University News

Professors prepare online courses for summer launch

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Three professors are each creating one distinctive class to be offered this summer as part of the University’s debut on the free-online learning site, Coursera, this summer.

The professors – Susan Alcock, professor of archaeology and classics, Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature, and Philip Klein, professor of computer science – will adapt their courses to fit the Coursera platform while maintaining the elements that define a Brown course.

Weinstein is adapting his signature course entitled “The Fiction of Relationship,” which focuses on exploring different forms of relationships through a variety of literary works.

To fit the online format, Weinstein said he plans to break his lectures into eight- to 12-minute “minibytes” as Coursera suggests. He will film each given lecture to completion while indicating break points as he speaks, adding that separating a lecture based on a single novel into discrete parts will be inherently challenging.

The online course site will likely incorporate discussion videos with 10 to 15 students and a teaching assistant to facilitate conversation, Weinstein said. He intends to hold Coursera students to the same standards as he would in the classroom, he said, assigning papers as he usually would. Grading and validity of evaluations continues to be a challenge, he said, adding that he is considering using peer assessment as part of the grading.

The course should “translate pretty well” since Weinstein’s lectures are generally not question-based, said Celeste Cahn ’15, who took Weinstein’s course COLT 0810: “Civilization and its Discontents.” But she added that the discussion sections were her favorite part of the course and that she would be disinclined to take an online version that lacked this “person-to-person contact.”

Klein’s course, “Coding the Matrix: Linear Algebra through Computer Science Applications,” will focus on the more hands-on aspects of computer science. He said he hopes to make learning “more real” in the context of computer science applications and to enable students to see how this more precise modality can be useful.

The Coursera version of this course will be based on the material Klein has taught for about five years. It will adopt a “mastery-based approach,” Klein said, adding that the five- to eight-minute video chunks will be complemented by small quiz examples that enable students to test their understanding. This mastery of skills along the way is critical in such a course, Klein said, noting that computer science is a very cumulative subject. he said he is looking forward to receiving feedback from his online students, as he will be able to “better grasp the student perspective.”

There will be a heavy emphasis on the applications of the work, said Anson Rosenthal ’15, who is working with Klein to develop the course. Rosenthal, who said he would be very interested in the online version of this course, said, “If they’re done intelligently, online courses can be really helpful.” He added that he is confident Klein’s enthusiasm in the classroom will carry through online.

“Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” is the third Coursera course the University will offer, and it will generally capitalize on people’s “innate curiosity about archaeology,” said Alcock, who will teach the class.

This course will also take the form of short film modules, several of which will be presented each week. In addition to these more lecture- focused clips, Alcock said she hopes to incorporate case studies with University faculty members and clips of real digging taking place this semester on the Quiet Green. She added that she will be using a course she is teaching next semester to help guide her creation of the online course.

The material objects and archaeological sites will translate pretty readily to Coursera, said Andrew Dufton GS, who is working with Alcock and will serve as a TA for the course next semester. He added that he is looking forward to exploring “different digital technologies and how we can use them in teaching and in archaeology.”


“This is a course that really could speak globally,” Alcock said, adding that she hopes to encourage students to think about the past and recognize archaeology’s presence everywhere.

  • Anonymous

    I’m afraid the article is too short for one to get a clearer picture of how the instructors intend to convey to the students the kind of information they wish to communicate. I have watched many educational films that use a variety of different formats to get their message across. Some are definitely more successful than others. But then it also depends on the psychological inclinations of the viewers. We all have highly different psychological approaches in how we absorb knowledge. More on this subject would be nice.