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18th Jul 2012

Coursera shakes up higher education, adds 12 US and European institutions

Just announced yesterday, a dozen major research universities are teaming up with Coursera in what is being called a "tsunami" of change sweeping over the global education industry. This autumn, Coursera will offer 150+ free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which are expected to draw millions of students and adult learners globally. Even before this expansion, Coursera said it had registered 680,000 students in 43 courses with its original partners: Princeton, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Michigan. New US partners include:

  • California Institute of Technology
  • Duke University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Rice University
  • University of California, San Francisco
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Virginia
  • University of Washington

New overseas partners include:

  • University of Edinburgh in Scotland
  • University of Toronto, Canada
  • EPF Lausanne, a technical university in Switzerland
Editor's Note

: In September, Coursera added even more partners including: Berklee College of Music, Brown University, Columbia University, Emory University, University of London, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, University of Melbourne, University of British Columbia, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Ohio State University, University of California at Irvine, University of Florida, University of Maryland, University of Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt University, and Wesleyan University. Just last month ICEF Monitor reported that MOOCs are popping up all over the place, and the big news was that they’re being offered with certificates or letters of completion and a grade. Now, only a month later, we have learned that some of Coursera's partners will offer credit as well. The University of Washington has said it planned to offer credit for its Coursera offerings this autumn, and other online ventures are also moving in that direction. David P. Szatmary, the university’s vice provost, said that to earn credit, students would probably have to pay a fee, do extra assignments and work with an instructor. To date, most MOOCs have covered computer science, mathematics and engineering, but Coursera is expanding. The additional 12 universities add over 125 new courses to their selection in areas such as health, medicine, the arts, poetry, history, literature and other disciplines.

“This is the tsunami,” said Richard A. DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech. “It’s all so new that everyone’s feeling their way around, but the potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved.”

Worldwide access is Coursera’s goal. “EPF Lausanne, which offers courses in French, opens up access for students in half of Africa,” Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, said. Each university designs and produces its own courses and decides whether to offer credit. Coursera does not pay the universities, and the universities do not pay Coursera, but both incur substantial costs. Contracts provide that if a revenue stream emerges, the company and the universities will share it. The two founders say courses will always be free and will not be funded through advertising. One way they might be able to turn a profit is via enquiry generation. "What we are finding is that those students who did well in our courses tend to be very talented people, whom those American companies would like to hire," co-founder Andrew Ng says. "The plan is [with the permission of the student] to charge employers for the introduction of those talented students who are looking for jobs." Caltech and the University of Pennsylvania have announced a combined US$3.7m investment in Coursera. With additional funds from current investors New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the company now totals over US$22 million in funding.

Shifting the balance of power

Because of technological advances – among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalise material and the capacity to analyse huge numbers of student experiences to see which approach works best – MOOCs are likely to be a game-changer, opening higher education to hundreds of millions of people.

“It looked like, in a sense, an accelerator for some of the things we were likely to be doing and the things we knew we're going to want to be doing,” says Peter Lange, the provost at Duke.

Many universities already offer online lectures and some – notably the Open University – offer qualifications through distance learning. But observers say the rise of Coursera and similar online offerings marks a shift in the balance of power in higher education. Mike Boxall, of the management consultancy PA Consulting, compared the development to the changes that have swept the media and music industry. "The interesting thing is that it effectively marks the provision of knowledge as a free good, which accords with young people's expectations. "Now you've got the industry saying, we have to protect our offer – that offer is not the key to the library door – they have to provide something around that, the ability to use and interact with that knowledge." The growth in online learning is likely to push universities towards greater emphasis on one-to-one tuition and other interaction with students, Boxall said. "What does that mean for 500-seat lecture theatres? It's amazing that universities are still building big lecture theatres – there's a huge wave of building across the university world. They're not rethinking that environment." Jeff Haywood, vice-principal at Edinburgh University, said his institution was adopting a breakeven model. The platform serves as a shop window for universities; a free course with no entry qualifications offers students a way of sampling a traditional university education. It also offers the universities a chance to innovate, Haywood said, and continued:

"There's an ability to experiment at a scale that we can't do on campus – you can't put together a class of 20,000 students on campus. If we're able to get some confidence that we can do automated large-scale assessment, on computers, we may do more of that and release our academic team to do higher value-added teaching."

An internet-based model which can pick the best courses from around the world puts greater pressure on universities to be distinctive; one of the courses Edinburgh will offer is in artificial intelligence, for which it has an international reputation. “We think we can join with these other universities on collectively learning from this,” says Philip Zelikow, the associate dean for graduate academic programs at Virginia. “In a way it’s a large R&D project, where we get to participate with a lot of universities that we regard as our peers.”

The rise of MOOCs

Already the largest platform in the still-young field of MOOC providers, Coursera could increase its reach by a factor of four with the new partnerships. After initially forming in the shadows of fellow MOOC providers Udacity, which got more press, and edX, which got more money, Coursera has grown much more quickly than its peers. It now has 16 institutional partners, with more than 150 open courses in the works. MOOCs were largely unknown until a wave of publicity last year about Stanford University’s free online artificial intelligence course attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Only 23,000 students completed the course, but even so, the numbers were staggering.

“The fact that so many people are so curious about these courses shows the yearning for education,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. “There are going to be lots of bumps in the road, but this is a very important experiment at a very substantial scale.”

Experts say it is too soon to predict how MOOCs will play out, or which venture will emerge as the leader. Each company offers online materials broken into manageable chunks, with short video segments, interactive quizzes and other activities – as well as online forums where students answer one another’s questions. For more background information on MOOCs, read through our article "Free online courses, recruitment, and the university brand" or check out the handy infographic we found below. Sources: NY Times, The Guardian

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