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Online Learning Grows at Cyber Pace

April 11, 2013 By:
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Penn Lecturer Rebecca Stein records her classes in a studio. Photo by JA Kemp

Over the past year, Sonia Dishler has studied nutrition, Greco-Roman his­tory, postmodern philosophy and even the indigenous peoples of Canada. 

She’s audited at least 15 courses from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Edinburgh, to name a few.

And she’s done it all from the comfort of her Penn Valley home — without spending a penny — thanks to the explosive growth of massive open online courses, otherwise known as MOOCs. 

“It’s like a whole world opening up,” said Dishler, 81, a semi-retired psychologist. “You don’t have to travel and spend the extra time going somewhere. It’s just marvelous to be able to listen to all these wonderful professors. It’s free and it’s there, what can I say?”

Universities have employed the Internet as a classroom tool, and even as the vehicle for credit courses, for years — for students who paid for them. But now Udacity, edX, Coursera, iTunes U and a handful of other companies are offering college-level instruction absolutely free to anyone with access to the Internet. 

Coursera has emerged as arguably the largest player, amassing more than 3 million registered users in less than a year. Two Stanford professors launched the service in April 2012 with three other partnering institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania. Today, the site lists more than 300 courses from 62 universities across the globe. Hebrew University in Jerusalem jumped into the mix this spring with a neuroscience course. 

Penn continues to expand its Coursera presence, too, now offering 21 courses that have so far attracted more than 840,000 enrollees, according to law professor Edward Rock, who serves as the university’s senior adviser on open course initiatives.

“What’s revolutionary about Coursera is not that it’s online, but that it’s massive,” Rock said. “They have shown that there’s a huge interest in online learning.” 

Among those teaching this spring include Jewish professors Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist who served as health adviser to the Obama administration, and Rebecca Stein, a senior economics lecturer and member of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne.

Ironically, Stein has never taken or taught a class online before. But the economist from Ardmore said she was eager to translate her Principles of Microeconomics  material to a Web platform knowing that the experience would also force her to rethink how she’s been teaching in the regular classroom over the past 13 years. Plus, she said, her first exposure to the concepts in microeconomics became a “life-transforming event.” 

“There might be hundreds of thousands of people out there who might be changed by taking this course, and wouldn’t that be fun,” she said. 

Stein recorded the bulk of her lectures in advance, but she’s recording a few more while the course is in progress to incorporate case studies from current events. Students will earn a pass or fail grade based on their performance on weekly multiple-choice quizzes and participation in peer-reviewed problem sets. 

Two weeks before the course opened, nearly 20,000 people had enrolled — quite a step up from the hundreds Stein usually sees in her lecture hall. But enrollment figures are somewhat misleading because only half of the people who sign up actually end up participating and an average of only 5 percent complete each course, according to a Coursera publicist. 

Still, why give something away that these students might otherwise pay quite a steep price for? 

Simply put, Rock said, “it’s core to our mission to be out there teaching.” On top of that, he continued, participating in Coursera could end up becoming “the single best and most efficient way of transforming teaching on campus. The kind of materials that you prepare for a Coursera course is just the materials that you want to have if you’re going to replace your frontal lectures with more intensive, face-to-face interactions.”

Rock also believes that it won’t be long before Penn’s investment in Coursera pays off. The university spends about $50,000 to produce each open course, the bulk of that on filming and stipends for the professors and teaching assistants who monitor discussion forums. 

Rock sees potential to profit from those sunk costs by accrediting and licensing popular introductory courses such as economics or calculus. Several online education companies have already begun investigating this idea. Five Coursera offerings have been approved for credit and the company also offers verified certificates for certain courses. 

Penn is working to grant credit for a calculus class featuring Professor Robert Ghrist’s hand-drawn animations. Even with the extra costs that would be required to hire a live proctor for exams for a credit course, Rock estimates that Penn could offer such a course for about $200, including the online textbook. He calls that a steal for high quality, “close to portable college credit.”  

Distance learning is old hat at the Melrose Park-based Gratz College, which began focusing on online-only degree programs more than a decade ago. At that time, many universities had added Jewish studies departments so Gratz needed to rethink its role as a local Jewish studies provider, said Debbie Aron, director of online and distance learning. Gratz carved a national niche online, reaching students who didn’t have access to Jewish studies while also broadening its reach with secular education and nonprofit management programs. 

Even though the medium is the same, self-paced “passive” courses offered by providers like Coursera can’t compare to more interactive, for-credit online classes where students get frequent feedback from professors and each other, said Jon Panofsky, a graduate student in Gratz’s online genocide and Holocaust studies program who has also taken a handful of open courses. 

Preferences aside, Panofsky said, he still appreciates how incredible it is to have free resources like Coursera so readily available. It’s especially valuable for those who can’t afford to go to college or stop working full-time in order to study, he said. 

“Where else am I going to find a class I can take for free on Roman archaeology on an Ivy League level?” the 28-year-old Fishtown resident said. 

Rather than siphon students away from traditional college education, Stein, the Penn economics lecturer, predicted that open online courses would do the opposite.

“It’s a development of a new form of sharing information. So you can think of this as the development of the printing press or the free library.  Does the free library make universities obsolete? No, on the contrary, when people have libraries they learn to read and want to go to university.”

What it should make obsolete, however, are large lectures, Stein said. With the technology to stream video at home, “there’s no reason to have a lecture where you’re sitting and watching a professor at the bottom of the pit.”

Rock also predicted that licensed online “courses in a can” would become a fixture in high schools as a way to place out of introductory college classes similar to the way Advanced Placement credits work. 

As for Dishler, she’s just hoping the online freebies last so she can continue enlightening her spare time.

“It’s much better than television!” she said. “I don’t think that it can go on forever so I’m trying to grab it all while it’s here.” 

Deborah Hirsch is the director of digital media for the Jewish Exponent.  This article originally appeared in The Next Step, a Jewish Exponent special section.

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