Learning and Teaching in a Global Classroom

(August 20th, 2013) The costs of higher education have made it inaccessible to millions of potential students. But now, a new initiative called ‘Coursera’ allows students to get a taste of university life without struggling to pay expensive tuition fees!

Not long ago, online learning was considered a second-grade education, only for those that could not afford the ‘real thing’. However, the concept of studying at home is now sweeping through the world faster than anyone might have guessed a few years ago. “Coursera offers a wonderful opportunity to people from all over the world and with different academic backgrounds to get access to cutting edge knowledge”, says Stephan Hartmann, chair in philosophy of science at Munich’s LMU, the first German University to join the Coursera consortium.

Traditionally, online courses involved long and boring lectures recorded from the back of the classroom and simply posted on the internet. This lack of interaction usually leaves potential students yawning well before the lecture is finished. This is where Coursera stands out from the rest. Every one of its lectures and assignments is purposely made for online learning, seizing every possible opportunity to interact individually with each student.

These courses "use innovative teaching modalities to bring the information to the homes of students around the world. It is a sensational concept", says Alessandro DeMaio, from Copenhagen University and a great supporter of Open Access learning. DeMaio teaches a course about global health, and recalls recording his lectures in the streets of Copenhagen. "That added another layer of fun."

Interested students can sign up for a course in a matter of minutes. Once logged in, all the information about the course is available and is extremely easy to explore with a simple click of the mouse. Timetable, syllabus, assignments, discussion forums and progress page, it's all there. Importantly, students can also join a community of learners, to discuss the material and get to know people with similar interests. Jo-Anne Murray, an equine nutritionist from Edinburgh University, further explains that in most cases, no previous knowledge is expected. In my course, says Murray, we simply wanted to reach “anyone with an interest in horses”.

Students signing up for courses do so for various reasons: a way to brush up on a subject, prepare for a course they may wish to pursue further, or simply learn a particular idea from a Professor world renowned in his field. All it takes is an internet connection. Crucially, students can ‘attend’ classes when it suits them. Watch a lesson now, or download and watch later, as many times as it takes. 

This may seem easy to the student, but a lot of time and effort goes into preparing the videos. "Preparing a lesson is complex and takes considerable time", says DeMaio. "I would generally start with a frame, then build the skeleton ideas, then review the literature before starting to write the content." Stephan Hartmann adds, "Many great and enthusiastic people are involved in this, and it is exciting to see how such a course is produced. As a professor, I would have never expected to do these kind of things."

The courses are supposed to be challenging for the student as well, and like any class, there are quizzes and assignments. After all the lectures, there’s also a final test, for which the students get a certificate if they pass. At the moment, this is not a recognised qualification, but "the future will show to what extent students can get credit from their home university for having passed a Coursera course", says Hartmann.

The courses seem popular with students and lecturers alike and most instructors are keen to add to the courses offered. Some additions are already planned, such as the new animal welfare course by Jo-Anne Murray, while others are still in development. "I look forward to contributing to more Coursera courses. It's a wonderful initiative", concludes Alessandro DeMaio.

Alex Reis

Photo: Fotolia/Creativa

Last Changes: 09.27.2013