University News

Poll: Student majority supports U. online course offerings

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
This article is part of the series Fall 2012 Student Poll

About 60 percent of students support the University offering some form of online course option open to the general public or students, according to a poll conducted by The Herald last month. Only 9.3 percent polled said the University should not offer any type of online course.

The University announced in September that it would partner with Coursera, a company that works with schools to set up free online not-for-credit courses to the public. Brown will offer three pilot online courses to the public starting next June.

Coursera was launched in June 2012 by two Stanford University faculty members. Since then, 33 university participants have teamed with the company to offer free not-for-credit courses to thousands of students around the globe, according to the Coursera website. Many of the University’s peer institutions – including Princeton, Stanford and Penn – have already joined Coursera, while Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have begun using a competing platform named edX.

But while some universities have begun to embrace massive open online courses, or MOOCs, many students said they did not know much about the rise in online education. About 19 percent of students polled said they were not familiar enough with online courses to offer an opinion, while 10.8 percent said they had no opinion on the subject.

Still, a majority of students indicated they were open to at least some form of online course being offered by the University.

“I think offering online courses is a good idea to broaden the way Brown interacts with the community,” said Alexandra Thomsen ’16, who added that she supports the University’s decision to offer three courses via Coursera to the international community. “It’s a different experience, but for people who can’t go to classes in person, it’s a good alternative.”

Many students voiced support for the principle of free online education, saying MOOCs make a positive impact on higher education by expanding opportunities to take courses from some of the world’s best instructors.

“I think that the more impact Brown has on the outside community, the better it is for Brown students and for the outside community,” said Anna Ressel ’16.

“I don’t view them as cheapening our experience here,” said John Connuck ’14, who added that MOOCs were an effective way for the University to expand its educational reach.

Opening online

The University’s decision to offer online courses to the general public resulted from the Ad Hoc Committee on Online Education’s June report, which highlighted the potential of online courses to revolutionize higher education. Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 decided to adopt the committee’s recommendation to partner with Coursera, The Herald reported in September.

Richard Lee Colvin, a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and an expert on higher education, linked the creation of Coursera and competitor companies to rising demand among universities for a digital platform to accommodate the expansion of online course offerings.

“There’s no doubt whatsoever that the number of courses that are offered this way will increase,” Colvin said, adding that MOOCs offered a way to experiment with different business models.

“What distinguishes a place like Brown from others is that they don’t have to do this to attract students,” Colvin said.

Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein, who said administrators approached him in August about teaching his “Fiction of Relationship” course as part of the new partnership with Coursera, stressed that universities are still learning how to work with MOOCs. “Everybody knows, including the people at Coursera, that this is still in the initial stages,” Weinstein said.

Susan Alcock, director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archeology and the Ancient World, will also teach an online course entitled “Archeology’s Dirty Little Secrets,”  while Professor of Computer Science Philip Klein will teach “Coding the Matrix.”

“I see this as an opportunity for elite institutions to pay something back to society and to spread around their goodies,” Weinstein said, adding that MOOCs serve as a solution to the problem of higher education becoming increasingly unaffordable for many Americans.

But online course instructors face the problem of how to effectively evaluate students’ performance. “It’s the black hole of the program in my opinion,” Weinstein said. “I think Brown is going into this with a very experimental approach.” He said he hopes to develop clear guidelines on assignments for his course while encouraging the creation of an effective peer teaching evaluation system.

Alcock said she was engaged in ongoing discussions about how to evaluate students. “It will be complicated to put together,” Alcock said. “I think it’s going to vary from discipline to discipline.”

Each of the three faculty members who will teach online courses is teaching one fewer in-person class this year in order to set aside time for preparing the MOOCs. To compensate for the labor intensiveness of these courses, Schlissel previously told The Herald his office would provide each affected department with additional funding. Alcock said the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Dean of the College had both been helpful with Coursera preparations.

Professor of Computer Science John Savage said the University’s partnership with Coursera would provide Brown with feedback on efficacy of online education. “It’s worth conducting an experiment to evaluate the online aspect of teaching,” Savage said, adding that one key to the success of the online venture will be figuring out how to tailor the course to fit the interests of the worldwide audience.

The online education committee’s June report also noted the potential for MOOCs to enhance the University’s brand on a global scale.

“I think that for places like Brown, Stanford and MIT that have a strong brand name, it’s an extension of the brand name globally,” Colvin said. “That’s why they’re doing it.”

John Tyler, who teaches EDUC 1130: “Economics of Education I,” said there are different models for online courses and that universities are still working on figuring out what works best. When the University puts information online in its MOOCs, students around the world will inevitably compare the quality of Brown courses with the vast array of other online course options they have, he said.

Tradeoffs 

Some students said they feel the University is less concerned with expanding educational access than with keeping up with peer institutions.

“I think (MOOCs) are great but I think the University’s just trying to keep up with the Joneses,” said Alex Leblang ’14, linking the University’s partnership with Coursera to a desire not to be left behind by Stanford and MIT.

“The whole (point) of being in the class is going to the classroom and engaging people,” Leblang said, adding that the University’s move to a digital platform was a break with this traditional model. “They’re basically just admitting the entire university experience is a sham.”

Sean Needle ’14 said he believed the University’s planning process for introducing online courses needed to focus more on developing a unique approach to MOOCs. “I feel like they need to spend a little more time planning them instead of copying other universities,” Needle said. “They should spend more time planning something more unique.”

But some higher education pol
icy analysts argue that online courses in fact provide interaction among students by facilitating team projects that can be completed on digital platforms. “There’s a tremendous amount of interaction that goes on,” said Lucie Lapovsky, principal for Lapovsky Consulting and former president of Mercy College, a multi-campus institution in New York. “Many schools are participating because they want to gain a great deal of data about how students learn.”

Lapovsky said the ability for Coursera’s offerings to reach thousands of students worldwide can enhance the opportunity for cross-global engagement. She added that as higher education becomes increasingly globalized, online courses will become more attractive for universities as a way to offer greater flexibility to students who seek to study abroad or leave campus.

The tradeoff between a classroom setting and a digital platform for a course depends on the model of delivery, Tyler said. For instance, a large, introductory lecture course would work better online than a course that derived most of its benefit from seminar-style discussions with an engaging faculty member, he said.

Courses for credit

The University will also offer online introductory courses to Brown undergraduates for credit beginning next summer. This will mark the first time the University grants credit to non-transfer students for courses taken solely through a digital platform.

While many students supported offering more for-credit courses during the summer, others said they believed allowing students to take online for-credit courses during the school year would not be a wise decision.

“It almost wouldn’t represent Brown because it wouldn’t be like the experience of being here,” said Anson Rosenthal ’15, adding that he took an online course over the summer at another school and felt the class was “just a skeleton” of the classroom experience.

Shivang Desai ’14 said the University should offer free for-credit summer courses for Brown students because current prices for summer courses are too high. He added that he felt online courses were supplementary to his education and should not replace the traditional classroom model.

Anthony Pellegrino ’14 said he supported the move to free online education for the general public but did not believe the University should offer for-credit courses to Brown students during the school year. “I think it could make sense over the summer for Brown students. … But during the school year, I don’t think it makes sense because you have all the resources here to do in-person classes,” Pellegrino said.

Elite universities have the rare ability to offer courses for free to the general public, Lupovsky said, adding that most still do not offer a large number of online courses at this point.

Many students said the University could simultaneously improve its brand name while also advancing the altruistic goal of expanding educational opportunity. “People already think of a private university as being really exclusive and closed-off to the general public, and I think this sort of thing helps shed them in a better light,” said Ingrid Chen ’15.

In a first for the University, one class this semester – CSCI 1730: “Programming Languages” – already has an online version that is open to the general public. Professor of Computer Science Shriram Krishnamurthi still teaches the class in-person to Brown students, and about 1,600 students outside of the University have enrolled in his course’s free online version, The Herald reported in September.

Several students enrolled in the course said that though they are taking the course in the classroom, they have benefitted from Krishnamurthi’s decision to open the course to the general public.

“I think it’s really cool because the online forum generates different viewpoints, especially from people who are working professionals,” said Danny Schneider ’14, a student in the class.

Schneider added that though he believes more Brown computer science courses could replicate this model, the University should be careful to keep the teaching focus on its own undergraduates. “One thing that I would hope that they make sure of is that it doesn’t interfere with the teaching of Brown students,” he said.

Andrew Kovacs ’14, another CSCI 1730 student, said the integration of the general public into the course had not negatively affected his own learning experience. But he cautioned that keeping the public engaged, especially when more challenging assignments arose, was a key problem for online courses. Many of the students from outside the University who had been enrolled in CSCI 1730 dropped out once tougher assignments came out, Kovacs said.

“We should make information more public and interact with the outer world,” Kovacs said, “but I think there’s a lot of value to the classroom experience.”

Methodology

Written questionnaires were administered to 959 undergraduates October 17-18 in the lobby of J. Walter Wilson and the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center during the day and the Sciences Library at night. The poll has a 2.9 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. Find results of previous polls at thebdh.org/poll.