University News

Faculty, students offer mixed opinions on Coursera

Massive open online courses offer opportunities to explore new fields without academic credit

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, February 23, 2014

For Susan Alcock, professor of archaeology and classics, archaeology does not need to be practiced amidst dusty ruins in an exotic country. Her students explore the field from behind their computer screens in Alcock’s massive open online course, “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets,” on Coursera.

Alcock’s second iteration of the course begins today after an initial debut last summer. The class has a projected workload of four to six hours per week over eight weeks, and students who finish the course will receive a certificate of completion signed by Alcock, according to the Coursera website.

Alcock’s Coursera course is based on a class that she has taught numerous times at Brown, ARCH 0100: “Field Archaeology in the Ancient World,” Alcock wrote in an email to The Herald.

Teaching the class online allowed her to provide students more creative materials like recordings of trips to the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and conversations with fellow Brown professors, including Laurel Bestock, professor of archaeology, and Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology and archaeology, Alcock wrote. These new resources will also be helpful during her regular courses at Brown, she added.

“What I really want to convey in this class is not just what archaeology is, but how you do it and how you can do it anywhere in the world,” Alcock said in an introductory video for her MOOC.


‘Promising’ perspectives

Deputy Dean of the College Christopher Dennis is currently registered for a MOOC on Coursera himself. He said MOOCs “democratize access to education,” allowing anyone to learn about a specific field. But most people registered for MOOCs are generally already  well-educated rather than those without access to formal resources, he added.

Because MOOCs are available to the public for free, registered students receive less individual attention, wrote Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature, in an email to The Herald.

Weinstein taught “The Fiction of Relationship” as a MOOC on Coursera last summer. Because thousands of students were signed up for the course, Weinstein was unable to establish close connections with his students, he wrote, adding that many students signed up without the intention of fulfilling the course requirements but rather to gain access to the readings, lectures and online discussion forums.

Patrick Carey ’16, an English concentrator who registered for Weinstein’s MOOC but decided not to complete it, said the reading list was his primary motivation for taking the course. Carey dropped the MOOC because he had trouble staying motivated for a course that did not provide credit, he said.

“The problem with MOOCs is when you have 1,000 people in it, the energy of the teacher is spread over that many people,” he said. “I felt like I was writing a lot of things, but not getting the same experience as I would have at Brown.”

The future of MOOCs lies in the hybridization of courses, incorporating an in-person component into online classes, Dennis said.

Alcock hopes to hybridize her archaeology MOOC by simultaneously teaching an online class on Coursera and teaching the physical class at Brown using the same material, Alcock wrote. “This kind of blended class experience seems exceptionally promising, though everyone is still a bit of a guinea pig,” she wrote.


Transfer credit

The University approved a policy allowing students to transfer credits from approved online courses offered by other institutions in December, The Herald reported at the time.

But the new policy does not apply to MOOCs.

The University’s policy on transfer credit for online courses mirrors its procedure for approving study away programs in the United States, Dennis said. Courses approved for transfer must be “highly vetted” and “carefully approved,” unlike MOOCs, which are “completely open,” he said.

Kathleen McSharry, associate dean of the College for writing and curriculum, said the University maintains high standards for accreditation of courses. Many levels of approval exist, beginning with the administrative level, she said, adding that courses must come from a college of arts and sciences, rather than a specialized school, such as a business school.

Specific departments must then approve the courses by examining the syllabi, reading lists and assignments, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services and acting dean of the College.

Students should check with the University before expending effort on an online course that might not be credited, McSharry advised, adding that no letter grades appear on student transcripts for transfer credit.

Klawunn said the University’s decision to allow transfer credits from online courses merited little response from professors. Attitudes toward the policy will be difficult to gauge until students have the chance to take more online courses over the summer, she added.

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  1. johnlonergan says:

    Brown has spent over $300 thousand on two Coursera courses. This is outrageous…Brown should start small and in a number of areas. I’ve created courses using an iPhone. Khan Academy’s costs and infrastructure are low and simple, respectively.
    Must Brown continue to dip its toe in the water while its rivals (and “lesser” schools) are moving so far ahead of it?

  2. hahahahahaha, 300 thousand dollars!? hahahaha, and you bet that none of the ‘student guest lecturers’ saw a dime of that cash– they probably worked for free! smart, brown, smart!

    • johnlonergan says:

      Just as an experiment, take your smart phone and a blank piece of paper and prepare a 30-minute lecture on any topic you choose. Cost? One piece of paper. Result? Memorialize and digitize a lesson which can be uploaded to Youtube and shared around the world.

      When you do it, please share it with your fellow Brunonians.

  3. “democratize education”? is that a euphemism for “free stuff”? i pay tuition and you give away knowledge for nothing? wtf.

    • johnlonergan says:

      good point. $300K of Brown’s money, and no money in return. Too much spent upfront, and a lost opportunity to earn revenue after.

    • democratize education for “disabled people” or maybe “not rich people”. I believe tuition we pay to our colleges is not for the information only. It is also for sharing an environment, for socializing, it is for being in a community which you will organize “college friends meeting..etc” 10 years later. I think there is nothing wrong with sharing knowledge with the World.

  4. fire all the professors! i want to be taught by a robot!

  5. nonetoopleased says:

    Brown students (and their parents) pay tuition to subsidize giving courses for free to the rest of the world — if Brown professors want to add enriching online components or discussions, why not experiment with these for Brown courses, not for the world? When my student took Weinstein’s course at Brown, the only individual attention received was from a graduate student teaching assistant, not from Prof. Weinstein. And obviously for a much higher price than paid by the MOOC students. I’d wager that the time and energy spent on MOOCs and Coursera come out of (most) professors’ teaching, not research or service. Better to spend that extra teaching time on the students at Brown.

  6. I took Alcock’s course last summer and loved it. I work for a public library district in Washington state. Most public libraries will serve anyone who walks in or calls, regardless of whether the patron lives in that district or not. The reference dept. in my library system does information searches for people from all over the country (the questions are usually specific to our region), and they participate in a nationwide chat room. I suppose some taxpayers here would grumble about that.

  7. I’ve completed the Financial Accounting course and intend to do the other three courses in the Wharton MBA Foundation Series through Coursera. The course was fantastic and the students and prof all raved about the experience. My employer has been very accepting and encouraging. I’m getting Signature Track verification at $50 per course, so the complete cost for the series will be $200. Not a Brown MBA, but not a bad value, eh?

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