The University of Virginia announced this morning that it would become one of eleven schools to sign a partnership with Coursera, a company that specializes in hosting online courses at some of the nation’s top Universities. The University will join the ranks of Stanford, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton in this new partnership. In a statement, President Teresa Sullivan, said she was pleased with the partnership and said that “these courses have the potential to open new opportunities for students around the globe, while also being likely to benefit our courses on Grounds.”
In the aftermath of the drama surrounding the ousting and later reinstatement of Sullivan this summer, where a large debate about online education was front and center, the move comes as no surprise to most in the University community.
Since the controversy, this is not the first step that has been taken to introduce the concept of techonology into the classroom. The Faculty Senate just announced a $10,000 grant available to five classes at the University this Fall that will use the money for implementing new technologies in the classroom. In response to this action, faculty member William Guilford from the Department of Biomedical Engineering said the technology in the classroom “has taken a good thing and made it even better.”
The college will offer three courses in the Coursera curriculum beginning in 2013. Lou Bloomfield, creator of the popular student scheduling website Lou’s List and a favorite Professor on grounds, will be offering his course “How Things Work.” Mitch Green, the Horace W. Goldsmith Distinguished Teaching Professor in Humanities, will teach another student favorite called “Know Thyself.” Philip Zelikow, White Burkett Miller Professor of History and associate dean for graduate academic programs, will teach the course “The Modern World: Global History since 1760.” The Darden school will offer its own course as well. A two-part business class called “Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses” that will be taught by Edward D. Hess, professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence.
Bloomfield, whose course will focus on using everyday objects to explain physics, plans to adapt many of his classroom strategies to his online course, like performing demonstrations and finding a way to encourage student response. Bloomfield said that he believes that technology can be used to enhance the classroom as long as it remains “the message rather than the medium.”
While technology has benefits in allowing more instantaneous student response and allowing education tools to reach larger numbers of people, Bloomfield does acknowledge that it has weaknesses as well since “good online instruction can do a decent job of replacing large, impersonal lectures, but it can’t easily replace the give-and-take of an active classroom.”
He, like many other faculty members across the country have struggled with the technological boom in battling with Facebook and other websites for student attention in large classrooms, the growing dependency of students on the internet instead of originality in research and the increasing distance between students and Professors, as evidenced by trends like low attendance in office hours and less participation in classes. As Bloomfield says, “technology is definitely a mixed bag” and its implementation must be done with concern for supplementing student experience rather than replacing it.
However, online education is still growing and it’s possible that popular initiatives like Coursera will not be as successful as the optimism behind their implementation suggests. It will take time and careful planning to determine if online education and technology in the classroom will further the reach and development of education or simply serve as fodder for top universities to appear to be moving in the right direction.
Bloomfield identified these concerns when he said “the crucial divide is whether our society chooses to value degrees and other credentials or learning and understanding. If society continues to be fixated on degrees and credentials, vacuous online ‘education’ will consume everything else and the whole house of cards will eventually collapse, taking public higher education with it. On the other hand, if online learning creates well-educated people without credentials and society starts recognizing the value of that education itself, this could be a great thing.”
George Cohen, Professor of Law and member of the faculty senate shared a similar view when he said, “We need to be judicious about how we implement technological change. We should not be adopting changes just because they are trendy or make use of the latest technological advances.”
The partnership with Coursera shows a bold move in the direction of expanding the University’s influence and prestige even further. However, online education, while it has a great opportunity to become influential in higher education, will have to prove its worth in its first stages and show that it has the capability to be a meaningful learning tool rather than a meaningless venue for the University to focus its efforts.