University News

Fall MOOCs explore literature, neuroscience

Online Coursera classes have each already enrolled more than 20,000 students this semester

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein says he finds course learning to be “enormously enriched” by online forums.

The University will offer two massive open online courses through Coursera this semester: “The Fiction of Relationship,” taught by Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature, and “Exploring Neural Data,” taught by Monica Linden and David Sheinberg, lecturer and professor of neuroscience, respectively. 

Weinstein’s course was previously offered on Coursera during the summer of 2013, while “Exploring Neural Data” was taught for the first time at Brown in the spring and is making the transition to Coursera for the first time. As of Friday afternoon, enrollment in “Exploring Neural Data,” hovered around 22,800, Linden said, and enrollment in “The Fiction of Relationship” had surpassed 20,000, according to a University press release.

“I was interested in the idea of reaching a lot of people,” Linden said, adding that she believes the class fits well into a contemporary trend in neuroscience, namely a “push for open access to data.” She said she believes that the material covered by the course is very valuable for undergraduate students, regardless of its status as a MOOC.

“We didn’t think too much about numbers when we were designing the curriculum,” Sheinberg said, adding that both he and Linden are aware of the challenge of ensuring that enough support will be available for people working on the class’s problem sets.

“To keep it going, it has to work fluidly,” so support from peers, and proactive participation on the class’s discussion forum will be very important, Sheinberg said.

“People are quite liberated and empowered,” by the online platform, Weinstein said. Though some valuable characteristics of classroom instruction are lost when a course is taught online, students feel more comfortable with offering thoughts and input to class discussions, he said, adding that other fields outside of literature may not benefit the same way. Online, Weinstein does not have a physical presence, which means that he does not “get in the way,” of the free flow of ideas he said.

But Weinstein said he acknowledged that “all of that has a flipside,” and both classroom and online learning have their own virtues and blind spots.

“It was very exciting. … It was very interesting,” Weinstein said of his previous experience teaching “The Fiction of Relationship” as a MOOC, adding that he was pleasantly surprised by how “productive” he found the course. Students were able to engage with literature in a way that was “enormously enriched” by online forums, he added.

The 146 students currently enrolled in COLT 1420T: “The Fiction of Relationship” on campus “are going to be double citizens,” Weinstein said. They will register for the Coursera course simultaneously and write a short, ungraded paper at the end of the semester to reflect on the pros and cons of the course as they perceived them.

“They may say it is a disaster,” Weinstein said, adding that in some ways, it is “a kind of experiment.”

Linden said that one potential benefit of MOOCs having so many students is that there could be more interesting approaches to solving problems. She added that because people who take the MOOCs are not receiving a formal University credit upon completion, they may be more willing to take risks in approaching problem-solving.

Students will face three kinds of assessments in Linden and Sheinberg’s class. There will be quizzes, automatically-graded computer coding assignments and peer-reviewed tasks that will evaluate the students’ abilities to present data “in a way that makes sense,” Linden said.

“We don’t know how much people will put in,” Sheinberg said.

“We’re just hoping that everyone gets what they were hoping to get,” Linden said.

Weinstein said he was skeptical of attempting to gauge what students have gotten out of his MOOC. “I don’t think this will replace the classroom … at least not yet,” he said, adding that he is concerned that online classes — if offered for credit at other institutions — could eventually lower the net number of faculty positions at colleges and universities across the country. “I will not be proud if some people lose their jobs, or if some places close up shop” because of digital education, he said.

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  1. johnlonergan says:

    MOOCs: too little, too expensive, and too late. A few questions:

    How much is it costing to prepare these MOOCs?

    Is this cost justified?

    Is there anything more boring than filming a prof lecturing?

    Is there anything more interesting than watching a Khan Academy whiteboard discussion?

    How can the prof ensure that his/her students are understanding and taking in things on a real-time basis (hint: occasional tests don’t do the job).

    Why use Coursera? Why not a Brown-developed and -branded offering?

    And the “killer question”: Are professors against online teaching because it threatens their jobs? Who’s at greatest risk of losing their jobs? Good, effective teachers, or those who would rather keep their heads down and write articles?

    To whit: “I will not be proud if some people lose their jobs, or if some places close up shop” because of digital education, he said.” Mmh, looks like it’s better to preserve ineffective teachers than to do a better job of education.

    From my perch here in San Francisco, this is a pathetic effort. C’mon Brown, get with the program. Be a leader, not a follower. Ditch Coursera. Film on whiteboards using an iPhone for $0. Don’t spend $300,000 on 2 Coursera MOOCs.

    To those of you who are new to Brown: the Next 250 years, here’s the program:

    1) Educate all students, from 8 to 80. Charge for the privilege. Educate millions, not the 1600/year attending Brown.
    2) Measure and treasure teacher effectiveness. Flip the classroom. Use modern media techniques to reduce teaching cost and improve teaching results.
    3) Find the best and the brightest from around the world–the next Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Angela Merkel and Nelson Mandela–with 4% of the world’s population, the US does not have 87% of the best and the brightest (only 13% of Brown’s applications are from outside the US).

    Christina Paxson, you’re on notice. Shape up or cede your job to someone who thinks in the 21st Century, not the 19th.

    John Lonergan, BS ’72, Harvard MBA ’76, Venture Capitalist, San Francisco

    • Name,degree,degree,career,city says:

      John might benefit from taking an online course on expressing his ideas without bloviating.

      Call me when you do something on this topic other than post on the message board of a student newspaper.

      • Are you implying that students are too stupid to understand the need for change? That wasn’t my experience with Magaziner-Maxwell.

        • I’m implying that you’re not at all advocating in an effective manner. My post remains pretty much the same if you remove the word student. Comment sections are for people like you and me John.

          • johnlonergan says:

            Brown will face these changes whether I write or not. These changes are inevitable. My question is: will Brown be dragged into it kicking and screaming, or will Brown take the initiative and leadership that it should? So far, I’ve only seen cowardice and short-sightedness. I expect better of Brown students and faculty.

          • Informative or actionable content in your post this time: 0

            If you can’t actually make the case that your changes are actually beneficial, is it cowardice to disagree with you?

          • johnlonergan says:

            How do you explain the future of the car industry to a buggy whip manufacturer? We in San Francisco are living the reality of 21st Century education. I am certain that students and professors at Brown are well-aware of social media. I am surprised that a 64-year-old Brown alum has to remind students, faculty and admin at Brown that it’s time to change.

            Brown is in a blissful state of denial of what is happening. Flip the classroom, massive social media use (not just Coursera), teaching millions, not a few thousand–all this is the everyday set of opportunities facing Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Northeastern, the University of Texas… But at Brown, looking back on 250 years of history, the prevailing notion is: “… could eventually lower the net number of faculty positions at colleges and universities across the country. “I will not be proud if some people lose their jobs, or if some places close up shop” because of digital education, he said.”
            This is the worst form of narrow parochialism, and a real threat to the future of Brown.

          • “How do you explain the future of the car industry to a buggy whip manufacturer?”

            I know you’re being rhetorical, but if your entire point is that we are in denial, why not actually make a real case instead of repeating over and over that we are in denial?

            And by prevailing notion, do you mean the one professor interviewed?

          • I think that there are several underlying concerns on the part of faculty, students and administration. These include:
            1) Fear of the unknown.
            2) Fear for their jobs.
            3) Fear that they will be evaluated as teachers and be found wanting.
            4) Fear that they are not able to compete with teachers in other universities.
            5) Fear on the part of students that they will be open to global competition. 87% of Browns applications come from the US. The US does not represent 87% of the world’s best and brightest (with under 5% of the world’s population).
            6) As one of the top-10 in tuition charges, Brown’s price-performance ratio will be found deficient as compared to other institutions. $250K for 4 years of undergraduate education will be shown to be poor value for money.

            All these fears lead to inaction. Inaction leads to falling further behind. Not making a decision is in itself a decision.

          • Look — I can agree that universities aren’t perfect, or even close to perfect. What I want — what I’ve always wanted — is for you to make an argument that YOUR plan is the way to go. Even your post about fears only talks about the current state of things. Even if I agreed with every single word you posted, it does not tell me why the John Lonergan plan is worthwhile.

            Taking action purely because you think it’s better than inaction isn’t a smart choice — as a successful businessman I know you know this.

          • johnlonergan says:

            Alright. Here’s your call. Should brown remain as it is, or should it change? How should it change and why?

    • Name,degree,degree,career,city says:

      Also you want to literally film a whiteboard?

      How tacky.

      • Your beloved Kacademy does it prettier than that. And it’s not like their website runs on farts and rainbows.

        • It started with a piece of paper and a camera. “Tacky?” I find $300,000 for Coursera tacky.

          • Just because someone started with a low-budget solution and made it into something great doesn’t mean it has to be where everyone else starts too.

            We like to worship the story of say, a computer company that started in a garage, but no one would recommend that every computer company starts in a garage.

          • You’ve never started a business have you? Gltizy beginnings for a new company usually spell doom. Look at Kurt Schilling and 76 Studios…

          • Starting a new business in general usually spells doom. Why not use a proven platform instead of building a new one just to say we built one?

          • johnlonergan says:

            because it costs 300 friggin thousand dollars

          • Can we source this? I tried to go back and look it up and can’t find this number anywhere.

          • Actually, low budget solutions are commonly known as a minimal viable product (MVP) and serve to prototype the validity of ideas before investing too much time and money into a bad idea. Often they help to reveal additional valuable consumer feedback that gets incorporated into following iterations (ever notice how young, modern tech companies keep updating their products?). You can read more about this, lean or agile startups, and other ideas around modern entrepreneurship online or books like “Engineering Your Startup” or “Lean Startup.”

      • johnlonergan says:

        So here’s the drill: creep, crawl, walk, run. Don’t go to Coursera. There are plenty of bright minds at Brown that can make Khan Academy-type courses work.

    • I’ve seen lots of your comments, and they are pretty much all the same, and I’m tired of them. But let’s consider a couple of things here – first I get the feeling you want Brown to be more like Harvard, and since you’re in N. Cali, I’m guessing you want Brown to be more like Stanford as well. Both schools have produced a lot of MOOCs. And they’ve developed their own MOOC platforms from scratch which would certainly cost more than producing a handful of classes. And MOOC users I know prefer the forum discussions on Coursera to what EdX offers. Why should Brown reinvent the wheel? The courses on Coursera are branded to the University. If your point is that Brown should have down this years ago, how does complaining about this now help? You can’t go back in time. It seems to me Brown is making the most of this technology right now by providing top-quality courses.

      There’s also much more to a MOOC (that’s done well) than watching professors give lectures. Did you not watch the intro videos or go to the sites for these MOOCs? The literature course includes readings and discussions, while the neuroscience course includes computer programming with access to data that students outside of a university cannot obtain on their own. Are there lots of other offerings out there where students around the world are given access to real data and some instruction on what to do with it? What exactly would you like to see in a MOOC? If they are so easy to make, where are yours? You can teach about whatever it is that you are an expect in – like trolling on an undergraduate news site.

      • How is it “Brown” to hire out it’s educational vehicle to Coursera? We don’t allow ROTC on campus for concerns over control. We pay a lot of lip service to the “entrepreneurial spirit” at Brown, yet where is it? Really, where, when it comes to education? If anything, we’re regressing from the true changes of the New Curriculum with things like WRIT requirements.

        The question “Why should Brown reinvent the wheel” is both false and revelatory of your fundamental misunderstanding of the foundational Maxwell-Magaziner Report.

        First, the wheel (that is, the current paradigm of online education) is not yet “there.” If 100,000 people sign up for a course and 5,000 complete it (as reported last year in the BDH for Brown Coursera MOOCs) then we can say “Look, we’ve doubled our reach from ~6000 undergrads to ~11000 people. We could sit and rest on that achievement or we can question, “what about the other 95,000 people?” Why didn’t this work for them? How do we need to rethink education to reach this large amount of people. Certainly, it isn’t due to a lack of interest. It must be the delivery mechanism doesn’t work for 95% of people. Is it elitist right now in its current form?

        Second, in the pursuit of knowledge, radical transformation, and global human empowerment, striving towards the most effective and broadest reach of people to educate is Brown. Currently the MOOCs fail that. How can we even possibly justify the current Coursera “experiments” if all we’re doing is copying precisely what isn’t working. To expect a different result doing the same thing is by definition, madness.

        Your insight into why people like prefer some offerings of interactions is a useful start and needs to be incorporated, iterated, tested, and reflected upon for further iteration. This is only the beginning of a long long journey in the entrepreneurial process. Do you see such a cycle of process happening with Coursera? Didn’t think so.

        I’m not John, but I have talked with him about this cause. Based on what you believe MOOCs to be (more than watching professors lecture) you actually share a lot more in common than appears in this discussion. The example of simple videos offered is what is commonly known as a minimal viable product (MVP), or the bare minimum you could create that provides value. From an MVP, you learn, iterate and offer increased value. The process of entrepreneurship is really a balance between leveraging resources available, finding/creating more, and delivering value to customers as soon as possible in order to continue the loop between resources and delivery.

        • johnlonergan says:

          Thank you for your in-depth and thoughtful presentation of how Brown should use new teaching techniques. I don’t know who you are, but we need more like you.

          Indeed, there are no short-cuts. In the VC world, we talk about “creep, crawl, walk, run.” Filming a sheet of paper with an iPhone represents the first, fast way to present material, supplemented by profs and students to make a rich initial environment.

          Christina Paxson has tried to circumvent this process and bypass the creativity and sheer inventiveness of Brown’s faculty and students. Far better (and cheaper) for Brown to “let a 1000 flowers bloom” (quoting Chairman Mao) than to pay $300,000 to Coursera for 2 course offerings.

        • Thank you for providing a response with actual content, rather than regurgitating the same tropes.

          Two things – first, it looks like Brown is trying to take the platform that’s currently available and innovate as to how to use this platform by incorporating discussions and data-based projects. This would now be the test, and after these MOOCs run, they can reflect and iterate some more. If Coursera then proves to be insufficient, Brown could then be in a place to develop their own platform, but without the test, it is still not clear to me why they should just throw out Coursera and start from scratch. Failure of other MOOCs on the Coursera platform does not mean that the platform is the problem. It’s how you use it, and it appears to me that Brown may be trying some novel things.

          Second, course completion is not a good metric for course success. There are people of all ages (“8-80” as is often said by John) participating. They come with different learning goals and course completion is certainly not the goal of them all. It’s unfair to conclude that the course “didn’t work” for the other 95,000. Your assumption that everyone should want to do all the work seems elitist to me.

          • I’m familiar in the space. The issue with MOOCs is that they are on a timed schedule which does not work for all people. Everyone has different styles and timelines for learning. Using an online platform shouldn’t require following the same paradigms we use for campus. Learning should never “end.” So why do MOOCs end?


            All people can learn. Not the same as each other so why use such a rigid method of delivery when an online medium can be so flexible. The platform is exactly the problem.

            Brown using Coursera is not to innovate. It’s throwing money at a deficiency for the ability to say Brown is offering online education. They’ve been running the courses the same for years now. And again, because it is through a paid service ($300k a course!) Brown has little control or design influence, so it’s a falsehood to claim they are following any agile or lean startup principles.

            An inability to reach and deliver value to 95% of your interested market is by definition a missed opportunity.

      • johnlonergan says:

        Sorry that you’re getting tired. I suppose teaching in the 21st Century bores you? I guess that, in your mind, Brown exists in a bubble of its own. Here in San Francisco, we see the world differently. From Khan Academy to WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter, we’re revolutionizing industry after industry. Stanford and Harvard (but also U of Texas, Northeastern and others) see these trends and are taking territory.

        This may all be boring to you, but it’s a trend that is worrying (if Brown remains so mired in 19th Century teaching techniques) or exhilarating (if Brown gets off its duff and takes a lead.

        Brown will lead or be led by these trends whether I bore you with my writing or not. To date, Brown has not taken the initiative. At present, Brown’s looking like road kill rather than the driver of the bus.

      • johnlonergan says:

        Answer the questions above. Quit ad hominem attacks. Focus on the issues at hand.

        • Call me when you’re done being condescending and calling everyone who doesn’t worship you as backwards, cowards or whatever else you come up with. Leave it to the other alum; they present similar points that you agree with in a much better way.

  2. johnlonergan says:

    Why Free Online Classes Are Still the Future of Education


    09.26.14 |

    6:30 AM |


    Share on Facebook




    Amos Chapple/Getty

    The MOOC was The Next Big Thing—and then it was written off for dead. But for Anant Agarwal, one of the founding fathers of this online reboot of university education, it’s only just getting started.

    Agarwal is an MIT computer science professor and the CEO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit, edX, one of several purveyors of so-called “massively open online courses,” or MOOCs, which offer free online classes from elite universities to anyone in the world. After it was buoyed by an enormous wave of hype two years ago, the MOOC has now plummeted in terms of public perception—with even one of its most prominent backers turning his back on the idea—but Agarwal is unbowed.

    Anant Agarwal. Eric Smalley/WIREDThe way he sees it, effective uses of the MOOC model are only beginning to take shape. Enrollment in edX courses has doubled over last year, and he believes we’re on the verge of an era he calls MOOC 2.0. “We’ve been growing as others are throwing in the towel,” he says of edX

    Such optimism is to be expected from a man who makes his livelihood from this model. But Agarwal isn’t alone in this opinion. This week, a team of researchers out of MIT, Harvard, and China’s Tsinghua University—all schools that offer MOOCs—released a study showing that students who attended a MIT physics class online learned as effectively as students who took the class in person. What’s more, the results were the same, regardless of how well the online students scored on a pre-test before taking the class.

    “It’s an issue that has been very controversial,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor David Pritchard of MIT, in a statement. “A number of well-known educators have said there isn’t going to be much learning in MOOCs, or if there is, it will be for people who are already well-educated.”

    The Rise and Fall and Rise

    In 2012, The New York Times hailed “the year of the MOOC,” and it seemed that not a day went by that there wasn’t a news story about how edX—and similar companies like Coursera and Udacity–were poised to radically change and democratize education. But then came the inevitable backlash. Critics pointedly accused these companies of overstating their potential. They cited the fact that an eye-poppingly low number of students ever finish the classes as proof that the MOOC model was fundamentally broken.

    Even Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity and one of the MOOC’s earliest supporters turned his back on the model, transitioning Udacity into an online vocational school of sorts for tech companies. In an interview with Fast Companylast fall, Thrun discussed the shift, saying: “I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”

    But studies like the one from MIT are providing new fuel for people like Agarwal. It’s an affirmation of the very thing they’ve been saying all along: that it’s possible to get a quality college education without the hefty price tag. But at the same time, he says the MOOC is capable of much more. What interests Agarwal most these days are all the other, unexpected use cases for the MOOC that he and his colleagues are only beginning to discover. “There’s the side of MOOCs that you see and a whole other side that you don’t see,” he says.

    Agarwal says he was “astounded,” for instance, by the fact that entire countries have begun adopting edX’s open source platform, called Open edX, which allows anyone to use edX’s infrastructure to launch their own MOOCs. Now, countries as diverse as France, China, and perhaps most surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, have launched national education platforms powered by edX. In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Labor is using Open edX to educate more women, disabled citizens, and people living in rural areas. “This is something I could not have dreamed about,” Agarwal says.

    Big MOOC on Campus

    In addition to connecting people to education online, MOOCs are also starting to find their way on campus, as universities like MIT and others are adopting what’s known as a blended learning model. In a blended learning environment, students receive most of their lectures by video so they can spend class time doing hands on work. At MIT, Agarwal says, two out of every three undergrads use edX as part of their on campus courses.

    Another unintended consequence of MOOCs is the massive amount of data they produce on how people learn best. EdX has found, for instance, that the longer a video lecture runs, the less time students spend watching it. So if a video lasts 40 minutes, students may only watch it for 2. If it’s 6 minutes long, they’ll watch the whole thing.

    Such insight questions the very format of the college lecture, which often involves a professor pontificating on a topic for an hour or more. “It says learners want to learn in bite-sized chunks,” he says. Now, edX has even launched A/B testing on its site, allowing professors to try out different methods of teaching and comparing student outcomes. “It’s how a professor can begin to learn what’s working and what’s not working and have a process for improving the course,” he says.

    More recently, edX found yet another application for its courses: college prep. In an effort to cut their budgets, school districts across the country have cancelled advanced placement courses, even as students increasingly look to those courses as a way to cut down on college tuition costs. EdX is now hoping to fill that gap by allowing students to take those courses online.

    Not only that, but edX is also offering courses in college admissions guidance, where students and parents can learn about things like attaining financial aid and writing a college essay. Such skills have also become casualties of budget cuts, as schools reduce the number of guidance counselors on staff. “Now you don’t have to have a rich school district to get good guidance,” Agarwal says.

    Let’s Not Go Too Far

    Of course, MOOCs are not without their flaws. Agarwal admits that as long as MOOCs are free—and they probably always will be—low completion rates will persist. And as long as there are lousy teachers—and there probably always will be—there will be lousy courses.

    But to condemn the entire model for these kinks would be like condemning Uber for the possibility of getting a bad driver or Airbnb for the chance that a guest might trash your house. These companies needed the freedom to figure out how to deal with these issues.

    Perhaps more importantly, they needed the space to figure out what purpose they really serve. It’s that kind of patience that’s allowed Uber to grow from a taxi service to an on-demand delivery giant, and enabled Airbnb to transform itself into a full-scale hospitality brand, not simply a tool for finding a cheap couch to crash on. To judge a breakthrough technology by only its earliest flaws is to ignore all the good it might do when given the time and the trust to do it.

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