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UVa set to launch global classrooms

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Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 4:41 pm | Updated: 9:05 am, Mon Jan 14, 2013.

RICHMOND -- University of Virginia history professor Philip Zelikow has turned his office into a video studio as he prepares for his debut before a global classroom today.

More than 37,000 people have signed up for his world history course — including about 120 of his UVa students.

That's because Zelikow has "flipped" the traditional way he would teach a UVa class to take advantage of the massive online open course, known as a MOOC, that he'll offer through Coursera.

Zelikow's "The Modern World: Global History since 1760" is the first of six courses UVa will make available for free this semester through Coursera, an online partnership of more than 30 universities.

The lectures he would have compressed into his allotted class time at UVa have been turned into 91 video presentations that his students will see online along with thousands of new classmates around the world.

The change in format frees Zelikow to lead smaller, in-depth discussion groups with his UVa students that graduate teaching assistants previously would have handled. Those TAs instead will facilitate research labs examining the impact at a community level of different moments in history.

"We're using this to strengthen what we do at UVa, and we're building up a UVa everywhere," said Zelikow, associate dean for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and former executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

The Coursera students he teaches will not receive credit for their efforts or have the homework and lab required of the UVa students. But both groups will have the chance to interact through online discussion forums, adding global feedback on the lectures.

The lectures will be interspersed with slides, pictures and maps and delivered from a camera angle that will make it appear "as if you're having a private tutorial in my office," he said.

Zelikow and his colleagues have been working on how to adapt their methods to accommodate a world audience since the university announced last summer that it would join Coursera.

"One of the reasons we justify working so hard at it is not just because it's a charitable donation of our education to the world," Zelikow said. "It's because we can leverage that work to significantly improve the quality of the on-Grounds experience at the same time."

Edward D. Hess, a professor in the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, said he also will incorporate his research-based Coursera videos into his Darden MBA class this spring.

Hess said the course is based on actual cases about entrepreneurs, including the story of 3 Fellers Bakery in Goochland County. Coursera students will be asked to devise a growth plan for the gluten-free start-up.

So far, more than 61,690 people have enrolled in part one of Hess' "Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses," which begins Jan. 28. That's more people "than have passed through Darden's halls," quipped James L. Hilton, UVa vice president and chief information officer.

The university joined Coursera amid a national discussion on the potential for online education to expand access and affordability — an issue that turned sharply local when UVa's board cited the transformative power of MOOCs as a reason for its unsuccessful effort to remove President Teresa A. Sullivan.

At that point, UVa was actually already involved in MOOCs through individual efforts of professors, including courses offered on Udacity, a similar digital platform that grew out of the Stanford University experiment that resulted in Coursera. But Coursera is the only partnership UVa has joined as an institution, Hilton said.

It's giving the university the chance to experiment with online learning with some "really fabulous institutions" such as Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Princeton universities.

"We went into Coursera primarily because we thought it was a great experiment, a way for faculty to engage in thinking anew about how they teach, and it's doing that with a vengeance," Hilton said.

From their counterparts at Stanford, they had heard that "once you start thinking about how to teach a MOOC, it changes how you think about your residential classes," he said. One result is the "flipped class" that reverses the dynamic of the traditional university lecture, he said.

"Lectures are good at inspiring. They don't involve a lot of interactivity," Hilton said. "In the flipped classroom, you really do the opposite," he said. "You push lectures that are pretty passive out to be done at home, and you use class time for collaborative problem-solving and engagement in the group."

Hilton said no decision has been made on UVa's next step with the for-profit Coursera, which is studying options for making revenue from the venture. Last week, Coursera announced plans to offer certificates of completion for a fee in a pilot program that does not include UVa.

The company, with 2.2 million "Courserians," also is working with the American Council on Education to develop a credit-equivalency evaluation for some courses.

Zelikow said he sees potential for MOOCs to provide credit, particularly at the community college level, but he notes that not everything offered on Coursera now is a full course. Some are "courselets," he said.

But because he entwined his 15-week course with what will be offered at UVa, "mine is the full monty." Before deciding the next step, Hilton said, UVa will assess what it has cost the university to develop the courses.

There was no fee for joining Coursera. Discussions are planned in February with deans of all the schools to gauge interest in future participation, he said.

The initial courses are being offered through the College of Arts and Sciences and Darden. The other courses — Michael J. Lenox's "Foundations of Business Strategy," Louis A. Bloomfield's "How Things Work" and Mitchell Green's "Know Thyself" — start March 4. Part two of Hess' class begins April 29.

Enrollment for all the courses so far exceeds 220,000 — numbers that Hilton said are interesting but not what's driving UVa's involvement with Coursera.

"We want to see how we can use technology to enhance the residential experience," he said. "And along the way, if we can make the resources and talent available to the world at very low marginal cost, that's a great thing."

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