An Education Free for All?

The massive, open question of online learning

Allison O. Adams

lead imageLike a locomotive across the frontier, online education has rolled out over the landscape of major research universities in less than one year. In September 2012, Emory partnered with the California-based company Coursera to offer free online courses to the world. At that time, the number of Coursera users had topped 1.4 million. Its university partners already included Princeton, Stanford, and Duke. The company had been founded only six months before.

Online courses are nothing new. The field was already growing steadily, from 1.6 million students in 2002 to more than 6.1 million 2010—an expansion mostly attributed to for-profit education. What is new is the role of top-tier institutions, which have not only entered the game but have changed it. These “Massive, Open Online Courses”—with their ungainly acronym, MOOCs—aim to bring free, high profile university classes to traditionally disadvantaged learners around the globe. Even though they generally do not receive credit toward a degree for completing the courses, students flock to them by the tens of thousands. 

Also new are advances in the technology for greater interactivity and adaptability. No longer a unidirectional delivery of lectures and readings, online education now includes graded quizzes and exams. Students may submit homework assignments and course projects. Forums allow students to collaborate and conduct their own discussion sessions. Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative engages technology to personalize course material—sophisticated artificial intelligence software detects the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and tailors the presentation of textbook material to their understanding. 

Many instructors and institutions are using these new technologies not merely to extend their courses to millions, but to blend traditional and online models for more effective teaching and transform the real and virtual spaces in which learning happens. This issue of the AE explores the ways technology and other social and cultural forces are changing those spaces and re-shaping the fundamental notions of what constitutes a university campus—starting with the classroom itself.

Transformed learning spaces

One common strategy is to “flip the classroom”—that is, to invert the conventional model so that lectures are delivered via online video for students to watch on their own time, freeing classroom meetings for other activities, such as discussion and collaborative work. Associate Professor in the Practice of Information Systems and Operations Management Steve Walton pre-recorded all the lectures for his Executive MBA course, Supply Chain Management and Operation, this year. “My experience so far suggests that you can get [students] to a much higher order of thinking with this approach. The whole idea is to shift the lecture portion into distance technology so that the in-class portion can be used for more high-value stuff,” he says. “In the regular classroom environment, when it’s primarily lecture, you end up spending most of your time on conveyance of rote facts. Think about how many classes really have time to think creatively, to use integration and synthesis. But with this flipped class design, I can deliver the rote assets off line, out of class, and spend the entire class doing other things.”

New technologies may have birthed these changes, but the current generation of learners is driving its growth. Today’s students reflect a significant shift in how learning occurs. These “digital natives” have grown up in a world entirely connected to information and to one another. 

With that connectivity in mind, Duke University scholar Cathy Davidson, co-director of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, takes the notion of the flipped classroom a step further, into a radically democratic vision of education. In her book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking 2011), she argues that students today are primed for what she calls “collective learning”—student-led and driven by “the very nature of interactivity, crowdsourcing, customizing, and inspired inquiry-driven problem-solving.”

Revenue and credentials

As online learning becomes more sophisticated and creditable, new questions arise: Why are universities and venture capitalists pouring enormous resources into developing free courses with no credit and no revenue? Indeed, neither Coursera nor the similar platforms are making a profit. While they are toying with a variety of business plans—job placement services, fee-based certification and testing, alternate admissions systems for universities—none are proven. Another key question is whether students need to have the imprimatur of a diploma with a university seal for their educations to have meaning to employers. Are these highly visible venues little more than a new platform for public scholarship? A way to promote the institutional brand around the world? Or the beginning of an educational revolution, in which students acquire marketable knowledge and skills completely on their own terms?

Some companies are tackling the questions of both revenue and credential. 2U Inc.(formerly 2tor) has a growing portfolio of institutions offering full degree programs online to students globally—including an MBA and a master’s of public administration through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a master’s in nursing degree through Georgetown, and a master of laws degree through Washington University in St. Louis. Students in these programs are enrolled and tuition-paying. “It’s the same diploma [as on-campus students],” says Andrew Hermalyn, 2U’s executive vice president for university relations. “Nowhere on there does it say ‘online.’ These are high quality students; they expect a high quality degree.”

2U invests $10 million into its partner institutions’ technical infrastructures, including skilled “production teams” on campus to help design and produce the courses. It also undertakes much of the global recruiting and marketing for the programs. Some of the content is asynchronous, but classes, which are much smaller than Coursera courses, do meet regularly in a virtual classroom via web cam. Hermalyn says the screen “looks like the Brady Bunch” opening credits—a tic-tac-toe board of faces. “It’s a very intimate experience,” he adds. “Some faculty will tell you they get to know their students online better than the students in the classroom.”

Online learning at Emory

A few “hybrid” programs—part distance, part on-campus—have existed at Emory for more than a decade. The Modular Executive MBA and the Career MPH were both launched in 2001 to target busy professionals. Both programs blend online coursework with periodic sessions on campus. More recently, the Candler School of Theology has been working with the Sloan Consortium to train a cadre of faculty to teach twelve to fifteen core courses in an online or hybrid format. 

Coursera presents a slightly different scenario. Most faculty teaching via Coursera are drawn to it by the irresistible opportunity to reach minds curious about their subject matter, even though they will likely never have personal contact with their far-flung thousands of students. In late October, enrollments for Emory’s three pilot courses ranged from 5,000 to 10,500.

Indeed, most online learning at Emory and elsewhere is currently focused on professional education and non-traditional student populations. It neatly addresses space and geographical constraints, thereby, it is hoped, improving time-to-degree and retention—and these are some of the potential benefits cited by proponents. But scant data yet exists on how online education affects learning outcomes, outside of fields in which learning can be easily and objectively measured, such as statistics, mathematics, and computer science. Can an online class achieve the charged experience of a lively debate in a real classroom, the kind that leads to analytical and critical thinking? Also uncertain is the long-term impact on faculty. The learning curve, pedagogical adjustments, technology and support requirements, and preparation time for teaching in an online environment are significant, not to mention problematic legal questions of intellectual property ownership of course content. 

“This is an experiment for all of us,” says Steve Everett, professor of music and director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, which is serving as a liaison to faculty interested in teaching a Coursera course. “But this movement does represent a major shift. While the future model of online learning is evolving, we can be assured that it will increasingly be a part of our lives as faculty.” 

Open Online Courses in Major Research Universities: A timeline 

February 2012: After opening his course on artificial intelligence to tens of thousands of students online for free, computer scientist Sebastian Thrun leaves Stanford to launch Udacity, offering university-level online courses to the masses.

March 2012: Stanford engineering professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller follow suit with Coursera, offering “massive, open online courses,” or “ MOOCs,” taught by faculty from Stanford, Berkeley, Penn, and Michigan in math, computer science, economics, and linguistics. 

May 2012: Harvard and MIT jointly commit $60 million to develop a nonprofit called edX, a platform for interactive online education in humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, offered freely to hundreds of thousands of students at a time. The platform is open-source, so that other universities may also host edX courses. 

July 2012: A dozen more universities sign on with Coursera, making it the largest provider in the field. Among the new partners are Georgia Tech, Princeton, Duke, and Rice. The University of Virginia also signs on with Coursera, right after UVA’s president was ousted then reinstated in part over the urgency of entering the arena of online education.

September 2012: Emory joins the next wave of 17 institutions signing with Coursera and offers three free online courses on digital sound design, immigration law, and AIDS. 

Campus resources for online learning 

A growing range of technologies is becoming available to Emory faculty as interest expands in online learning.

  • Echo360, now being pilot-tested at Emory, enables faculty to capture their classroom lectures and presentation materials in high-quality videos, or to record through their desktop computers. 
  • Camtasia provides a similar capture tool. 
  • Blackboard offers ways to deliver video lectures and other materials.
  • Adobe Connect enables real-time web conferences that can be downloaded for later viewing.
for details about these resources and more. 

Please visit the Online Learning at Emory link on the website of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.

The AE Interviews CFDE director and music professor Steve Everett about Emory and Coursera and the impact on faculty