The Verge: Wesleyan Coursera Class Is Way Cool, But It’s Not College


Way cool illustration by Steve Kim c/o The Verge.

Thought you could escape Wesleyan classes simply by leaving campus for the summer? That’s no longer the case. As of September 2012, Wesleyan launched its very own MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, through Coursera— you can take these multi-week classes online, for free, from anywhere in the world, directly from the professors who make Wesleyan what it is. The first small liberal arts college to offer this opportunity, Wesleyan joined the ranks of Princeton, Stanford, and UPenn in attempting to change higher education. Is it a game changer?

Not really, says The Verge‘s Maria Bustillos. In an article published yesterday, Bustillos was pretty upfront in arguing that “online classes can be enlightening, edifying, and engaging — but they’re not college.” Some critics obviously disagree with the very idea of free online courses replacing traditional education, but at the same time, “it’s also obvious that there’s a real appetite for online learning, and that it is colossal.” So what’s a journalist to do but to try some of these classes out?

For her immersion into the world of Coursera, Bustillos decided upon “The Ancient Greeks,” taught by Wesleyan’s own Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Professor of Classical Studies and Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek. She also talked to Szegedy-Maszak about the future of online learning, and to Lauren Rubenstein from Wesleyan’s Department of Media Relations about how the school’s Coursera is set up. And, after the jump, find out what Bustillos describes as “like soaking in a huge stone bath scented with rose petals while being fed grapes and gently serenaded by a distant lute.”

If you guessed “listening to the voice of Andrew Szegedy-Maszak” as the answer to the above question, then you’re correct! Bustillos really only had great things to say about his online version of “The Ancient Greek,” saying that it’s “fantastic: serious, fun, beautifully presented and engaging as anything.” However, “What it is not is a class.” But if the lectures of Szegedy-Maszak are so “sublime,” what differentiates this from any real class? Well, the fact that the “participant” doesn’t actually have to do anything. “What is expected of the student is next to nothing,” Bustillos says. Despite the great reading list and material discussed, a one-sided conversation can’t substitute for the experience of actual interaction, quizzes don’t come close to provoking the source comprehension that papers do, and the very format doesn’t allow for creativity and real, in-depth understanding such as the humanities generally aim to instill.

Perhaps the lack of papers, finals, or even grades sounds great to those of us for whom finals are a not-too-distant memory. But the ultimate takeaway from this article is that, while Coursera classes are excellent for the curious-minded, they’re no substitute for the real thing. Every part of the college experience, from TA sessions to social interaction to discussing issues on a student blog, which teach the really important life skills. Even Szegedy-Maszak himself had some hesitations: “I remain pretty skeptical about getting a full degree online. The main difference between MOOCs and residential learning isn’t even the writing, but more the interaction and the exchange between the faculty member and the students.”

So what’s Wesleyan getting out of the whole venture, after all? The honor of being listed alongside Ivies, for one, and the consequent global exposure. Individual teachers receive a small stipend from Wesleyan for developing a Coursera class, but Coursera itself doesn’t give compensation, unless the class earns significant profits— but how a free course like this can turn a profit wasn’t specified.

What everyone keeps talking about is the opportunity to be on the cutting edge. Maybe Coursera won’t replace an actual Wesleyan experience – and that’s probably a good thing – but maybe that’s not the edge it’s on. As they are now, MOOCs are an introduction into the Wesleyan experience, for those who are too far away or don’t have time (or can’t afford it). They can be a continuation of already-completed undergraduate academic learning. They can be something fun to do, a productive extracurricular. As a high school teacher of mine might say, it’s no panacea, but it’s not too shabby. Cousera classes can certainly serve an educational purpose without serving every educational purpose: “I think of these courses as a kind of enhancement; a way of enriching the educational experience,” Szegedy-Maszak said.

As for why Bustillos decided upon “The Ancient Greeks” out of the currently 375 available on Coursera, she wrote that she had a personal interest in the classics, but upon further investigation, it turns out that President Roth’s demanding 14-week “Modern and Postmodern” was just too much for her to handle. If only our first semester freshman selves had realized that as well.

You can (and should) read the entire Verge article here: “Online classes can be enlightening, edifying, and engaging — but they’re not college: Heading back to school with a seven-week MOOC.”

Related: “Education for Everyone: Wesleyan Joins Coursera.”

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