honor) ACE’s recommendations.

Rock thinks the excellence of Ghrist’s MOOC doesn’t detract from the value of—and the premium students are willing to pay for—taking the class from him in person. But even if it turns out that his Coursera class undercuts his traditional one, so what?

“The best kind of challenge that the University has is figuring out how best to take advantage of face-to-face residential instruction,” Rock says. “And if we can’t show that the single-variable calculus course that we offer at the University of Pennsylvania is better by a significant degree than the Coursera course that you can take online for $99 or whatever, then we shouldn’t be teaching single-variable calculus. We should say take it some—take it before you get here.

“We don’t teach Algebra II anymore,” he continues. “The curriculum changes over time … And if it turns out that the whole first year of college, all of these introductory courses, is done more cheaply online, we could become a three-year university, and it really wouldn’t disrupt us. We would just increase the size of the class. It could be revenue-neutral. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But it could.”

Karl Ulrich feels like it’s starting to happen already.

“Many of my own students at Penn have taken MOOCs,” he notes. “Some have even asked if I can give them independent study credit at Penn for MOOCs taken elsewhere. For their academic education, students will gravitate to the educational mechanisms they find most attractive, and increasingly those mechanisms will not be Penn classrooms. As an institution we can take advantage of new modes of instruction, integrating them with the other elements of the Penn experience, which I am convinced students will continue to value. Therefore, the emergence of MOOCs and other novel educational mechanisms represent as much of an opportunity as a threat for us.”

That’s a heady notion. Yet it was only when I watched Ghrist’s seven-minute “bonus lecture” on how a geometric series and a binomial series could be applied to solve a particular problem in electrostatics that I realized that Coursera is on the cusp of doing something far more radical.

The nitty-gritty of that particular piece of math is unimportant. Except, of course, to any professor who needs to teach it—and realizes that Ghrist probably does a better job in a shorter amount of time. It was easy to imagine, say, a robotics professor licensing just that tiny bit of Ghrist’s class—and then maybe grabbing another fragment from Coursera’s electrical engineering class, and so on—and weaving them into a course of his own design.

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