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Experts discuss future of online college learning

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Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 10:00 pm | Updated: 11:38 am, Wed Feb 27, 2013.

Massively open online courses are reshaping how instructors and students approach learning but likely will serve as an adjunct to, rather than a total replacement for, the familiar, traditional higher education classroom experience, according to a University of Virginia professor who is among the first to teach such a course.

And though the technology exists to connect tens of thousands of students digitally, maintaining student engagement and measuring and quantifying their progress remain challenges.


As of this week, UVa is offering eight courses through Coursera, an online education company founded by two Stanford University professors. UVa's course offerings, some of which are already available, include studies in business, physics, history and philosophy.

Daphne Koller, one of Coursera's co-founders, spoke recently at UVa's Curry School of Education to professors and students about the online educational revolution and the potential for such services to expand the availability of education while holding down the cost.

Launched in April and funded by venture capitalists, Coursera now serves about 2.7 million students in almost 200 countries.

“We’re just really excited about the new analytics that are coming out so that we can look at trying to be more adaptive and creating more effective learning experiences for our students on Grounds, as well as our online students,” said Kristin Palmer, program director for online learning environments at UVa.

Koller told the group that the online course revolution will enable education to shift from being the privilege of a few to becoming a basic human right. But with that right comes logistical challenges.

“If you have a class with 100,000 students, can your institution fund 5,000 teaching assistants?” Koller asked.

The answer, said Koller, is obviously no. And because automated systems aren't ideal for evaluating work that demands the application of context and reasoning, in the Coursera model students also serve as instructors by reviewing and critiquing the work of their peers.

Koller said science, technology, engineering and math courses translate well onto massively open online course platforms, as do social science studies .

Coursera’s model is based on three elements: lecture-based content presented by videos; practice and mastery through online quizzes that generate instant feedback; and cultivation of the student community, in the form of interactions that are both structured and organic, as well as international.

Koller told the group that a fringe benefit of having so many people studying the same thing online is the ability to collect an exponential amount of data that can be used to refine courses.

The decision regarding whether university credits will be awarded, however, always remains in the hands of the institutions that are sponsoring the course. At UVa, the courses will offer a "statement of accomplishment" instead of credit.

“We’ve been very fortunate because we’ve got a great partnership with Coursera and a great dialogue with other university partners for figuring out best practices in this space. It’s a new technology, a new era, so we expect some trial and error, but so far it’s been very smooth,” Palmer said.

“The new thing, I think, with Coursera is trying to figure out how do you engage 60,000 students in this virtual platform?” said Mike Lenox, a professor in UVa's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. Lenox is slated to teach a course on the foundations of business strategy starting Monday.

Lenox said online courses have the potential to reshape how instructors approach their more traditional classroom learning models.

“A course like mine — which has a final project and not a final exam and is a qualitative assignment — it’s going to be interesting to see how we can assess performance in this kind of large context.”

Lenox also said he’s excited about the potential to leverage the power of thousands of students to study an issue simultaneously.

“It forces us to think about the way we deliver our educational experiences even to our residential students,” Lenox continued. “If all the learnings that our students have are simply when they sit in the classroom, then we’re not fully capturing the opportunities that are here.”

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