This academic semester marks the first in which the University is implementing online courseware in which lectures and other materials are available on the Internet. Partnering with Coursera, the online educational platform founded by two Stanford professors, the University currently has seven online courses planned for the academic year. Of those nine, five will take place this fall.
Tens of thousands of people from all around the world have enrolled in all five courses, which are open to anyone with an Internet connection. Professors teaching these courses say they hope the wide reach will help promote the University’s online educational presence.
Algorithms, taught by computer science professors Robert Sedgewick and Kevin Wayne, was the first to launch. The course is divided into two parts, and the first part began over the summer. The online class is very similar to the University class COS 226: Algorithms and Data Structures, which is taught by Wayne.
Almost 75,000 people are signed up for the online version. According to Wayne, though the Princeton course is just starting, the online Coursera course is almost done.
For the Princeton course, Wayne said, “We’ll be using the Princeton specific forum, Piazza, where the students expect more detailed interaction with their professors and TAs than you would expect on Coursera.”
In contrast, history professor Jeremy Adelman is utilizing the unique aspect of the online platform to bring a new dimension to his Princeton class, HIS 201: A History of the World since 1300. By taking advantage of the audience of 70,000, Adelman said he hopes to incorporate global learning in his teachings about the globe.
“Nothing has happened like this in the world before,” Adelman said. “The world is both the subject we’re studying and the way we’re studying.”
However, Adelman explained that his primary motivation for the online class was to improve his experience for Princeton students enrolled in the course. All students will still be required to attend the sessions for their lectures and precepts, but Adelman will be uploading his actual lectures online and will take advantage of the various benefits that offers.
“I wanted to try to use new media to get across old stuff,” Adelman said. “The online format gave me a way to use material I’ve been using in class but more effectively, particularly with visuals. Students will see maps and paintings more clearly.”
Though he said he understands his 9 a.m. lecture may be difficult for busy University students to attend, Adelman added that just because his lectures are posted online does not mean he is less involved.
“[Students] will actually see more of me,” Adelman said. “I’m not disengaged — they press a button and get me.”
Electrical engineering professor Mung Chiang is taking a similar approach to Adelman with his ELE 381: Networks: Friends, Money and Bytes. Chiang compared his plans for lecture to the format commonly used in business and law schools.
“Some people say, ‘Gee, you put the lecture on YouTube, will you abolish class?’ ” Chiang said. “Exactly opposite — for the first time, it gives the classroom its true meaning.”
This semester, Chiang said he will be “flipping the classroom.” Students will watch lectures on their own time, and when they arrive to class, they will participate in debates, watch demos, conduct experiments and listen to guest lecturers.
In addition, Chiang has included several features in his course to further foster an online learning environment. He is encouraging those enrolled to write blog posts and contribute to what he said he hopes will become an archival-quality wiki. Chiang said he intends to crowd-source the writing of a companion textbook based on the wiki contributions of the 40,000 enrollees.
For students who invest even more in the class, Chiang prepared a set of projects called the “Grand Challenge Homeworks.” He will screen those who complete the projects, and finalists of the challenge will have an opportunity to meet with a variety of venture capital firms and companies. The challenge is open to anyone from around the world enrolled in the online course.
“It may lead to a job, a new product, a new company, a new life,” Chiang said. “A kid in a village in Brazil, a retired engineer in the Midwest — they have access to education. Now I want to provide them with opportunities.”
While many instructors teaching courses that are also available online will not be adapting new techniques, they also said they believe that University students can gain a lot by simply transitioning to the online format, which often involves much revision and restructuring of course materials.
Electrical engineering professor David Wentzlaff experienced this while shifting materials from his University-taught class ELE 475: Computer Architecture last spring into this fall’s Coursera version, Computer Architecture.
Wentzlaff said he sees immediate benefits, such as video playback of lectures for his graduate students who he said may not have the best grasp of English. He said he also hopes the online presence of the course, which now has 33,000 students signed up, will assist in putting his department and the University’s name at the forefront of online education.
Many online courses are still working out grading. The algorithms course will combine the automated assessment being used on Coursera with the written exercises University students are given, freeing up graders to read code and allowing students to get instant feedback. Grading standards also had to be revised due to Cousera’s peer-to-peer assessment methods.
“Every student has to grade five other students, so from the instructor’s point of view, the tricky thing is to write a very careful rubric on how to grade,” Wentzlaff explained.
According to Adelman, the University is looking at solidifying further policies as the online courses unfold and most likely will not reach a next step until winter. For the most part, however, course instructors are eager to tackle unresolved issues, looking ahead to future semesters in which students will benefit from professors’ adjustments.
“For us, it’s very much a trial balloon,” Sedgewick said.
Wayne shared the view, adding that the high enrollment would provide a lot of data to mine.
“With tens of thousands of students completing exercises, there are sure to be lots of interesting stuff to learn and analytics to be done,” Wayne said. “We can find what errors students are most likely to make and which topics are most troublesome.”
This is a goal many instructors share. While they certainly do consider feedback from University classes, the massive reach of Coursera courses enables an entirely new scale of evaluating the educational experience.
“The in-classroom version had a very small sample of students and was a subset of all the possible defects in the world,” Wentzlaff explained. “I want to learn about that to make the exams worded better and thought out better.”
Instructors say they believe that as the online education movement continues to gain ground, the academic community will benefit even more, and the five classes launched on Coursera this fall merely provide a starting point to explore more opportunities for the University’s educational development.
“We’re only scratching the surface of our potential,” Chiang said. “Soon we’ll be looking at a giant leap comparable to the establishment of the first university, and Princeton will be a much better place for the creation and dissemination of knowledge.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/17/31126/