University News

Faculty members reflect on Coursera

Students from about 150 countries participated in online courses offered by University professors

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 30, 2013

Faculty members who taught the University’s first three massive open online courses on Coursera this summer shared their experiences in two town hall meetings held Sept. 25 and Sept. 27.

“We recognized that there was a lot of curiosity around the courses,” said John Melson, instructional designer at the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, who organized the event with Executive Director of the Sheridan Center Kathy Takayama. The town hall meetings were hosted by the Sheridan Center in Petteruti Lounge and the Sheridan Center.

About 20 faculty members and graduate students attended each meeting.

Both panels included Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature, and Sue Alcock, professor of archaeology and classics, along with three of her teaching assistants. Phillip Klein, professor of computer science, also participated in Wednesday’s panel.


Student stats

While 193,577 students registered for Brown’s three courses, only 101,639 were active students — students who logged in at least once and performed an action such as watching a video, submitting a quiz or completing an assignment, Melson said.

“We had kids from 8 years old to 80 doing it and people from all continents. That diversity and richness — you can’t do that in a classroom,” Alcock said.

The active students were from about 150 countries, with a majority of them from the United States, Brazil, India and Russia, Melson said. The largest age category represented was 25 to 35 years old, he said.

Coursera gave statements of accomplishment, reports signed by the instructors indicating successful completion, to 6,662 students total, about 3 to 13 percent of the active students, depending on the course, Melson said.

The professors on the panel noted that many of their students did not intend to receive a certificate of completion when they enrolled.

“These are remarkably fruitful opportunities for enrichment for the larger public,” Weinstein said. Many of the students taking his course, “The Fiction of Relationship,” had “no interest or no need for getting credit” and often did not complete writing assignments, he said.


Connecting through computers

The panelists expressed mostly positive opinions about their experiences, emphasizing their discoveries of the value of online dialogue and the variety of participants their courses drew.

Teaching a MOOC was a “valuable, exciting experience,” Weinstein said.

“The discussion forum floored me,” he added. “I was stunned to find that they not only rivaled but in many cases surpassed anything that I’ve seen in a Brown classroom,” he said.

Klein, who taught “Coding the Matrix: Linear Algebra through Computer Science Applications,” told the audience that after the course ended, he met up with some students in the Boston area for drinks.

“I love teaching Brown students, but this was a real eye-opener to reach such a wide range of people,” Klein said. “They were so appreciative of our efforts to make this information available to them. It was really satisfying.”

Klein said his students “really clicked” with how he presented material in his online course.

“Doing something on a computer is like having your hands on it — it’s tangible,” he said. “You can manipulate objects that were formally abstract. You can see what is going on much more clearly, and that really worked for a lot of people.”

Alcock, who taught “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets,” wore a necklace given to her by a “MOOC-er” to the Wednesday meeting.

Highlights of Alcock’s course, such as witnessing her students “explaining to other people what a Twinkie is” and having “families taking courses together, people being extremely kind and supportive of each other,” made the hard work worth it, she said.


Online obstacles 

Each professor said he or she faced unique challenges in teaching through Coursera.

Weinstein said Coursera’s peer assessments, which included evaluations of students’ work by their classmates, were “problematic.”

With such a wide array of participants, a high school student could end up providing feedback to a PhD student, Wendy Drexler, director of online development at the Office of Continuing Education, told The Herald.

“I am a little less pessimistic than (Weinstein),” Alcock said, adding, “Peer assessment is tricky, we ended up being lucky that people … were very supportive.” Teaching a MOOC requires a lot of effort, but future teachers can benefit from this first group’s lessons, she said.

Working with the platform was a challenge for Alcock. “There were some bad moments, in what we call ‘word count-gate,’” Alcock said, referring to a problem with assignment word counts that she and her teaching assistants encountered.

One mistake Klein made was “not being clear enough in the prerequisites,” he said. It was stated that students enrolled had to have “some programming experience,” but Coursera does not have a means of checking whether students meet requirements, so many were not qualified, he said.

All three professors are contractually obligated to teach their MOOCs at least once more, Alcock said.

“Each faculty member put in a great deal of work to get these courses out there. Each one of them has ideas on how to make it better,” said Drexler, who participated in Wednesday’s meeting and played a role supporting the faculty teaching MOOCs this summer.


Fear of the future

Melson dedicated the last half hour of each town hall to audience questions and comments, many of which reflected apprehension toward online teaching.

“A lot of questions being asked are very provocative. There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt around MOOCs and what kind of implications they’ll have on higher education,” Drexler told The Herald.

Many attendees, including Richard Bungiro, lecturer in biology, voiced concerns about where online education is headed.

“I have to admit I am quite skeptical about what the ultimate motivations are for Coursera and Brown,” he said.

“I’m not afraid of this — I love technology — but I am also a realist, and I see that money drives most decisions,” he added.

Audience members brought up complex questions that didn’t necessarily have one-size-fits-all answers, Melson told The Herald.

“I think it’s natural to be concerned,” he said. “I’m glad there’s skepticism.”

But there are many different forms of online learning, and some work better than others, Drexler said.

“This model doesn’t define online learning, and I see a lot of confusion and misconception, especially with people who haven’t experienced this before,” Drexler said. “We have to understand there are different models.”

Both meetings had discussions about the possibility of MOOCs leading to a decrease in faculty jobs.

Sarah Horkel GS, who is receiving her master’s degree in education, asked if computers will replace teachers and if her school district job is in jeopardy.

“This is so new that I think schools are still trying to figure out how to use (MOOCs) — because they will be used,” Weinstein said in response.

“One of the major threats to the guild is the amount of information that is out there,” said Jesse Schreier, instructional designer for Continuing Education. “We have to understand that people can learn a lot without a professor,” he said, adding that this was not the case years ago.

Despite her concerns, Horkel compared services like Coursera to public libraries and praised them for allowing anyone to enroll. “I think that’s so tremendous that my kids can have access to information they never have been able to access before,” she said.

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.


  1. Interesting read!

  2. Ernst Schnell says:

    As one of Prof. Alcock’s “Coursera graduates”, I very much enjoyed the experience and think that the threat of reduced faculty staff is about as real as the vision of computers enabling the paper-less office. Doing this right will probably take more faculty rather than less.

    • Kara L. Brinkman says:

      I also took Prof. Alcock’s course, it was my first MOOC and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to connect with such a large and diverse group of classmates. It enriched my experience tremendously.

  3. If Prof is reading this take a look at what U Alberta have done with Dino 101. By releasing the whole course at once and setting all the deadlines at the end of the course (unless you want to do the proctored exams for real Uni credits} they have made it nmuch easier to fit the study into busy lives.

  4. Linda Shuttleworth says:

    I also took Prof. Alcock’s course, which was absolutely splendid. However, I think it will be a very long time before this kind of course can truly compete with face-to-face teaching. Students on MOOCs have to be extraordinarily self-motivating and have to be independent studiers. I wax lyrical about MOOCs at every opportunity, but so far haven’t persuaded even one real-world friend or work colleague to enrol on one. It’s a different matter in the virtual world of course, I now have plenty of virtual friends all over the world who are just as MOOC-addicted as I am. Long may MOOCs continue!

  5. the_librarian says:

    I am also one of Prof. Alcock’s “graduates” and really enjoyed her course. She and her Team did a remarkable Job. However, I think that MOOCs will not make teachers and real classrooms obsolete. They are a new and interesting way of accessing Information and teaching but I seriously doubt that they can fully replace “normal” lectures.

  6. Technology affecting education is like the tide coming in – it is going to happen, now it just depends on how. MOOCs are a good model-both private companies and state/semi-state (universities) are working well together. The private model that and others are going for – to work with universities in Europe and in the US to provide courses, rather than produce content themselves, is more pragmatic than trying to replace the university. It is even possible to obtain ETCS credits with 3 of the courses on iversity, through their partnerships with these universities, an industry first.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *