Stephen Robert Morse | The Atlantic | 24 September 2012
On Sept. 19, Coursera, a “social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free,” announced that it has expanded to 17 new universities, including four that are based outside the United States (University of British Columbia, University of Melbourne, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology).
By enabling anyone with Internet access to take classes taught by world-renowned professors, Coursera is opening up education in computer science, business, social sciences, humanities, medicine, biology, and more.
Though its first course offerings only started some five months ago, the education start-up, founded by Stanford University Computer Science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, has already seen some 1.35 million students enroll in its classes.
In addition to Coursera, other platforms have also developed to make online learning accessible to the masses. Udacity, a startup that believes in higher education as a basic human right, is on a mission to “bring accessible, engaging and effective higher education to the world.”
Founded by yet another Stanford Computer Science professor, Sebstian Thrun, the plaform recently opened up a Lean Launchpad course headed up by Steve Blank, the well-respected entrepreneur and entrepreneurship author/guru. The platform’s offerings thus far have steered clear of the humanities and focused on technology, computer science, and mathematics education.
Ben Wallach, 24, a consultant who lives in Astoria, Queens and studied economics as an undergraduate student just started Princeton’s “Networks: Friends, Money and Bytes” through Coursera. “I want to keep my brain active outside of work and learn more about the subject matter,” he said. “The course has been more time consuming than I expected, so I may have to determine which assignments I complete and which lectures I watch. I am impressed with the instructor and his dedication.”
However, these new models for online higher education are not without critics. In August, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece that discussed plagiarism incidents, as well as peer-graders overzealously accusing their classmates of plagiarism. Thus, even though students currently don’t earn university credits for their Coursera work, the certificates that accompany their completion still may have value, especially outside the United States.
Maggie Ronan, 25, of San Francisco, who works as a QA Lead at Indiegogo, disagrees with the critics.
“As someone who is a few years out of a formalized educational setting without a degree in computer science, I found the structure and content of Machine Learning to be very conducive to getting a rich introduction to the subject,” she said. “I felt that the design of the course provided me with a broad array of resources that positioned me for success.”
Some Courserians (as they have been dubbed) who take their work quite seriously: Coursera Meetup.com groups have formed around the world, catering to thousands of people who wish to organize in-person study groups and discuss course work face to face to enhance their online experiences.
Jeremy Caplan, director of education for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York said, “I’m eager to explore various platforms to find the best ways to teach entrepreneurial and digital journalism. I’m a big fan of Coursera, but I’m also eager to see innovation in course delivery over other platforms.”
Interestingly, Stanford has hedged its bets in terms of how it will be represented through publicly available online courses. In addition to Coursera, it supports another platform called Venture Lab that offers open online courses by Stanford professors including “A Crash Course On Creativity” and “Finance.” The university is also experimenting with a third platform, Class2Go, which is “Stanford Online’s internal platform, designed to be an open platform for online learning and research.”
On the myriad options that have arisen so recently, Caplan concludes, “The jury’s still out on whether schools will unite around one or two platforms or whether a variety of platforms will serve courses well.”