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Shaking up the World of Higher Education

With free online education gaining attention in The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and at Cornell University at an event where Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera will be speaking, how this modality will shake up the world of higher education remains to be seen.

Cousera originally launched with a handful of courses and a few partnering universities, over just months, it has grown to offer over 100 specialized courses and is increasing its list of partnerships.

Some of Coursera’s partner schools include: University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Caltech, Duke, Princeton, Johns Hopkins University, and University of Virginia, and they just added 17 more partners. Coursera has also partnered with universities in Scotland, Switzerland, Canada, and India, making it a platform for a truly global education.

While virtual learning has been available in certain forms over the past few years, Coursera’s class formats take advantage of the latest technological advances, giving the website an edge. Courses include a mixture of white-board style talks, professor’s narration, and interactive quizzes interspersed at content check-points in order to maintain students’ engagement with the material.

In her intriguing TED talk “What We’re Learning from Online Education,” Koller describes how a digital format is more effective than traditional learning. Koller believes lecture halls are conducive for passive learning. For example when she asks a question during a lecture, many students are still scribbling notes, others are on Facebook, and maybe one student blurts out the answer prematurely.

Online classes are less uniform than lectures. Material can be broken down into manageable chunks of information. Quizzes interspersed at key points can help ensure that students have understood core concepts before moving forward.

Additional benefits are that online class enrollment can span tens of thousands of students, enabling Professors to widely spread their ideas, even internationally. For example, Ng has said that his largest on-campus class consisted of 400 students, compared with 100,000 people who signed up for one of his online offerings. To reach that sized audience at Stanford, he would have to teach for 250 years.

Koller highlights another advantage which is that online courses allow for the collection of data that is not available in lecture hall formats. Data, such as the amount of time students spend on each question can allow professors to further improve their courses.

There are of course kinks that Coursera still needs to work out. For example certain subjects are easy to test online with multiple choice questions. However, with more humanities courses being offered, other styles of evaluation are needed.

Others have looked at the model and questioned the viability of traditional higher education institutions. For example, one article in Forbes draws an analogy to what Craigslist has done to classified advertising in newspapers and what Wikipedia has done to encyclopedias.

At the same time, such comparisons are still premature as the website currently offers only certificates of course completion, not a full degree. And it is still uncertain whether these certificates actually carry much weight in the job market.

For the time being, Coursera has created a global network for idea-sharing and can help people gain knowledge that they want. As the format progresses, Koller believes we can expedite innovation, discover hidden talent from remote parts of the globe, and establish education as a fundamental right.

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