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Imagine a world where college level courses, taught by leading professors at top-notch universities like Penn, are at the fingertips of any motivated citizen — for free.

Log onto Coursera on a Saturday evening and the imagination is reality. The first thing to notice is the flurry of new posts on the discussion forums. This week’s homework assignment and quiz are due the next day at 9 p.m., and the assignments forum is filled with questions about the course material.

An online education startup from Stanford, Coursera offers free online classes taught by top university professors across the nation. A Coursera course grants students instant access to several hours of lecture videos and quizzes put together by the course professor. As they move through the course syllabus, they can also share thoughts and ask questions in an online discussion forum.

Penn’s involvement with Coursera first began early last year, when the two co-founders of the company came to Penn to pitch professors on the idea. In July, Penn invested $3.7 million joint equity investment in Coursera with the California Institute of Technology, after announcing its official involvement in April.

Sixteen Penn professor-led courses are listed on Coursera, including “Basic Behavioral Neurology,” “Calculus: Single Variable,” “Fundamentals of Pharmacology” and “Greek and Roman Mythology.” Five courses are currently in session.

Michael Kearns, Christian Terwiesch, Al Filreis and Kevin Werbach are four Penn professors who are running Coursera classes for tens of thousands of students in addition to their course loads at the University. Together, their Coursera students number nearly 200,000.

Running the Classroom

Kearns, a computer science professor and founding director of Penn’s Market and Social Systems Engineering program, found teaching on Coursera to be a natural fit. He teaches the “Networked Life” course on Coursera, which began Sept. 10, and runs six weeks until mid-October. “[I’m a] great believer in putting all my materials on the open web,” he said.

His class, which he also teaches to Penn students on campus, explores the theory behind networks, such as how they form, what they look like and how they are applied in various practical situations.

Although there are only several hours worth of lecture videos on Coursera, Kearns spent six weeks full time producing the videos over the summer.

Werbach, a legal studies and business ethics professor, also spent much of the summer recording 60 segments of lecture videos and creating weekly quizzes and weekly assignments. “The course structure was developed from scratch for this online format,” he added, discussing how he prepared for his “Gamification” class, which began Aug. 27.

Once the videos are posted online when a course begins, most of the “classroom interaction” takes place on the discussion forums, where students post anything from homework assignment tips to which continents students hail from to related articles and videos from outside the course.

In Kearn’s class, the task of managing the forum falls on the shoulders of its two teaching assistants. The forum mostly self-regulates, according to first-year Engineering graduate student Sneha Jha, one of the TAs, who only step in when the discussion is going egregiously wrong.

Student Impact

International “study group” threads and “Where are you from?” posts are often the most popular topics in the course forums. It’s also where Coursera’s impact on students around the world makes itself apparent.

One night, a “Gamification” student from Slovenia asked a question about an essay prompt. An answer appeared an hour later, from someone in Durham, N.C. International study threads fill with posts in Arabic, Hungarian, German and Spanish.

Students also take the course for various reasons. A schoolteacher in Cyprus wants to apply gamification to his own classroom; a full-time company manager from Highlands Ranch, Colo., hopes to increase his employees’ productivity through gamification.

Werbach said teaching the course has been a wonderful experience. “With Coursera, I can reach 76,000 students from 150 countries, a huge percentage of them people who would not otherwise have access to a course of this type.”

“‘Gamification’ has become a buzzword and I wanted to find out more and approach it more in-depth,” wrote Mariel-Laure Le Guen, a student originally from France but who is working in Nairobi, Kenya. “I like the engaging video lectures, the forum [and] Twitter discussions and the extra resources to go further.”

Forty-two thousand students have signed up for Kearns’ “Networked Life” class. According to Kearns, however, “the number of people who actually complete [the course] is another magnitude entirely” compared to the number who sign up. According to Jha, there have been 20,000 people who have looked through at least one lecture or done a quiz as of two weeks into the online course.

Even with this in mind, Kearns still expects more people to complete the course this semester on Coursera than the sum of all the students who have ever taken his course at Penn.

Learning: Online and off

Al Filreis, founder and faculty director of the Kelly Writers House, argues that online education does not necessarily equal impersonal education. Filreis, who teaches “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry” — or “ModPo”, as the students fondly call it — on Coursera, is determined to avoid lecturing in his Coursera videos. Instead, each video features an actual, unedited discussion between Filreis and several Penn students.

On the first day of Kearn’s “Networked Life” class offline on Penn’s campus, the professor personified a network to the class by having students pass a tennis ball from one end of the room to the other only by passing the ball to students within their social network.

The online version of the class does not offer such interactivity, but some students do see its own advantages. Kearns also encouraged his Penn “Networked Life” class to sign up for the Coursera portion, saying it would be a good supplement to the physical class.

Linda Lipski, an Engineering senior, said the Coursera course “corresponds very well with what we’re doing in class,” stating that the online lectures “gets to the key points fast.”

Coursera could change how professors interact with students in physical classrooms, too.

Kearns hopes Cousera will “free up class time for meaningful discussions,” if the students are able to come to class with prior knowledge of the lectures, which could be posted online ahead of time.

What’s next for higher education?

As far and as many students as Coursera has reached since Penn professors launched their classes this summer, its long-term implications beyond personal enrichment are still up in the air.

Some professors have voiced concerns about Coursera. Terran Lane, a former professor at the University of New Mexico Department of Computer Science, worries about what he calls the “mass production of education.”

“When freed of constraints of distance and tuition, why wouldn’t every student choose a Stanford or MIT education over, say, [University of New Mexico]?” Lane wrote. “How long before we see the AT&T, Microsoft, or Google of academia? How long before 1% of the universities and professors garner 99% of the students and resources?”

But Terwiesch holds a different view. The “mass production” of education, according to Terwiesch, is something that should be celebrated rather than feared.

“We have gone through this innovation in every industry as it has matured,” he said. “If you think about entertainment, it used to be that there was a local clown in the circus or in the market place who would tell a joke. When television and mass-produced movies came along, many of these clowns lost their jobs. Now, we can cry about the lost job of a clown — but isn’t it much more productive to have one clown who is actually funny and make his joke available to everyone?”

Another concern that Lane points to is the loss of “human connection” that comes with educational opportunities like Coursera. “I am terribly afraid,” Lane wrote, “that our efforts to democratize the process will kill this human connection and sterilize one of the most joyful facets of this thousand-year-old institution.”

“Because I’m teaching poetry, it doesn’t do to lecture,” Filreis said. “It would be really ironic if, after all these years, I joined the Coursera experiment and wound up lecturing. That would be a step backward.”

Filreis also stressed that the videos are only a small part of his course: much of the learning takes place in the course’s discussion forums. Here, Filreis, his TAs and his 32,000 students come together to analyze each poem in detail.

Lane’s concerns would only apply if employers come to regard Coursera as an equal to traditional education.

“At present it certainly could enhance a candidate’s application for a job if he or she had completed a relevant Coursera class,” said Patricia Rose, Director of Career Services at Penn. “But it remains to be seen how successful completion can be documented. We will be watching Coursera’s progress with great interest.”

Despite the skepticism, professors like Terwiesch and Filreis remain hopeful for the future of Coursera. “I think Penn has made a very brave move,” Terwiesch said. “This train is leaving the station. Do we want to get on the train, or do we want to be the clowns?”

This article has been revised to reflect that first-year Engineering graduate student Sneha Jha is professor Michael Kearn’s teaching assistant, not professor Kevin Werbach’s teaching assistant.

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