I’m very pleased that my employer, the University of Michigan, has joined Coursera. The aim of Coursera is to provide free, online courses of something approaching university quality, to everyone. Right now it hosts courses from Penn, Stanford, Princeton, and UM-Ann Arbor, with possibly more schools to be added soon.
Faculty, at least some of them, put a lot of work into designing interesting and educational courses. And then those courses are delivered to, relatively speaking, a handful of people. This seems like a waste. With a little work, we should be able to deliver something like what we deliver to students to many more people.
Some of the things we do in teaching don’t really scale up. At UM there are a lot of writing intensive courses, where students get a lot of feedback on papers from draft stage to finished product. We can’t do that in an online course with thousands of enrollees. And there’s something to be gained by living in an academic environment as undergraduates at top universities do.
But some of the things we do, like lectures and quizzes, do scale up. And hopefully we’ll try to move some of them online in the future.
Most of my undergrad teaching recently has been in logic and decision theory, and Coursera already has courses in those subjects. So I’m not sure if anything I’ve done recently will be useful for this.
In the Fall I’m going to be teaching a freshman seminar on philosophy and developmental psychology, using Allison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby as the primary textbook. Seminars are exactly the wrong kind of course to convert to online courses, but if I develop a lecture course out of this, that might be something that does work as an online course.
This isn’t the only means by which online courses are being delivered. Yale has a number of courses being delivered through Open Yale, including two philosophy courses. And MIT OpenCourseWare has many courses, though not all of them include video or audio. So there are a lot of different approaches being tried. Hopefully in the long term we’ll learn a lot about what works, and in the short term we’ll be delivering valuable courses to many people who wouldn’t have been able to access them.