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Duneier, early Coursera proponent, departs platform amid national debate on role of massive online education

Less than a year and a half after the the University first began offering online courses through the massive online education platform Coursera, one of its first and most popular courses will be discontinued.


Sociology professor Mitchell Duneier was an early champion of Cousera. His Introduction to Sociology course was profiled in a front page article in the New York Times last November and he even invited some of his online students to visit Princeton. He publicly left the platform this month after he was asked to license his content to other universities, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As a for-profit company, Coursera hoped to use Duneier’s course content as part of a blended format of online and face-to-face instruction that could help institutions save money. The platform landed dealsearlier this year to offer licensed courses on 10 state university systems, including systems in New York, Tennessee, Colorado and Texas.

Duneier’s decision to leave Coursera comes amid a national debate about the role of massive open online courses in traditional college education, especially in cash-strapped state systems that could use the licensed content to save money.

But plans by MOOC providers, including Coursera competitor edX, to license their content have also met with resistance. In April, philosophy professors at San Jose State University sent an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, whose online lectures were slated to be used in a course offered in the California State University system.

“Let's not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education," they wrote.

Also in California, a bill aimed to offer MOOC content to students who could not register in popular courses was tabled in August.


“I’ve said no, because I think that it's an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities,” Duneier told The Chronicle. “And I guess that I'm really uncomfortable being part of a movement that's going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”

University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, who supports Coursera and sits on the platform's board of advisors, said he sensed the nation’s pendulum on online education had swung from excitement to skepticism. However, Eisgruber said Duneier’s case stemmed from disagreement on how to use online education, rather than on the service itself.

Eisgruber explained that he saw Duneier’s decision as part of an ongoing conversation about which forms of online education can help improve educational efforts.

He added that Duneier’s decision was possible because the University’s agreement with Coursera explicitly allows professors to leave the platformat any time.

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Electrical engineering professor Mung Chiang, who offered ELE 381: Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes through Coursera, also noted that Duneier’s decision did not necessarily reflect an overall dissatisfaction with online education.

“I don’t think Coursera is equivalent to MOOC, and MOOC is not equivalent to online education, so I think the issue is with a particular company policy like Coursera,” Chiang said.

Chiang also noted that as far he knew, Duneier’s decision did not apply to any other University faculty involved with Coursera, and that Coursera initially reached out to Duneier with an individual offer, while the other participating faculty only work with the platform through the University.

“I think, for other faculty participating in the online experiment, it’s probably a moot point,” he added.

History professor Jeremy Adelman, who taught HIS 201: A History of the World since 1300 through Coursera while teaching the class to University students last fall, said he saw Duneier’s decision as part of a larger-scale clarification about the role and limits of online education, rather than a disenchantment with the program.

Adelman said he thought one of the main motivations behind Duneier’s decision was a refusal to participate in a movement that threatened to degrade the quality of education for California students, in reference to the tabled bill. While Adelman said he supported a creative role for Coursera in helping the California education system create more opportunities for its students, he wanted to see university faculty involved in that discussion, and early signs had indicated that California university faculty were not involved.

Electrical engineering professor and vice dean of the engineering school Claire Gmachl, who taught ELE 208: Electronic and Photonic Devices through the Coursera interface, said that her interaction with Coursera differed significantly from the MOOC model since she primarily used Coursera to enhance her course with her in-person Princeton studentsrather than posting its entire content online.

Gmachl explained that she used Coursera videos to allow students to review past lectures and come to class more prepared, but the online content could not replace the hands-on labs that took place in class.

Although the specific situation Duneier faced was not shared by other Princeton professors, Gmachl shared the view that online education cannot replace personal classroom interactions.

“It’s just half of the learning process. You put out the information, but the learning happens in the one-on-one and in the small group interactions,” Gmachl said.

Eisgruber said he still believes online education done right can do important things, but how to do so without diluting the quality of education is still actively debated.

“One thing I think is clear is that MOOCs are not a substitute for a residential undergraduate education that a place like Princeton provides but MOOCs equally clearly can provide some benefits to some audiences,” Eisgruber said.

It’s too early to tell how successful Coursera was on Princeton’s campus, Adelman said.

“We’re only a year into this experiment, so it’s hard to develop really strong judgments about whether this is a great success or a great catastrophe,” Adelman said.

Currently, Duneier’s course is still listed on Coursera’s website, although it lacks a starting date. Nine other Princeton courses are listed.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Professor MitchellDuneierdeclined to be interviewed. However, the interview requestDuneierreceived did not adequately indicate the focus of the story, which does not meet The Daily Princetonian’s standards for clarity and specificity. We regret this particular incident and continue to require our reporters to be clear about the scope of their stories to potential sources in requests for comment.