Adelman hosts precept via Coursera integrating Princeton, abroad students
History professor Jeremy Adelman and seven Princeton students participated in their first global precept with six Coursera students from around the world for HIS 201: A History of the World since 1300 on Tuesday morning.
Using a Google+ Hangout to connect with the abroad students — who came from places as close to the University as Route 1 and as far away as Delhi, India — the Princeton class assembled along two sides of a triangular table in the Lewis Library Broadcast Center. Before them a large screen displayed the current Google+ Hangout speaker, and a panel at the bottom of the screen featured all of the precept’s participants.
A closed door separated the class from another room with technical equipment and support including four large display screens, five computer screens, broadcast engineer Daniel Kearns, senior video producer and editor Lance Harrington and McGraw Center instructional technologist Laura Shaddock.
Meanwhile, McGraw senior associate director Jeff Himpele shuttled back and forth between Adelman’s in-progress recorded precept and the room with the technical support.
The first 15 minutes of the class mostly involved sorting out technical challenges, as Adelman and the Princeton students figured out which camera to look into and all the Google+ Hangout participants realized just how sensitive the technology is.
“If there are any kinds of sounds in your environment, the Google hangout will automatically follow that,” Himpele says. “If you were to drop a pen or cough then the camera will switch to you.”
This became readily apparent about half an hour into the class, as a toilet flushing in the background caused the main display to flip to one of the participants.
Adelman then asked the students what they found most surprising about the course, calling on both Princeton students and Coursera students as if they were in the same room.
“I was fascinated by so many people trying to learn and trying to teach,” Sylvia, a housewife from Italy, said. “It is not just learning the facts, which can be boring. It’s the connections that actually matter.”
The table the Princeton students sat at was bare apart from two notepads and two microphones, one on each side, so that every student was attentive and ready to participate. When a student enrolled through Coursera spoke, they all nodded receptively, and they were very polite and careful in their responses.
Beyond the initial delays, no technical problems emerged during the class until the last few minutes, when a bad connection prevented Vikram, a retired man from Delhi, India, from asking his final question. Adelman asked Vikram to email his question, which will start the next course.
While the Broadcast Center has been open for four years primarily to allow interactions between faculty members and news outlets, it began recording Coursera courses this year, Kearns said.
“The University has invested technology into it, including the large display,” Kearns said. While the precept is in progress, Kearns adjusts the zoom and focus of the two cameras in the room and the display on the largest screen.
Tuesday’s precept included only six Coursera participants, but Kearns said Google+ Hangout can accommodate up to nine. Chinese participants were unable to join because of limited Google access in China.
While Eve Levin ’14 said the class as a whole has benefited from the perspectives offered by Coursera students who provide alternative narratives of history, she added that she did not find the live contact with global students particularly instructive in terms of course content.
“I think what I was surprised by was the extent to which they were concerned with the question of the format and less with the specifics of the course, but I guess that’s a result of the fact that this was the first one of these,” Levin said.
While Adelman had talked to several of the Coursera students via Skype in the past, this was his first time interacting with several of them at the same time, and he said he had expected many more technological problems, which were limited other than the bandwidth issues with the student from India.
“I thought on the whole it went remarkably well; we’ll see what the students think because it’s for them,” Adelman said.
Adelman will host another precept next week with the other half of his Princeton class and other Coursera students. He said he wants more women in the next class. Sylvia was the only woman present this Tuesday, and another woman from China was unable to attend because of the lack of Google access in the country.
Adelman also said he hoped for more of a generational mix in the next class because this class was “pulled together at the last minute” and therefore wound up only including those Coursera students who could make the specific time. All of the Coursera students present were older adults.
Meanwhile, Savannah Strong ’15 said that she was impressed by how smoothly the discussion went in technological terms after initial adjustment to the format.
“When we first started filming, it was a bit funny to see ourselves on the screen,” Strong said.
William Siroky ’15 noted that the Coursera format worked particularly well for the subject of the course by bringing in additional resources beyond those offered in lectures and precepts.
“This is an example of how you could really enrich your experience and learn from other people and other viewpoints, because history is a conglomeration of different viewpoints,” Siroky said.
Kearns said the Broadcast Center has been recording up to three or four classes simultaneously, some at the actual center and others in classrooms, like Adelman’s Wednesday morning precepts in Bowl 016. Besides Adelman’s class, the Broadcast Center is also recording electrical engineering professor Claire Gmachl’s course on superconductors and computer science professor Robert Sedgewick’s course on analytic combinatorics, which includes the use of Microsoft PowerPoint and Keynote.
Kearns said, while the Broadcast Center shoots and edits the video and audio, the McGraw Center produces the final product.
Asked if future classes could require less technical support, Kearns said that they are already thin on staff and that the Broadcast Center was hiring a new staff person, after which they would reassess.
As a whole, the Coursera students at Tuesday’s lecture responded positively to the Coursera experience.