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2012 fall columnists Credit: Justin Cohen , Brian Collopy

Professor Robert Ghrist wants to change the way calculus is taught. For months he has worked to create a course that presents the material in an entirely different way. However, his course will not be offered in a classroom this spring, but to tens of thousands of people online.

Ghrist is doing this with Coursera, a platform for online courses that Penn joined last year. Many have speculated on the impact Coursera will have. Some have even gone as far as to predict that it will eventually replace universities.

Though this is very unlikely, there are two fundamental ways platforms like Coursera will have an impact as they become more popular.

First, once multiple versions of a course are available online, there will be competition to generate the clearest and most engaging lectures. Second, online platforms will provide access to millions of students who will never have the opportunity to take a course at a place like Penn.

Wharton professor Kevin Werbach teaches a Coursera course on gamification. Though he is excited to provide a free course online, he believes some observers have overstated the impact that Coursera will have.

“It’s a misunderstanding to think that this model like Coursera can completely replace what we do in person,” Werbach said. He added that while Coursera will not replace universities, it will play a role in the future of online education.

Competition — and the quality it can produce — is best demonstrated by Ghrist’s course on single-variable calculus. His course represents the best that Coursera and online education can be.

Many of the courses currently offered online present material through poor-quality recordings from the back of a classroom. Ghrist, however, has taken full advantage of the online medium by producing professional-grade, animated videos that go through computations step by step.

Additionally, his course doesn’t follow the traditional order of an introductory calculus class — it innovates. For instance, it introduces Taylor series — which conclude most versions of the course — at the very beginning.

The most unorthodox aspect of Ghrist’s calculus course is that it is beautiful, engaging and clever. The course is entirely handwritten in Ghrist’s script, which manages to be at the same time equal parts comic book and calligraphy. In the online trailer for his course, Ghrist explains that his drawings and figures are designed to “inspire, as well as illustrate.”

His course is about as far from a typical calculus textbook as you can imagine. Ghrist’s aim is to combat the needlessly dry teaching style that scares many students away from pursuing math past calculus.

“I am sick to death of those publishers charging $200 for a calculus book,” Ghrist said. “That is stale, outdated, heavy, expensive, unloved and unread.”

It is worth comparing Coursera’s courses to textbooks. A single textbook can dominate the teaching of discipline for decades. In a similar way, a professor who creates the best version of a course can reach tens of thousands of students for years.

This competition is why online education is here to stay. Whether classes appear on Coursera, edX, Udacity or other providers — students will turn to the best. Just as publishers are compelled to produce updated editions of textbooks, professors will have to improve their courses to stay ahead of the curve.

Neither a textbook nor an online course can completely substitute a course at a strong university. But both are a means by which one professor can reach a wide audience.

A large proportion of these students will likely be in high school. This is why competition between online classes will first emerge in courses like Ghrist’s.

Calculus, for example, is one of many AP subjects that over a million high school students take every year. Given the large number of students who invest in AP test prep books, it’s likely that many will seek out high quality online courses to supplement their high school class.

In addition, Ghrist notes that applicants to Penn may very well want to demonstrate their ability by showing that they have taken Penn courses on Coursera.

We can’t predict the future of education. But we should be excited by the competition that will be generated by platforms like Coursera. This will lead to better courses and improve access for anyone with an internet connection. Regardless of which platform prevails, students will be the winners in this competition.

Brian Collopy is a College junior from Washington, D.C. “A Modest Proposal” appears every other Tuesday. His email address is Follow him brianc61.

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