University will use Coursera to explore online class materials

April 18, 2012, 9 a.m.

As part of efforts to employ technology to enhance the Princeton academic experience and enable faculty to extend their teaching beyond the physical borders of the campus, the University will explore the development of online class materials via the new educational platform Coursera. According to Coursera, Princeton will join Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania in developing Web-based course materials from a variety of academic fields.

"The Coursera platform will allow our faculty to explore ways to improve teaching in our own classrooms, while at the same time allowing them to make exceptional educational opportunities available well beyond the confines of our campus," Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said. "We are very pleased that faculty in a broad range of disciplines are interested in tailoring the use of this technology to their own particular courses for the purposes of improving both the impact and the scope of their teaching."

Coursera, which was founded in 2011 by two Stanford computer science professors, is modeled on an interactive learning experience. The Coursera website features recorded video lectures that are embedded with quizzes and interactive exercises to reinforce concept retention as well as collaborative forums for viewers to discuss materials and pose questions. Users from around the world may access Coursera for free.

Provost Christopher Eisgruber said the University is interested in exploring innovative technologies for use in the Princeton classroom, where appropriate, and that while the Coursera platform offers one option, the University may also pursue other collaborations or develop approaches specifically tailored to Princeton.

"Coursera's innovative platform will provide valuable opportunities for some Princeton professors who want to use online supplements to enhance their classroom teaching in ways that reinforce Princeton's vibrant culture of student engagement," he said. "Princeton will also continue efforts to identify other collaborations and approaches that facilitate the pedagogical initiatives of its faculty, whether they are invoking new technologies or sustaining the virtues of traditional teaching methods."

Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh, who is helping oversee the collaboration with Coursera, said the venture is part of Princeton's broader efforts to support and encourage innovative uses of technology in teaching and learning.

Marsh said the University has formed a project team based in the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning that will work over the summer with professors interested in developing online materials for their courses, and expects that some content will be ready for use on campus in the fall. Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin will form a faculty committee to address policy issues related to the development of online courses, Marsh added. When Princeton faculty choose to place course materials on the Coursera website for public access, the University does not plan to offer course credits or certificates to public viewers who access those materials.

"Princeton's exploration of online course materials will focus on how they can be used to accentuate the particular strengths of undergraduate education on this campus — how they can be used to enhance the frequency and quality of student-faculty interaction, both in and out of the classroom," Marsh said.

For example, Marsh said, the self-assessments embedded within the pre-recorded online materials provide faculty with real-time feedback about student learning so that classes may be used more in more focused ways to address areas that require special attention.

"Students will be able to work through and review pre-recorded course materials at their own pace, giving them a better chance to master difficult concepts that are especially elusive when presented through the fleeting medium of live lecture," he said.

Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering David Wentzlaff, one of the faculty members who has expressed an interest in developing content for Coursera, said he hopes that students will be able to learn in different manners by increasing the online material for his class on computer architecture.

"I am curious to try putting all of my course's current lecture material online in an interactive way, and then use our class time to discuss some of the more challenging problems and focus on synthesizing the key takeaway points," he said.

Robert Sedgewick, the William O. Baker *39 Professor in Computer Science, said he anticipates using Coursera to extend the reach of the popular teaching websites on algorithms and introductory computer science that he has been developing with Kevin Wayne, the Philip Y. Goldman '86 Senior Lecturer in Computer Science.

"The Coursera platform provides an opportunity to leverage the demonstrated appeal of this content by adding videos associated with lecture slides, increasing the extent to which assessment can be automated and exploring other innovative approaches to teaching and learning," Sedgewick said. "Not only will this substantially expand our audience around the world, but also Princeton students will benefit from this effort because it will lead to more and better Web content, improving what they already use, and because it will provide extensive and powerful tools for use by their preceptors, giving them more time for personal interaction with students."

While noting that programs like Coursera are part of an exploration of "new terrain," Senior Lecturer in Psychology Andrew Conway said online lectures could supplement a course "much like a good textbook, and then more class time could be devoted to discussion."

Historian Jeremy Adelman, the director of the Council for International Teaching and Research, said such educational technologies promote more experimental and global learning opportunities. He noted that Coursera also supports supplemental materials, such as interactive maps.

"One of my big themes is change in global commerce. Imagine during the first weeks of the course asking students to go online to fill in a blank map of the world with what they have learned about what commodities were traded, who did the trading, where the main arrows of long-distance trade are traced, and the technologies and religious beliefs of merchants," said Adelman, the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture. "The point is, what is posted is not just my lectures and my chosen readings, but the product of the students."

Adelman said the opportunity to share some of his lectures with a worldwide audience also is an exciting prospect.

"My first priority is to my students at Princeton. But, what I can share with them and encourage them to explore can equally be of value to others," he said.