As Illinois students took their seats last fall in lecture halls across campus, half a world and several time zones away in New Delhi, Kunwar Apoorva Singh booted up his computer and logged into the Illinois portion of Coursera, the consortium of more than 80 global universities offering free online courses to anyone in the world with access to the Internet.
In July 2012, the U. of I. became the first land-grant institution to participate in Coursera. The decision to join the Stanford University-based start-up venture and take the first steps into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs) fits well with the land-grant mission of providing accessible, high-quality educational opportunities to the world, but there were plenty of questions on campus about how the experiment would work. Now, after the first group of courses have been completed, Deanna Raineri, an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a member of the campus MOOC Strategy Advisory Committee, said the feedback from Coursera students has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’re very pleased with how things are going,” she said. “The experience has benefited both the participants and the university.”
Singh, 24, worked hard in technical school to become a management trainee at India’s largest consumer goods company. And while his degree helped him obtain a secure job, Singh yearned for a broader education.
“It was a golden opportunity,” he said. “The course (Introduction to Sustainability) aligned to the subjects I always wanted to learn, but was not able to learn during college.”
That course was one of the first Illinois offered, and it was extremely popular. More than 36,000 students enrolled, and soon Coursera administrators were looking to the Illinois course as a model.
Illinois now offers 10 MOOCs covering topics such as microeconomics, parallel programming and organic chemistry. The most popular course to date is Creative, Serious and Playful Science of Android Apps, which teaches students to design mobile software applications. To begin this fall, it already has an enrollment exceeding 69,000. Total enrollment in all U. of I. courses to date exceeds 212,000. Illinois Coursera offerings have similar components. For example, the sustainability course consists of multiple eight- to 15-minute lecture videos along with weekly quizzes, readings, an optional assignment and a discussion. Most weeks also include a peer-reviewed assignment and an opportunity to participate in a community wiki-project, an online collaboration space. At the end is a comprehensive exam. Students who take the Illinois courses are not eligible for academic credit, but those who pass the class can get a completion certificate offered by Coursera for a fee.
Raineri said the Coursera courses have informed the way the campus thinks about all of its courses – not just those online.
Every student enrolled in a Coursera course takes a survey about the experience. In addition, Coursera collects clickstream data (A record of a user’s activity on the Internet, including every page of every Web site the user visits and how long the user was on a page or site.). By mining the data, instructors can use the results to enrich both online and face-to-face courses. Coursera also offers Illinois an opportunity to experiment with different models of teaching, learning and assessment on a large scale. For example, some professors are experimenting with “flipping the classroom” – in other words, having students watch videos outside of class, and going through homework or completing hands-on projects during class time.
“Having time to discuss course content in the context of real-world challenges, do group projects and solve problems is more effective and enjoyable for both the instructors and students,” Raineri said.
Many of the classes offered through Coursera previously existed as regular online courses, but to make them accessible to thousands of students, their formats were tweaked.
“We were pretty proud of our regular online course offerings,” she said. “But our Coursera experience is enriching them even further.”
Singh said the experience has been life changing. He began to see environmental issues all around his neighborhood in New Delhi. He was so excited he began to share what he had learned with people he met on the bus. He taught his older sister about her carbon footprint. It even altered the course of his career: He changed jobs and began working for a company that featured sustainability as a cornerstone of its operation. Singh’s knowledge empowered him and has given him the tools to enlighten his family, his community and his world, he said.
“The University of Illinois definitely offers courses that deal with current world issues,” Singh said. “They are not just meant to transfer knowledge … but also to make the students be motivated enough to change things around them.”
Three out of four participants in the Illinois courses are international students. About half are between 25 and 39 years old and have a job; about a third have a college degree. Most participants are interested in professional development. Some took courses to refresh their memories. Still others took courses to see if they wanted to pursue higher education in a certain field, and a few students took a course to practice their English language skills. Almost a third took a course because they felt it was important to the world.
Students have included people very similar to Singh – international, college-educated and looking to learn more or gain a competitive edge – but students also have included a young woman with a genetic disorder who cannot attend regular classes, an engineer from Ecuador, a Buddhist nun living in Germany, a Haitian woman and an American middle school teacher. Some participants are retired or “lifelong learners.” Still others are high school students trying to pick a college or to explore a possible major.
One woman who took an Illinois Coursera course was so pleased with the course that she decided to ask her daughter to consider the U. of I. when she makes her college decision.