On Coursera, faculty still has questions

Weeks before Yale launches its first Coursera offerings, the faculty debate on the University’s online education initiatives continues to develop.

Craig Wright, a music professor and chair of the Committee on Online Education, took to the floor at Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting to present his committee’s most recent findings. In an interview with the News following the meeting, Wright said he tried to offer a holistic presentation of Yale’s ongoing online initiatives, emphasizing that the committee is looking to Yale’s graduate and professional schools as leaders in the field. But according to Yale College Dean Mary Miller, many faculty members questioned the nature of Yale’s current contract with the online platform Coursera, with some concerned about the financial terms of that relationship.

“There are some faculty members fundamentally opposed to Coursera, and there are very strong reservations about it,” Miller said. “There are many other faculty members who want to take the tools of Coursera to develop classes in New Haven or [Massive Online Open Courses].”

When some professors asked whether there would be a revenue stream from MOOCs, Miller said they were told that “much will unfold as the first MOOCs roll out” starting in January.

Since Yale began Open Yale Courses in 2007, online education models have been rapidly changing.

While students at some colleges take Coursera courses for credit, Miller said none of Yale’s four pilot Coursera courses offered next semester will count for course credit at any university.

Though all Coursera courses can still be taken for free, the company has recently started offering certifications for some courses for a fee. Known as the “Signature Track,” this feature provides students with verifiable online certificates for between $30 and $100 to show that they completed the coursework.

Wright said the Committee on Online Education had made decisions about Yale professors’ use of the “Signature Track” but did not respond to request for further comment.

Though Lucas Swineford, Yale’s director for digital media and dissemination, said Coursera’s “Signature Track” did not come up specifically during the meeting, Miller said professors discussed the topic of monetization more generally.

Wright said the University’s motivation for expanding online education is to disseminate knowledge across the globe while improving education at Yale itself.

“It’s two-fold,” Wright said. “We want to take what we learn from this process and apply it to the Yale classroom experience here at Yale.”

At a Monday forum on digital initiatives, Lauren Tilton GRD ’16 expressed skepticism about Yale’s ventures in online education. In an interview with the News, Tilton — who worked in online distance education before coming to Yale — noted that fewer than 10 percent of enrolled Coursera students complete courses. Of those who do finish the courses, many perform poorly, she said.

Tilton said these statistics raise questions about whether the Coursera model is the best way to disseminate knowledge.

“If we want to reach populations that we never thought we would have, are we doing it right?” Tilton asked. “If we want to reach a broader public, what does that public want?”

Wright said existing online initiatives, such as Open Yale Courses, have drawn “an enormous amount of goodwill” from around the world, citing the fact that people in China look more favorably at Yale and are more likely to apply to Yale as a result of Open Yale Courses.

Miller said it is important that Yale be well-known but added that branding should never be the first priority.

“It’s far more important than getting the Yale name out there to get Yale scholarship, achievement and intellectual vision shared broadly,” she said.

The next open forum on online education will take place on Jan. 27.

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