Students are taking free online classes just for learning’s sake.
Mehar Maju goes to a small high school in southern California.
She also takes college-level classes on Coursera with millions of students around the world.
Coursera is a online learning startup created by two Stanford University professors, and it offers more than 100 classes from 19 universities to anyone in the world, free of charge. And it’s still expanding.
The online platform was officially launched this spring, partnering with four universities. In July, it added numerous additional partnerships with other schools, including Duke University and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
While mass open online courses (MOOCs) have traditionally existed for math and engineering classes, the liberal arts now join the club. On Coursera, the University of Pennsylvania offers Greek and Roman Mythology and Princeton University offers A History of the World since 1300.
If students submit all course assignments, they receive a certificate upon completion. According to The New York Times, the University of Washington said it plans to offer credit for Coursera classes if students pay a fee, complete extra assignments and work with an instructor.
However, the future of Coursera and other MOOCs remain uncertain. There has been a lot of debate over whether MOOCs could eventually replace brick-and-mortar colleges and universities and what that would mean for higher education.
But for now, students are creating online classrooms and taking part in intellectual discourse on Coursera just for fun. For many users, the no-strings-attached nature of the service is very appealing.
“Most who sign up and commit to a course do so because they are genuinely interested in that topic,” Maju said. She wanted an opportunity to think like a college student and is currently taking two classes offered through the University of Michigan: Introduction to Finance and Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Jeff Stern, a rising junior at Elon University, is enrolled in Human-Computer Interaction taught by Stanford University professor Scott Klemmer this summer. He spends about 5-7 hours a week watching the lectures and completing the assignments.
“No one’s forcing you to sign up, so it has to be self-motivating. The people that finish the classes do it because they are interested in the class, not because they have to count it toward a major or are forced by their parents,” Stern said.
Joseph Reed, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, worked at the university’s Instructional Support Services office, and worked as an administrator for a class. He taped and edited lecture videos of Professor Eric Rabkin’s Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
“I think what Coursera is doing is sort of profound in a way,” Reed said. He added that there is appeal in that there are no consequences if you don’t complete an assignment.
Reed tried to make the videos plain and simple in design.
“The purpose wasn’t to add in crazy backgrounds or animations. It’s centered on content. We wanted it to be easy to look at and easy to engage,” he said.
“People all over the world are setting up study groups and emailing each other,” Reed said. “It’s an amazing community.”
Coursera users vary on their level of participation. Some just drop in for an occasional lecture or discussion, while others like Maju and Stern put in diligent work every week.
Internet History, Technology, and Security offered through the University of Michigan is a seven-week course that began on July 23. It currently has about 43,000 students enrolled in the class; 23,000 watched at least one lecture, 11,000 took the first quiz and 6,000 submitted the peer-graded assignment.
Stern said he believes Coursera could find a better way to keep more students engaged during the video lectures. He sees room for improvement in user experience design and strategy.
The rise of MOOCs have mirrored technological developments in traditional classroom, as more and more materials are being put online and universities are experimenting with new learning management systems. Both Maju and Stern said their Coursera classes resemble a class they would take at their schools.
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