UP CLOSE |The University, online

Former University President Richard Levin, who led the country’s second-oldest university for two decades, will step into utterly new territory next week.

Levin will become the CEO of Coursera, a for-profit online education venture that took roots in 2012 — and his new title is a move towards the marriage of 21st century technologies with liberal arts education. Coursera — a site that broadcasts free university lectures to the public — is the leading platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs), a venture that is steadily gaining steam in the educational community. The site currently has 7.1 million users and 108 partner institutions.

News outlets heralded Levin’s appointment last month as the beginning of a new era that will weld emerging technologies with traditional institutions. Picking up his office phone with nearly breathless enthusiasm, Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 declared that Levin’s role will bolster the potential of online education to change the world.

Amar — whose “Constitutional Law” lecture is one of Yale’s four pilot course offerings on the Coursera platform — offered a thought experiment about the future uses of the Internet: When radio technology was first introduced decades ago, it became an entertainment medium rather than an educational platform.

“Think about how the world would be different if radios were administered by universities,” he suggested.

Amar’s attitude is not an uncommon one. The idea of moving education towards an accessible user-friendly online format has a habit of making educators speak in reverent whispers or lofty tones. Last summer, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the “digital revolution” could be the answer to America’s educational woes.

At Yale, administrators also speak about online education in the abstract. Yale College Dean Mary Miller points to Yale’s mission of “disseminating knowledge” as a rationale for the University’s participation in online education, and music professor Craig Wright — who chairs Yale’s online education committee — said online courses can expand first-class educational opportunities to the developing world.

But the MOOC movement is not short of skeptics. Faculty members at Yale and elsewhere expressed major reservations about the ultimate potential of online courses to replace brick-and-mortar education — at least in the short run. The nuts and bolts of classroom courses, including grading, have yet to be effectively adapted to the online platform. Papers written for Coursera courses are peer-graded, causing frustration amongst students and professors alike.

The jury is still out on how online education will eventually change the face of higher education at large.

“Nobody thinks now that the introduction of textbooks replaced the need for excellent teaching and classroom interaction,” said University President Peter Salovey, who pointed to historical precedent just as Amar did. “I don’t think online ed will, either.”

UNEXPLORED TERRITORY

“I knew from the beginning that it had great potential,” Levin said.

In fact, Yale’s experiment with online education began under Levin’s presidency. In 2000, Yale launched AllLearn, a joint venture with Stanford and Oxford that faltered after four years due to insufficient technology at the time. The Internet bandwidth in most homes was inadequate for properly sharing course material, Levin admitted.

But seven years later, the University launched Open Yale Courses, a project led by art history professor Diana Kleiner that puts up certain semester-long lectures for free public viewing. The seven courses on the site in 2007 grew into the 42 today, and they have increasingly gained popularity. Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan’s “Death” lectures took Chinese media by storm, and Kagan’s Socratic bearing — marked by his habit of lecturing cross-legged on a table — made him an international celebrity.

Kleiner said the motivation for Open Yale Courses came from the urge to immortalize great teaching.

“When faculty retire, there was never a record of their teaching,” she explained. “Think of great teachers … You read these wonderful stories by students of how professors have changed their life.”

The launch of Open Yale Courses coincided with Levin’s longstanding attempts to internationalize Yale and grow the University’s brand in Asia. Miller said that while Open Yale Courses has ultimately helped Yale’s global reputation, especially in places like China, branding was never the motivation.

“I would think [people] would actually be more worried about the dilution of the brand,” she said, noting that half a century ago people worried that the publication of textbooks by Yale faculty members would expose the University’s exclusive practices.

When Yale put up its first Coursera courses this winter, it specifically chose four high-profile courses taught by faculty enthusiastic about online education. Economics professor and Nobel Prize-winner Robert Shiller’s “Financial Markets” class logged an initial enrollment of over 165,000.

But Coursera is far from a cash cow for the University.

As the brainchild of Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Coursera is revolutionary in its mass offering of free courses. The website functions as a middleman between universities and the general public, offering video-recorded lectures, quizzes and discussion forums. For some courses, users can pay between $30 and $100 for a verified completion certificate, but it is not required.

Though Yale’s Coursera contract remains secret, the University of Michigan’s is public. In it, Coursera specifies that Michigan receives anywhere from 6 to 15 percent of gross revenues, depending on the course, and the school decides how to divide this share with the professor teaching the lecture. According to a professor who requested to remain anonymous due to the confidentiality of faculty meetings, Yale’s Counsel’s Office told faculty members that Yale’s contract is similar to Michigan’s, only slightly more advantageous.

Still, the revenues come exclusively from the relatively small percentage of Coursera users who choose to obtain the completion certificate.

Many online education experts question Coursera’s business model. Among them is Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, a joint Harvard-MIT venture that is Coursera’s main competitor in the MOOC market.

Agarwal pointed to the fact that, unlike Coursera, edX is a non-profit company.

“The challenges are greater if you have to worry about return on investment for investors. The mode of revenue you have to produce is substantially greater,” Agarwal said.

Levin told The New York Times this weekend that he expects Coursera to become financially viable within the next five years. But in the meantime, no administrators or faculty members listed monetary reward as Yale’s motivation for joining Coursera — or any other online education effort.

The motivation at the moment, then, is just to experiment.

“On the one hand you can say, ‘hey, you’re just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks,’” Kleiner said. “On the other hand, you can’t know until you try it out.”

The Coursera partnership is just one of Yale’s online education projects.

Shiller, who participated in AllLearn and Open Yale Courses, said the University just needs “to experiment with different forms to find the right formula.” On his part, Shiller said he wants to harness the information revolution to make teaching more effective.

The University is trying to learn from its current ventures for now, said Lucas Swineford, Yale’s director of digital dissemination.

“The word I use to describe our Coursera partnership: ‘fascinating,’” Swineford said. “It’s a fascinating partnership.”

A HYBRID BREED

Swineford pointed to a specific person as an example of what has worked in Yale’s various other online education experiments: Jim Rolf, a young, enthusiastic mathematics lecturer with a heavy Southern drawl.

Rolf turned Yale’s introductory calculus course, Math 115, into a textbook example of what online education enthusiasts call “flipping the classroom.” He recorded his lectures in 10-minute snippets for his Yale students to watch as homework, after which they take quizzes to test their grasp of the material at hand. The feedback from these quizzes allows Rolf to target class time to reviewing the material with which students have difficulty.

“You have to think about what is only possible in the classroom and what’s meaningfully reproducible online. Just the fact that these [tools] exist force us to think about this,” Rolf said. “If we can figure out what is very difficult to reproduce online, what we’ll do in the classroom lets us narrow our focus.”

With online technologies, educators can tailor education to what best works for students, Rolf said. For example, lectures no longer have to be 50 or 70 minutes long, and professors don’t have to depend on chalkboards to convey information.

When recording the Math 115 lectures for his students, Rolf said, his graphics specialist would ask, “What is the mathematical story we’re telling today?”

“We don’t think about what stories we’re telling, in mathematics,” Rolf chuckled. “I thought it was really helpful for me. It forced me to think about how people learn.”

But Rolf maintained that he is in the “hybrid business.” He uses online tools to supplement, not replace, face-to-face education.

Similar experiments have cropped up at other schools. At Princeton, history professor Jeremy Adelman requires the students in his lecture to enroll in his Coursera lecture and watch the course lectures there so that class time can be more interactive.

“The students really got off on the lectures,” Adelman said. “They could pause, replay, watch them anytime they wanted.”

Much like Rolf, Adelman said assigning the lectures as homework has proved to be more conducive to learning, as students can talk about specific case studies instead of taking notes.

For Kleiner, the experience of teaching her “Roman Architecture” lecture on Coursera has made her reevaluate the value of a classroom lecture experience.

“At Yale, if you’ve got 80 students in your class, you’re not going to get to know every student. In that sense, it’s not that different from the online environment,” she said. “The people excited about the subject matter — those people you get to know really well.”

Online chat forums can create “effective facsimiles” for large lecture courses, if not small seminars, Kleiner concluded.

But for Ricardo Tello, a Peruvian engineer enrolled in Shiller’s “Financial Markets” class on Coursera, the online experience feels distant. Tello conceded, however, that his experience probably would not be different in person, since economics lectures are often large and anonymous.

Still, professors like Kleiner, Rolf and Adelman speak about online education as a way to trim the fat of education, using online tools to then identify and concentrate on heart of the campus experience. For them, online education can never replace the community of a physical university.

Students’ “2 a.m., oh-my-gosh moments” of educational discovery, Rolf said, are still at the core of learning. Even Agarwal — the edX CEO — said the magic of universities lies in the meandering late-night conversations that students have with one another in their pajamas.

“At the end of the day, if the only value brick-and-mortar provides is content stuff, then we are really selling our universities short,” Agarwal said.

Salovey agreed that the future of education still remains with traditional institutions at large, though much is going to be a hybrid between online technologies and in-person teaching.

The entire curriculum at Yale’s School of Medicine, for example, is undergoing an overhaul in the direction of being “flipped.” A recording station has been set up in the school’s library for professors to record their lectures in their spare time, for students to watch online.

Wright, the chair of Yale’s online committee, said undergraduates can expect to see similar stations in their own neck of the woods.

“In a period of time, we will have lecture capture stations positioned around the University,” Wright said. “[They will] allow any faculty almost at any time to go in and record portions or all of a lecture for incorporation of a class, for lecture the next day or for outside dissemination.”

KEEPING IT FRESH

Though he labeled himself a poor “future-ologist,” Salovey made a prediction: Online education will move away from the “massive and open” and towards the “small and networked.”

Salovey referred to initiatives like the Yale School of Management (SOM)’s Global Network for Advanced Management, which streams SOM lectures across the world in real-time and has students from 25 partner universities worldwide collaborate on problems. The goal here, Salovey said, is to bring select students together online and form a tight community that can enhance on-campus education.

The style of “small and networked” online education may circumvent the anxieties of MOOC skeptics.

For Yale English professor Wai Chee Dimock GRD ’82, one of the potential drawbacks of online education is the universality of the content. University learning should make reference to its local context, she said — a lecturer in New Haven should be able to relate his lecture back to New Haven.

Initiatives like SOM’s Global Network try to combine local learning with the lessons of other localities. The program combines the mentalities and experiences of students in New Haven with students in Singapore and Barcelona.

Yale has also partnered with Cornell and Columbia for two years to teach under-enrolled languages through a sophisticated videoconferencing technology. Through the Shared Language Initiative, certain languages — such as Classical Tibetan and isiZulu — taught at one of the three universities are broadcast to students at others. The program will most likely double in the next year, swelling from nine shared courses to nearly 20.

Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, who runs Yale’s Center for Language Study, called the program an “anti-MOOC.”

“Whereas a MOOC is large and open, we wanted to do something synchronous, live, where students would interact in real time, live with each other,” she said. After all, “language classrooms are highly interactive.”

Professors and administrators agreed that online education should engage students on their own terms. It is ineffective, and perhaps harmful, when this fails, they said.

Online education takes a dangerous form when it is delivered unilaterally in an unengaging format, argued Peter Hadreas, the chair of the philosophy department at San Jose State University. Hadreas’ department staged a rebellion last year against a plan to broadcast Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s popular “Justice” lecture into the school’s classrooms through EdX.

“The way we were pressured to teach it would be to have our students watch Michael Sandel teaching Harvard students,” Hadreas emphasized. “He’d periodically say they’re the best, the crème de la crème — our students would be second class.”

San Jose students would be unable to address questions directly to Sandel, Hadreas said. Nor would they be able to relate to the socioeconomic biases in Sandel’s lectures which were originally designed for Harvard students, he added. Additionally, Hadreas said the very idea of delivering a uniform lecture on justice or ethos goes against the spirit of philosophical discovery.

Rolf and Dimock agreed that one of the risks of online education is that content, especially in video form, cannot easily be altered or edited.

Dimock said professors always need to refresh the content and delivery of their courses, both for their own enjoyment and the educational benefit of their students. Though her “Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulker” lecture is on Open Yale Courses, Dimock said, she would not want the actual course to be stuck in its online video form.

“The very nature of teaching should require a different syllabus from one year to another,” she said. “New questions are always arising from scholarly debates, even in literature.”

BUT QUESTIONS REMAIN …

Many, including Dimock, Campbell and Hadreas, worry that online education will be abused as a budget-cutting mechanism by universities.

Budget cuts were the original impetus for the University of California system’s contract to beam Sandel’s “Justice” lectures San Jose classrooms. But three weeks ago, University of California President Janet Napolitano declared that online education is not a “silver bullet” for budget-conscious schools. In fact, she said, it actually requires large capital investments when done right.

Though Miller said Yale is not looking to online education as a cost-saving measure, the University currently faces a $39 million budget shortfall that may potentially threaten the University’s classroom offerings.

Though Van Deusen-Scholl said the intent of the Shared Course Initiative is not to replace existing programs with borrowed material, Yale recently decided to scrap its own Dutch language program as a cost-cutting measure. Administrators rationalized the move by explaining that Yale students who wish to pursue Dutch can tune into Columbia’s courses through the Shared Course Initiative.

Cathy Davidson, a Duke online education expert and member of the National Council for the Humanities, said online education should not be scapegoated for the federal defunding of higher education. If traditional universities move some of their teaching online, Davidson could envision cost-cutting to a degree that may reverse the spike in college tuition.

But a more dramatic shift could happen for students who cannot enroll at brick-and-mortar universities in the first place.

At the end of the day, Davidson said, people should remember that MOOCs and other online education tools can bring education to “people for whom all other forms of learning are impossible,” due to physical disability, rural location or socioeconomic disadvantage.

Whether in the form of MOOCs, classroom integration or something else, online education still draws its share of both passionate enthusiasts and skeptical critics.

But all administrators, experts and professors interviewed agreed: Whatever the ultimate form that it will take, online education is — at the end of the day — an unstoppable force.

“What we should all try to do is have a collective conversation about all the safeguards we should have in place, and make sure all the beneficial impacts would stay in place,” Dimock said.

She paused and added, “Online ed. is here to stay.”

A previous version of this article mentioned an inaccurate detail from Michael Sandel’s edX course regarding references in his lectures to students’ vacation homes in Florida. 

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