Education for Everyone: Wesleyan Joins Coursera

“We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

That’s President Roth, with a new haircut and a description of his course on Coursera, The Modern and the Postmodern. “I love teaching it because it’s a course that brings us to the history of the present,” Roth exclaims. “The Modern and the Postmodern covers a lot of ground, but all the books cover that ground with a kind of verve and seriousness, a kind of panache and depth that is to me extraordinarily attractive.”

Last Wednesday, Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC) platform, announced that it would be partnering with 16 new universities—including Wesleyan as the first liberal arts college to join in partnership. Coursera is part of a controversial new generation of education reform that potentially represents the first major update to the higher education industry in centuries. Through video, online texts, and increasingly interactive web applications, Coursera and other MOOCs seek to harness technology to create a global classroom where the best professors in the world can instruct tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Joining what were originally only large, top tier academic institutions like Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan is a particularly interesting inductee as the first small liberal arts university. In a series of posts on his blog and on the Huffington PostMichael Roth ’78 writes, “The idea that Wesleyan will be offering free, massive online classes will strike some as paradoxical. We are a small university at which almost three quarters of the courses are taught in an interactive, seminar style. How is that related to online learning?”

Wesleyan will contribute five courses from five fabulous professors: Passion Driven Statistics, by Lisa Dierker; Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics, by Richard Adelstein; The Ancient Greeks, by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak; The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color, by Scott Higgens; and The Modern and the Postmodern, by Michael S. Roth.

MOOCs are a recent innovation with roots in the early 2000siTunes U and Khan Academy were among the first to substantially actualize Internet education, but the real proliferation began in 2010 with Udemy, in 2011 with Udacity, and in 2012 with Ted-Ed and Coursera. The spark ignited in Fall 2011, when over 160,000 people signed up for a class on Artificial Intelligence by Sebastian Thrun, who is best known as the pioneer of Google’s driverless car. Today, over 1.4 million people have signed up for 195 Coursera courses. Harvard and MIT recently teamed up and contributed $30 million each to form edX. The ball for free online education is rolling—what will be next?

And what does this all mean? What does the advent of massive online learning platforms mean for the traditional educational model (and its featherweight price tag)? Does this movement represent the freeing of academia from the institution? What can successfully be taught online, and what aspects of the traditional classroom cannot be translated to an online format? Are there tangible or intangible aspects of the classroom experience that transcend an online adaption? How much of a game changer is this, really?

The media is abuzz as one of the most rigid and lucrative global industries has been forced to consider a changing educational ecosystem. Among the articles: USA Today‘s “College may never be the same,” Huffposts‘s “MOOCs Transform Online Higher Education,” Time‘s “Will Massive, Open Online Courses Revolutionize Higher Education?“, and NPR‘s “From Silicon Valley, a New Approach to Education.” They say roughly similar things and maintain a slight common skepticism, which can be broken down into a case of pros and cons:

PROS of MOOCs (like Coursera):

  • For the first time, any person in any place in the world with an Internet connection can receive education from some of the world’s foremost experts. This is seriously cool.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people are interested and have signed up for a wide variety of courses, from Artificial Intelligence, to Sociology, to English Literature, to Yoga and Pilates.
  • Free. Zero dollars and zero cents. For now, no ads. Free education for all, in exchange for nothing.
  • Through online interactive classes, you can gain exposure to people from all over the world, which could result in a general mixing of ideas and influences. This is a unique and unprecedented time for the flow of information with a complete disregard for geography.

Cons:

  • Low completion rates (not yet published, but less than 10% for most courses).
  • Less interaction than traditional classes, though social media may present interactive options through meet ups or live classes.
  • A very tricky business model. This is quite interesting, as Coursera has followed the San Franciscan tradition of “build fast, think about money later.” But really, they’re not sure how this will be profitable. Here is their official list of 8 monetization strategies. It remains to be seen whether this model of free-education-for-all will be sustainable. After all, it is taking one of the most coveted and valuable goods— education—and stripping it of its price tag.
  • To quote George Bush, “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” This article brings up many points of skepticism, and questions whether the online format is conducive to information intake and recall.

So how does this humble Wesleying writer feel about the Wesleyan-Coursera partnership?

I like it. I’m proud to say that my Econ 101 professor will be gracing the cyberworld with his passion and knowledge, and I’m proud that Wesleyan, as a longtime supporter of the progressive and the new, is an early participant in what-could-be an education revolution. I do think it’s too early to tell, and I think that online education doesn’t quite know where it fits in the scheme of things, and I think that we will probably see a bandwagon effect as more universities see this as the new “cool” thing to do. But the fact remains that top-notch eduction is now free and available to those who seek it, and if any single force has been proven to have the power to topple tyrannies and right wrongs, it must only be knowledge.

More from Roth on Huff Post.