Launched by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera offers 100 courses from 14 major universities. For more photos, click gallery, above.
What if August came and there were no piles of old couches on downtown terraces? What if there were no crowds of wide-eyed freshmen tramping down State Street?
What if autumn came to Madison not with the rush of confusion and excitement of 6,000 18-year-olds out on their own for the first time but with the yawn of an extended summer? What if autumn in Madison came silently?
Almost overnight, higher education is transforming itself into a brave new virtual reality. Online education, much like online news was a decade ago, is all the rage. Yet some of the smartest people on the planet are rushing forward with little idea of what the future holds and without a business plan.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is not one of them. Campus leaders here have taken a thoughtful, go-slow approach, but there are also risks in waiting too long. If the UW is not part of the march, will it be left in the dust or will it watch as the others walk off a cliff?
Here are some of the questions without answers:
If colleges and universities essentially give away their content online, will they go the way of newspapers with slashed staffs, and will some just go out of business? And what happens to the survivors, as the UW-Madison certainly will be? Will they continue as different institutions with less need for expensive bricks and mortar and far fewer smart and aggravating young people clogging their campuses?
And what would that mean for the rite of passage that is college? For millions of young Americans, those four years shape their lives, and it's not all because of what happens in the classroom. Can they get the same experience in their bedrooms, watching professors lecture on their laptops?
College costs skyrocket
Four streams are coming together to form a raging torrent aimed at the center of higher education: skyrocketing student debt; a nagging recession that has diminished prospects for college grads and pinched their parents' ability to foot the bill; the advent of an aggressive for-profit higher education industry; and, now, the easy availability of higher education just a mouse click away.
Since 1985 the cost of college has increased 559%. The average student gets his degree complete with a $23,000 debt after four years, and six-figure college debts are becoming increasingly common.
At the same time, prospects for new graduates are as dismal as they have been in recent times. Barely over half of recent grads are working at a job that requires their degree. A quarter work in jobs that don't require college, and almost as many are unemployed.
For-profit universities see the potential in this set of challenges: Offer cash-strapped families a way to get a degree (even an advanced degree) online at a fraction of the cost.
I asked administrators and professors at the UW if this combination of trends wouldn't lead to hard times and maybe even extinction for established universities.
The academic professionals I talked with made a distinction between "blended learning," where the Internet is used to supplement the in-class experience, and massive open online courses (commonly referred to by the inelegant name MOOCs), where tens of thousands of students can take a class from a single professor at a distant campus without ever stepping foot on that campus or ever even talking with the professor.
The professors and administrators I talked with were bullish on blended courses, but some were wary of MOOCs.
Greg Moses has been teaching in the UW College of Engineering since 1976 and is a pioneer in online learning. He started using the technique in the late 1990s before there were any digital platforms. So he invented some.
Moses says that he uses the Internet to essentially "flip" the learning experience. Students are expected to have watched his lecture or access related material online before coming to class. Then, instead of lecturing, Moses uses the class time to interact with them. In some of his classes he has students break down into small groups of three students who huddle around a computer and work through problems. Moses darts around the class answering questions and helping them think through what is at hand.
"If you walk into any second-grade class, the kids are all sitting around round tables and doing something, and the teachers are there to keep them focused," Moses says. "Somewhere along the line teachers lose their creativity."
He bemoans the fact that the "active learning" that is proven to be successful in early elementary school grades gets transformed into lectures in later grades and on through college. He says that teachers become used to delivering the same lectures year after year.
But online active learning is more engaging both for the professors and their students. "Now you have to be prepared to have the students actually do something," Moses says.
The feedback from Moses' students has been that "they really like it, but they're glad that all of their classes aren't [this intense] because it's a lot more work."
On the other end of the career spectrum from Greg Moses is Leif Brottem, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in geography. Brottem taught a class last summer to 40 students scattered in study-abroad programs all over the world. They compared experiences on message boards but did not meet unless they took advantage of optional opportunities to do that at the beginning and end of the course.
Brottem says that his class could not have existed before the development of technology that makes instant communication from anywhere in the world possible. But, like Moses, he also believes that such traditional classes as Introduction to Geographic Information Systems could be done better in a blended learning situation.
"That material is just not meant to be lectured," he says. He would rather do exactly what Moses is doing in his engineering courses: Put material online and then use class time to work directly with students on problem solving.
So the web can be a valuable tool in making the traditional college education even more robust, intense and exciting. But what if you could take the most interesting courses from the best professors from all over the world without ever leaving your bedroom? Without infrastructure to support, a virtual campus could at least theoretically offer that coursework at a relative bargain. That is the challenge massive open online courses present to bricks-and-mortar institutions.
After a fitful start a decade ago, MOOCs seem to be taking off. Three consortiums of universities are offering them. Udacity was created by a Stanford professor, and edX is a joint venture of MIT and Harvard. But the MOOC initiative that is rocking the ivory tower right now is Coursera. It's a for-profit company launched recently by two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller.
Coursera offers over 100 courses in a dozen fields of study from 14 major universities including Stanford, Princeton, Michigan, Illinois and Penn. As of July, more than 900,000 students have enrolled in at least one course.
With the courses all free, how will Coursera and the others make money? They don't know yet, but they have lots of ideas. In fact, Wikipedia lists eight ways that Coursera executives are exploring to make a profit. These include charging tuition but also providing tutoring beyond the course material, evaluating students for certification by institutions of higher learning, or selling data on students to potential employers.
Coursera says it is "committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it." So I decided to seek knowledge.
One evening on my back porch I went to the Coursera website. It is probably the most user-friendly site I have ever visited. Within three minutes I had figured out how to navigate the site, signed up as a student and was already browsing courses I might like to take.
The selection of live courses last summer was relatively small at 10. Today it's 200 and growing. I could watch a short video where each professor pitched his or her class. My choices included: Algorithms: Design and Analysis Part 1. (Please. Part 1 is so basic.) Fundamentals of Pharmacology. (I went to the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s. I know my pharmacology.) Software Engineering for SaaS. (When you have no idea what at least one word in the course description is, I'd stay away from it.) Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. (The universe is expanding. What else do you need to know?)
I chose Listening to World Music from Penn; Internet History, Technology & Security from Michigan; and Introduction to Finance, also from Michigan. You need to agree to a simple code of conduct promising that the course assignments will be your own work and you won't borrow or share answers with others. And in seconds you're in.
Each course has an easy-to-navigate home page where you can go to see lectures, take quizzes, do assignments and chat with your classmates and sometimes the professors on a message board.
The lectures are in bite-size chunks of about 10 to 15 minutes, adding up to roughly the standard 50-minute class. But since it is online, you can view each piece whenever you want, and you can go back and review material. However, assignments for each week have to be done by a certain date and will not be accepted if late.
Professors sign a certificate upon course completion, but the value of these documents is not clear. As of this summer, only the University of Washington now accepts the certificate toward accredited course work.
What makes Coursera and its companions different from online courses that have been available for a long time or, for that matter, from correspondence courses that are almost as old as the U.S. mail?
According to Coursera founder Daphne Koller, in a recent TED Talk, it's the discipline of time and the ability to interact with your professors and fellow students in real time. Coursera classes follow regular (usually 16-week) semesters. You and your thousands of colleagues work through the material together and must submit assignments by a shared deadline.
And the system makes it easy to communicate with your fellow students all over the world in a sort of virtual Rathskeller without beer.
But there can be beer too. Koller says that many local "meet-ups" happen spontaneously as people taking the same course find themselves in the same city. In fact, at the first all-Coursera meet-up over the summer at Stanford, 650 people showed up. Now, there are about 1,600 "Coursera Communities," and meet-ups happen almost every day.
In the online chat boards for my classes I revealed that I was writing for Isthmus, and I asked my cyber classmates how they liked the Coursera experience. I got dozens of responses from all over the world including England and Tunisia. My classmates almost all listed their string of advanced degrees, and many revealed their advanced ages, except for one precocious 15-year-old who said she wanted to get a jump on college. They typically said they were there for the love of learning and almost all had very good things to say about Coursera.
But what I found most interesting was that, with few exceptions, almost all of my fellow students had already had the four-year (or more) bricks-and-mortar college experience. I found very few who were substituting MOOCs for the real thing.
Overall, I found my online community thoughtful, gentle (in contrast to much of what flies around on the web) and, for some reason I can't fully explain, overwhelmingly female.
A typical comment came from Angela Richmond-Fuller, who described herself as a Canadian-Brit living in England, with two degrees and three young children. "I can do [the coursework] while watching my kids playing in the garden, while going for walks, while washing the dishes and cleaning the house. In fact, listening to the Huun Huur Tu YouTube clip [an assignment from the World Music class] helped to settle my one-year-old just now and sent her peacefully off to sleep."
So, I have to say I enjoyed the experience. I learned some things, but was I getting an education?
Bill Cronon is among the most revered lecturers on the UW campus. He has won teaching awards that recognize his commitment to undergraduate education even though he is a world-renowned research historian. He founded Chadbourne Residential College with the goal of creating exactly the kind of intimate, personal relationships that can only happen in three dimensions. I talked with him over lunch one day overlooking Lake Mendota on the Memorial Union Terrace. I didn't pick that spot just because it's pretty or pretty much my summer office (though it is). I picked it because for a lot of people, much of their UW education takes place there.
"Place matters. And the trouble with the Internet is that it's placeless. The oldest of old media are human relationships," Cronon says.
He stares off over the lake and talks about a UW professor he encountered as a freshman who changed his life and set him on a course to be the person he has become. "Dick Ringler gave me a vision of an adult life worth living."
And now he has the same close relationship with many of his own students. "Mentoring is a personal relationship," he says, adding that his grad students become much like his children. "That's not an Internet relationship."
And for Cronon, a scholar who has spent a career trying to explain how places shape our lives and our history, there is no substitute for the physical surroundings and human interactions that take place on campus.
"I believe in bringing young people together in a common geographical space. I aspire to be someone who helps 18-year-olds fall in love with the world. I think that's hard to do on the Internet."
Cronon sees the analogy between newspapers and universities. "In many ways the academy is old media, and they don't recognize that they're old media," he says.
"This [online education] is a revolutionary tool on the order of the invention of the printing press. It's that important. It will change everything. It will fundamentally change this institution. It already is, and it has a lot further to go before we're done."
Cronon believes that the humanities are "deeply at risk" in this new world because they require undergraduate teaching to support doctoral students through their years of study. If the teaching goes away, so will the humanities business model, and the entire field will teeter.
Threat to liberal arts
Cronon praised small liberal arts schools as being better at teaching undergraduates than big research institutions. And several of the UW officials I talked with said that the real threat from MOOCs might be to colleges like Edgewood here in Madison.
So I sat down with Karen Franker, the director of online learning at Edgewood, while she took a break from (what else?) a national conference on "distance learning" that takes place at Monona Terrace every year.
In a couple of years it will be possible to get an online MBA from Edgewood (one of their flagship degrees) without ever contending with Monroe Street traffic. As good as Edgewood's reputation is in this field, I asked Franker why someone would get an online degree from Edgewood when they might be able to get it just as easily from the Wharton School or, for that matter, the UW-Madison someday.
Her answer was that "we try to take the bricks-and-mortar Edgewood experience and put it online." For one thing, that means small class sizes. Edgewood will limit its online classes to 15 students.
Franker and I drifted into a discussion not dissimilar to one I had a few days earlier with Jeff Russell, in his Park Street office with a panoramic view of the UW campus. Russell is the vice provost for lifelong learning and dean of the Division of Continuing Studies at the UW.
Russell has taken the lead in researching MOOCs for the UW. He has talked with Coursera cofounder Koller, officials at Illinois, and others who have jumped in on Coursera. In his report, Russell asks the fundamental questions. What is the business model for MOOCs (how does the university pay its expenses and make money)? What's the primary reason to get involved in something like Coursera? To market the UW to a wider audience? To advance the Wisconsin Idea? To be a resource that keeps alumni connected to the campus?
Without a business model, and with the disastrous experience of newspapers giving away their content online as an object lesson, the UW may be right in being cautious about jumping on the MOOC platform.
Maybe it won't happen until we find a way to put the Union Terrace and the panoramic view of campus from Russell's office into an online course. These places just won't fit your computer screen, and maybe they never will.
"What makes this place distinctive is the research and the creative entrepreneurial aspects that we do here," says Russell. "We're not just about transmitting knowledge. We're about creating knowledge."
"Some of the most important things that happen to us in college don't happen in classrooms," adds Cronon. "What college has been since the 19th century in America is about becoming an adult. And you don't take a course in that. Because you learn it in community. You learn it with and from your peers."
Russell seems to understand that: "The space shapes us."
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He teaches at the La Follette School on the UW campus, using online resources, carefully. He blogs as Citizen Dave.