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Emory's digital pioneers propel online courses

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Jan. 23, 2013

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Illustration by Stephane Jorisch.

Standing before a "green screen" backdrop in a studio deep within Woodruff Library, Kimberley Sessions Hagen gazes into a camera to begin her lecture, imagining the faces of students she will likely never meet.

But never have her words had the power to carry so far. To date, more than 10,000 students from around the world have signed up to take her free, online class.

Hagen is among three Emory educators — digital pioneers, really — who will be teaching the University's first MOOCs (massive open online courses) this semester. They include:

  • "Introduction to Digital Sound Design," taught by Steve Everett, professor of music and director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE).
  • "Immigration and U.S. Citizenship," taught by Polly Price, professor of law and associated faculty for the Department of History.
  • "AIDS," taught by Kimberley (Kimbi) Hagen, assistant director of Emory's Center for AIDS Research, assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at the Rollins School of Public Health, and adjunct faculty in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the School of Medicine.

Drawing upon a talented pool of Emory scientists — many are international leaders in their fields — Hagen has assembled a schedule rich with guest speakers to examine wide-ranging aspects of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and around the world.

Liberal arts meets the digital age

The educational experiment is being coordinated through Coursera, a U.S.-based online education company that has partnered with 33 universities to bring free, not-for-credit courses to a worldwide audience.

It's among a fast-growing realm of web-based learning options designed to expand online educational opportunities, easing the liberal arts into the digital age.

Last semester, Emory also joined a consortium of leading universities to help launch Semester Online, where students will pay to take for-credit undergraduate courses in a virtual classroom environment led by some of the nation's top educators. Pilot classes begin in the fall.

Emory's Coursera classes were developed with the help of the CFDE and the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching.

They work like this: Students sign up for classes through Coursera's website, view weekly lectures online, complete assignments, and participate in discussions through online blogs.

Tests are typically machine-graded multiple-choice quizzes or peer-reviewed essays. Students who successfully complete class assignments will receive a certificate signed by the instructor, but no formal college credit.

Growing the virtual classroom

At Emory, the initial demand has been strong — nearly 30,000 students have signed up to take Everett's free online digital sound course, which launches Jan. 28.

And while Hagen admits that it's been an adjustment to lecture before a camera, she sees an opportunity to take Emory's expertise in the realm of HIV/AIDS research, education and care to a worldwide audience.

"With Internet access, we can raise Emory's profile internationally and expose students all over the world to new information, new ways of thinking, and help people generate insights about HIV they may not have thought of before," she says. "It's remarkable."

Though the class doesn't officially launch until Feb. 28, she's already received emails from students in India, Africa, Italy and Central America who have enrolled.

"When I look at the camera, I imagine the faces of the people who've emailed me, and I talk to them. I've bonded with them — they are real to me," Hagen adds.

Hagen began taping class lectures in December, and praises Lee Clontz, a web and social media technologist with the Office of Information Technology and his production team for coordinating the technological end of things.

Clontz, who is currently enrolled in a Coursera calculus class himself, says it has been exciting to witness a new educational model take shape. "Coursera is helping us, we're helping them," he says. "I hope what comes out of it will be both useful to the world and compelling. It's been quite a ride already."