Online Courses

I have signed on to an online course offered by Coursera entitled “A History of the World since 1300.” It started in September 2013 and takes place over twelve weeks. Participation is free for this course given by Princeton faculty. It includes video lectures, interviews with other historians, online participation by those signed into the course, as well as other aspects which are posted on the Coursera website. In August there were 18,000 students enrolled. I think a more recent figure was quoted at 45,000 persons from around the world.

My interest is to understand how such courses might fit into an academic program at the university as well as the high school level. Following are some reactions to-date.

  1. The course, given by a Princeton historian to a live as well as an online audience, provides a free first class introduction to the topic. Students enrolled at other universities could be required to view the lectures and then either be examined on the content by that university, or the lectures could be used as the basis for in-class discussions, assignments and an exam given at the university. Course credit would be given by the local university. No Princeton course credit is assigned.
  2. In some ways the online course acts as a type of text book for a course given at other institutions. Traditionally, students are asked to purchase a textbook. Now they can view the content of a textbook in the form of an online lecture at no charge instead of purchasing the book. (For the course I am taking a textbook is available for purchase, but it is not a requirement. It is available in hard copy and ebook formats. Arrangements are made for books sold at a lower price to those in developing countries.)
  3. Depending on how the online course is used, there could be cost savings to universities in terms of faculty time and salaries. Faculty could be required to set and mark exams only; or they could be used to conduct discussion groups based on the content of the online lecture. For example, at present introductory economics is taught by hundreds of instructors throughout North America. One online set of lectures could substitute for these on campus live lectures with associated cost savings.
  4. There would also be time and cost savings to students who would have to spend less time travelling to and from real time lectures, and they could easily interact online with other students. In the course I am taking there are facilities for online discussions, which are broken down into different topics. There is room for improvement here as the volume of interaction is so large that it is difficult to follow the thread of a particular issue. No doubt ways will be found to improve this aspect of the experience.
  5. The online instructors report that they have learned a great deal from the student input and have often revised their lectures as a result.
  6. Since course enrollment is from around the world, students will not only ask questions but clarify particular issues due to their familiarity with conditions in different parts of the world, which may be unfamiliar to the instructor.
  7. If I were teaching students of international affairs today, I would propose that students be required to take this (or some similar) online course so that they had a common background of the world we live in today. There would be no cost to the university for the lectures, but faculty would be required to organize discussions and mark assignments and exams.
  8. My initial reaction to the online course experience is that they have enormous potential for use by students and teachers and may well change the way academic studies are conducted. The same may also apply to high schools.

2 Responses to “Online Courses”

  1. Killaine Says:

    Interesting point that other schools could use lectures prepared by one school. As this approach grows and inevitably spreads to credit courses, I would be concerned about the singularity of perspectives that may result from a few profs teaching everyone.

    Also with that singularity and scarcity of instructors, reduced is the opportunity to experience different instructors with different preferences, approaches and slants, and the opportunity within that diversity to find where one fits. Further, absent is the opportunity to develop relationships with professors which can provide students with something ranging from career advise to mentorship.

  2. Christopher Maule Says:

    I can see singularity of approach could be a problem with arts subjects, history, english, religion and philosophy for example; perhaps less so for the sciences, algebra, chemistry and physics.

    Online courses do leave out the personal experience of being on a campus with other students, faculty, clubs, sports etc. For some online may be the only experience that is affordable. For others the on campus experience may become more expensive. In many places, fees as a share of student costs are increasing as governments cut back on payments for post secondary education.

    One of the cost saving ways may be to make use of online courses as substitutes for textbooks and use of faculty time in classroom discussion. The business model for offering online courses is still being worked out.

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