Emory and Coursera: Benefits beyond the numbers

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | May 20, 2013

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This map plots the location of the 45,000 students enrolled in Emory professor Steve Everett's "Introduction to Digital Sound Design" class. Credit: Lee Clontz.

When Coursera first began partnering with top universities to bring MOOCs (massive open online courses) to a worldwide audience, the enrollment numbers created a shockwave.

Suddenly, tens of thousands of students were signing up to take a single online class, recalls Kimbi Hagen, one of Emory's early pioneers in the free, not-for-credit online experiment.

Now that Hagen, who is assistant professor in the department of behavioral sciences and health education at Rollins School of Public Health and assistant director of Emory's Center for AIDS Research, has just completed teaching one of Emory's first three MOOCs through Coursera, she realizes those enrollment numbers don't tell the whole story.

Of the 18,600 students from 174 countries who initially enrolled in her nine-week Coursera class on AIDS, some 10,601 actively participated, keeping up with online discussion forums, essays and quizzes. Untold numbers also signed up to simply audit the course material.  

But through the personal stories that began filtering back, Hagen realized that her course had a far greater reach than she expected.  

The class drew a range of participants, from health professionals and educators to college students and the curious.

One student, who had adopted four HIV-positive children, took the course to "learn to be the best parent and support person possible." A high school teacher, alarmed at the number of HIV-positive students at her school, sought "the right information" to share with sexually active adolescents. Another never had the courage to reveal his HIV-positive status to family and co-workers before taking the class.

All told, it was a vibrant, engaged community eager to discuss what they were learning, through online forums and beyond.  

"There were many situations where people were gathering to watch (the online course), be it a village in Nigeria or an athletic team here in the U.S.," Hagen recalls.

In fact, it wasn't unusual to hear about efforts to gather an entire village, Peace Corps team or hospital staff to share and discuss her video, says Hagen, who jokes that MOOC could just as easily stand for "Maximizing Outreach to Outsider Communities."

Hagen recalls a Muslim student living in an Islamic country (she prefers to protect the location) who "would watch the videos and go from village to village to share with other women what she'd learned."

Going into the Coursera experiment, Hagen had no idea of its full potential. But observing students embrace the topic and become educators themselves, dispersing their knowledge to others -- for a teacher, she says, it doesn't get much better.

"This is easily one of the most significant things I've ever done in my entire life," Hagen says.

"And it's absolutely what the Rollins School of Public Health exists to do, what public health is really all about."  

Online learning: An experiment in progress

For Coursera, the for-profit online learning hub that partners with universities to offer free, not-for-credit online courses to anyone with Internet access, the rise of MOOCs has been nothing short of explosive.

Steve Everett

Music professor Steve Everett's inaugural Coursera course was based upon a popular class he teaches at Emory.

In September 2012, Emory University was among a small group of top public and private institutions to join with Coursera to offer free online courses. Since then, Coursera has "grown from nothing to engaging 62 universities around the world," says Lynn Zimmerman, senior vice provost for undergraduate and continuing education at Emory.

For Emory, clear advantages to the partnership have already emerged, she adds.

Faculty have found both a satisfying sense of altruism that comes from sharing knowledge with a worldwide audience and a practical benefit — the creation of video-rich content that can also be used in the traditional classroom, Zimmerman says.

Coursera classes also provide a powerful recruitment tool, furthering Emory's global reach, she adds.

Though Coursera students currently take classes at no charge, some universities have begun offering an optional "Signature Track," with verified certificates of completion available for a small fee to students who successfully complete coursework.

This spring, the American Council on Education also endorsed offering college credit for a handful of Coursera classes. Emory has not yet offered a signature track course nor sought to assign college credit to its classes, Zimmerman notes.

"It really is an experiment in progress — faculty need to be comfortable with that," she says. "It's all very, very new and evolving at light speed."

Education without borders

Study a map that plots the location of students enrolled in music professor Steve Everett's "Introduction to Digital Sound Design" class this spring and you're literally looking at the world.

Emory's inaugural Coursera class drew an initial enrollment of nearly 45,000 students — about 60 percent lived outside the U.S., confirms Everett, who also directs Emory's Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.  

The four-week course was based upon a popular class that Everett has taught for nearly 30 years, and one that always has a waiting list when he has offered it at Emory.

For Everett, Coursera was a deliberate experiment. The online course would become a laboratory for understanding the effectiveness of his own longstanding teaching techniques and materials.

"My electronic music course is normally two semesters long," Everett explains. "Most of what I offered in Coursera this term was actually content from the fall semester (class at Emory)."

Knowing that there were Emory students who'd tried to take the two-semester course last fall and couldn't, he allowed some to go ahead and enroll in his spring term class. But as an "unofficial prerequisite," he asked that they take his Coursera class for preparation.

The result? Not only were the Emory students who had taken his Coursera class fully up to speed, their grasp of the material generally exceeded those who'd been able to enroll in the fall term.

"The difference was remarkable," Everett acknowledges. "They (Coursera students) were coming into the class with all sorts of information gleaned through the online forums — they'd discovered a lot more about the topic. You could sense this very excited energy, so powerful, so engaged."

The online forums that are a built-in component of the Coursera experience had presented "a very rich learning experience for students interested in engaging through social media," he says.

"This was not just a beginning level of students, but a community of people in the field who wanted to be connected," Everett notes. "When students would ask a question in the forum, they might be getting very detailed and sophisticated answers from an engineer in the Netherlands."

In the end, the Coursera experience "transformed what I think about how students learn," says Everett, who believes the experience will also inform how he'll structure future courses, both online and in the classroom.

He also found that teaching through Coursera offers the potential to boost the visibility of faculty research. Because of his online class, Everett says half-a-dozen doctoral students have contacted him about his research; during the class, his personal website received some 200 visits a day.

Was the Coursera format satisfying for students?

Katherine Bernhart, an Atlanta-area Coursera student, gave Everett's course high marks in her online blog, "The Music in My Head," praising his marriage of technology and content to create "really engaging lectures" with material that was "fresh and exciting."

One of Everett's most active online forums was "Petition For More Steve," which featured comments from over a thousand students asking him to teach more courses.

In Hagen's class, one online forum offered nothing but praise for the course. A typical post:

"I am writing to say that I have been taken aback by this experience. I had no idea what to expect from a Coursera course, but I certainly did not expect to be astounded by the quality and accessibility to the lectures AND from the professionalism and dedication of a single professor. I am amazed and have been telling everyone in my life about this course. I can't believe it's free…"

MOOCs: What's next for Emory?

This month, law professor Polly Price is presenting Emory's third Coursera class, a five-week course on "Citizenship and U.S. Immigration."

Plans for online learning at Emory continue to advance. Appeals soliciting new Coursera classes have already been sent to Emory faculty. This summer, work will continue to review those applications and make recommendations for new fall courses.  

To aid in the process, Provost Claire Sterk has created a new Faculty Advisory Committee on Online Education to help establish guidelines, review proposals and advise on policy issues. Final course approval will come through the provost's office.

Although critics have wondered how offering free classes may shape universities in the future, Hagen doesn't sense a looming threat.

"There are things that you will never be able to teach online as effectively as you can teach face-to-face, so the role of the university will remain," she says.

From learning about international Coursera students now motivated to apply to Emory to discovering college dropouts who've rekindled  interest and confidence in returning to higher education, the benefits have been significant, Hagen adds.

"I applaud Emory's willingness to do this. You cannot be a Luddite about this, you can't ignore the sea change — you can only embrace it, use it to your advantage. And Emory is doing that."