Eye on the Future: Coursera


WHAT: Coursera is an online platform for open-access, non-credit classes, available at no cost to audiences around the world at www.coursera.org. It is an independent company founded by two Stanford professors. There are currently 33 partner institutions, including Penn.

CLASSROOMS WITHOUT WALLS: The courses are taught entirely online, with registration open to anyone, anywhere on earth. Robert Ghrist, the Andrea Mitchell Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, is teaching a single variable calculus course that has an enrollment of more than 47,000. Roughly 7,000 of them are active participants—they do the homework, take the quizzes, and watch the nearly 60 animated video lectures, each of which is about 15 minutes long.

STUDENT BODY: “We have people from 62 different countries, ages range from as low as 9 to the mid-70s,” Ghrist says. “I’ve got lots of high school students taking it; I’ve got lots of high school teachers taking it. They’re looking for new ways to present material. I have people in the industry who’ve realized that they really need to know this stuff. I’ve got a number of people who are retirees, who are taking this time to learn for the fun of it. That’s a great thing.”

ENABLING DISCUSSION: There’s a misconception about massive open online courses—or MOOCs—says Al Filreis, founder and faculty director of the Kelly Writers House. He taught “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” for Coursera last fall. “I think a lot of people have the impression that this is a canned forum where you go and look at videos and you have no way of interacting with the professor or anybody else,” he says. “The fact is, that’s not true, particularly in humanities courses where it’s vital to have a discussion. The platform enables discussion. It’s very important for doubters and worriers about how this will destroy education to realize that people actually can form communities in these MOOCs.”

FUTURE BENEFITS: “Calculus: Single Variable” is the first Penn online learning course accredited by the American Council on Education. Ghrist sees big possibilities for online learning at Penn in the future. “One of the problems that happens is if students don’t have a really high-quality calculus course in high school, then they come to Penn and they want to study, say, engineering, they have difficulties,” he says. “One of the things that I’m hoping is high school students interested in coming to Penn can take Penn’s intro to calculus course and get a really solid background in what’s expected of a Penn student before they ever walk through the door.”

A TASTE OF PENN: Ghrist thinks these classes could also boost Penn’s recruitment efforts. “If you’ve got students that are thinking about applying to Penn, they can take a Penn class, see what our faculty are really like, see the level of intellectual discourse that we set as our standard,” he says. “I think that if we do a good job, we’ll stand out from a lot of other schools that are in the online business right now.”

ON DECK: Penn is offering 20 Coursera courses beginning April 1 and running through the end of the calendar year, including Ghrist’s calculus course and Filreis’ poetry class. Classes range from four weeks long to 13.

POETIC WORDS: Filreis, who’s been teaching for 33 years, first put his course online in 1994. He described teaching poetry to 36,000 students through Coursera as “the most exciting, interesting, and gratifying experience” of his career. “I couldn’t believe how exhilarating it was to bring these poets who I admire, including contemporary living poets who I admire personally, to the people,” he says. “This course opened my eyes to the potential of learning, and I remembered what it was I got into the teaching profession for.”

Originally published on February 21, 2013