Emory establishes strong start with online education

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | April 8, 2014

For more than a year, Emory has taken a lead role in a grand experiment — among a throng of universities and students that have embraced the burgeoning world of online education.

Although online and distance learning have been well established at Emory over the years — offered through several schools and units, as well as Emory Continuing Education — the largest digital laboratory to emerge has been Coursera, an educational platform that partners with nearly 100 U.S. and international institutions to offer free, not-for-credit massive open online courses (MOOCs).

And it's drawn a crowd. Overall, more than 7 million students from nearly 200 countries have registered to take nearly 600 Coursera classes from participating institutions.

With tens of thousands of students from around the world registering to take Emory courses through Coursera— and new classes rolling out in the coming weeks — it's clear that the platform has proven to be engaging, says Lynn Zimmerman, senior vice provost for undergraduate and continuing education.

To date, Emory's online experience has attracted the interest of both faculty and students with classes that have exported the University's name and expertise around the world and enhanced traditional in-class instruction — all told, a solid start.

So where does Emory go from here?

While no one is suggesting that online courses will ever replace a traditional residential liberal arts education, Zimmerman says there is no doubt that Emory should be exploring the latest trends in online education.

"The reality is we almost can't afford not to be involved in this experiment," she says. "Doing online education well is part of the future of education."

Expanded Coursera classes

Emory formally launched its first Coursera classes a year ago, attracting some 79,000 student from around the world with Introduction to Digital Sound Design, AIDS, and Citizenship and U.S. Immigration — classes that will now be revised and offered again.

Emory will also expand its Coursera presence on April 30 with the launch of a new class, "The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Nubia," led by Peter Lacovara, senior curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum — a course that strategically draws upon a unique Emory resource.

Other Emory classes slated to roll out over the coming months:

  • "The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future," with Jacob Wright, associate professor of Hebrew bible at Candler School of Theology and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, starting May 26.
  • "The Addicted Brain," with Michael Kuhar, a neuropharmacology professor with Yerkes Research Center, starting June 23.
  • "Introduction to Digital Sound Design," with Steve Everett, former Emory music professor, starting July 21.
  • "AIDS," with Kimberley Sessions Hagen, assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and Health Education in the Rollins School of Public Health, date to be announced.
  • "Understanding Violence," date tba
  • "Accounting: The Language of Business," date tba
  • "Childbirth: A Global Perspective," date tba

Bringing education to a world audience resonates strongly at Emory, where faculty continue to show a healthy interest in developing new online courses, says Judy Raggi Moore, professor of pedagogy and program director of Italian studies who chairs Emory's Faculty Advisory Committee on Online Education (FACOE), which helps select new classes.

But if Coursera is an ongoing experiment, Emory remains very much in the information-gathering phase; each class lends insight into the next steps, Moore says. FACOE is charged with not only determining how Coursera can best serve both students and Emory, but helping to envision that future path.

"For committee members, that's like being asked to dream about the best you can imagine, so we venture into amazing conversations about what we know and what we want," Moore says.

"That tension is wonderful but it can also be a bit overwhelming," she says. "There's no denying what we're facing, which is change."

A different kind of college student

One thing is certain: Coursera students are not your typical college students.

Although MOOCs are open to anyone, regardless of background or preparation, student demographics provided through Coursera indicate:

  • More than three-quarters come from outside the United States
  • More than 75 percent already have at least a bachelor's degree
  • Most are between 20 and 39 years of age
  • Roughly 60 percent are male, 40 percent are female

"Coursera isn't necessarily Emory teaching our students, the traditional college student, it's Emory engaging with the world," Moore notes. "What we're looking at is a whole new way of conceiving our relationship to a learning community."

The Coursera platform hasn't been without detractors: Critics point to high rates of incompletion and Coursera has had to block students in a few countries from taking classes under economic sanctions ordered by the U.S. State Department.

Yet in a short time, Coursera has already demonstrated promising strengths and possibilities, Zimmerman notes.

Not only has Coursera helped faculty achieve a global impact, it has enabled the creation of video content to help enrich in-classroom teaching, provided new, accessible options for a variety of learners, expanded Emory's reach and recognition in the world, and highlighted the University's expertise in key areas, she says.

A strategy for the future

Now that Emory has completed a pilot year with Coursera, the next challenge will be deciding how to best frame courses and highlight distinctive campus resources, such as the Michael C. Carlos Museum and Yerkes Research Center, says Zimmerman.

"We're still in the process of talking about what the next phase will look like," Zimmerman says. "Assuming we continue with Coursera, I think we will want to be even more strategic about the kinds of courses we produce."

That challenge is driven both by a desire to highlight Emory's areas of eminence and by issues of long-term financial sustainability, one topic that remains unresolved for many universities.

While Coursera classes are free, some institutions — including Emory — offer an optional "signature track," which provides a certificate of completion for a modest fee.

Recently, Coursera has also introduced "specialization" certificates — students complete a series of three to five related classes and pay $250 to $500 to demonstrate mastery of subjects ranging from music production and trends in global affairs to online teaching and app development.

"Everything is being continually assessed — we're not going into this with our eyes closed to the costs," Zimmerman says, adding that a cost-analysis is now being conducted with the support of the Business Practice Improvement (BPI) Office.

"We need to look not only at what it costs to produce one of these courses versus what we receive through signature track enrollment, but how our classes are taking Emory to the world, which can be hard to put a dollar figure on," she says.

"We don't ever want to only offer courses that produce revenue — that would not be representative of Emory," she adds.

"We want to be able to have a range of courses. But in order to be sustainable financially, we need to have some courses that are capable of generating significant revenue, part of the next phase of being strategic."