Princeton, Others Open Classes to the World
Historian Jeremy Adelman usually has about 100 students in his "A History of the World since 1300" course at Princeton University. This semester there are 82,000.
Adelman is teaching students from around the world online through Coursera, an educational website that is offering classes from top universities online for free.
For Adelman the course allows him to bring students from around the globe into the discussion of history, which provides different perspectives he may not have found in his usual classroom. For Princeton, it's an experiment in broadening the reach of the university.
Online courses have been around for decades, but in the past few months universities across the nation have rushed to open their doors to the world. While many applaud the attempt to offer top- quality classes to the masses, others questioned whether this trend will undermine the nation's leading institutions.
The seven Princeton professors with classes on Coursera this semester are among those from 33 universities with offerings on the site, which now has 1.3 million enrolled students. Online start-up Udacity, which specializes in free computer science, physics and mathematics, is also nearing 1 million students. EdX, meanwhile, offers classes at no cost from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Sebastian Thrun, Udacity's president, says he wants to "democratize higher education."
"I believe education is the core of modern society, and access to high-quality education must be a basic human right. ... If Udacity succeeds, it will change humanity," he said. "We aspire to bring meaningful and effective education to everyone in the world."
The backers of these sites say the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, could transform education at a time when colleges and universities are faced with shrinking budgets and protests over tuition increases.
"It holds the potential for serving many, many hundreds of thousands of students in a way we simply cannot today," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.
For Keith Connelly, a 22-year-old Waldwick resident, Udacity has provided courses he believes can get him ahead at his job as an assistant in an IT department. He most recently has taken a course by a Rutgers professor on "Algorithms: Crunching Social Networks."
"The Udacity professors are smart and I wouldn't get these courses otherwise," he said. Up next: a course on software debugging taught by a professor at Saarland University in Germany.
The online classes are generally offered inrecorded lectures - as short as four minutes or as long as 20 minutes -- over a period of weeks. Many courses are embedded with quizzes to make sure students are paying attention. Adelman asks his Coursera students to write papers and submit them online, where they are shared with others in the course for peer review.
There are no degrees for these online students.
"You get nothing but an education," Adelman said.
And that is at the heart if the debate about putting free classes online. Some educators believe they have an obligation to share their knowledge with the world. "If a poor kid in India cannot take the class, I think that would just be a tragedy," said Andrew Ng, one of Coursera's founders. "If a place like Princeton could teach millions of students, I think the world would be a better place."
But others are concerned that the university's tuition-paying students - and the school itself - stand to lose if they give away an education for free.
"It's generating a serious discussion and people have strong opinions about it," said Jerry Charles, an education consultant who has helped establish online courses for universities in Europe. "You just have to look at what's happened to the media industry to see what giving the store away for free does for you."
So far, Princeton is the only New Jersey university to partner with Coursera. Udacity has had offerings from some Rutgers professors.
The online trend is so new that it's unclear how far universities will take it. Will they expand their online offerings or offer credit or degrees? Will they charge tuition? How can they prevent cheating?
Universities are feeling the pressure to join, even though they don't know where this trend is headed. In fact, the president of the University of Virginia was temporarily ousted this fall in part because the trustees didn't think she was moving quickly enough to get their courses online.
"It's a frenzy," Charles said. "This trend could leave some smaller colleges behind because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to produce online courses and they may not have the resources."
Adelman himself isn't sure where this experiment will go. Recording his lectures in a studio over the summer was difficult because he's used to interacting with students rather than a camera.
"When I lecture, I pace around the hall and my eyes are fixed on students. I can tell when they understand or when they are bored," he said.
Meanwhile, he's mindful about the Princeton students enrolled in the course. He usually has over 100 students, but only about 60 signed up this semester. "I may have lost some students who wanted the live lecture," he said.
Princeton students listen to the lectures online along with Coursera students, but they must complete more extensive research papers. They attend weekly sessions with guests Adelman invites in for discussions. The talks are recorded and uploaded onto the Internet. If he teaches another Coursera class, Adelman would like to bring monitors into the lecture hall so online students can participate live in the discussion sessions.
For now, educators are trying to figure out just how much a student can learn from a quick online lecture. EdX officials say 154,000 students from more than 160 countries registered for MIT's first online course, "Circuits and Electronics," this past spring.
Only about 7,100 students completed the course -- but that's still a lot more than can fit in a lecture hall.
Originally published by This article contains material from The Associated Press.
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