Last week, Wesleyan officially became the first liberal arts institution with an undergraduate focus to join Coursera, an organization offering free online courses to the public. When Wesleyan and 16 other universities signed their agreements with the fledgling company, they more than doubled the number of Coursera’s participating institutions.

“Our work with Coursera will be an experiment with online education from which we are sure to learn,” President Michael Roth wrote in his weekly blog. “Wesleyan has long been a champion of educational innovation, and this partnership with Coursera is just the latest step in that tradition.”

Founded in April 2012 by two Stanford Computer Science Department faculty members, Coursera claims almost 1.5 million members in its nearly 200 free massive open online courses (MOOCs) taught by faculty from 33 American and international schools.

“We hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few,” Coursera’s website vision statement says. “We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

Roth, who will teach “The Modern and the Postmodern” as one of Wesleyan’s five initial offerings, indicated that he believes the Coursera platform will provide the University with favorable publicity.

“We will make Wesleyan’s classes visible to many thousands of people who might not otherwise know about the great educational experience we offer here in Middletown,” he wrote in an email to The Argus. “Wesleyan will learn about online instruction while sharing some of the work of our wonderful faculty.”

Professor of Classical Studies Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, who will teach a course entitled “The Ancient Greeks,” said he was impressed by the potential reach of Coursera’s MOOCs.

“When I was asked to participate, I agreed because my interest was piqued by the prospect of reaching thousands of students around the world, most of whom would have had no other way to learn about Greek history,” he said. “The fact that there are going to be people all over the world, from Brazil to Russia to East Asia to Africa, who might learn a little bit about Ancient Greece and find it enriching for the way they think about their lives and what they’re doing—however naïve it may seem—really appeals to me.”

Roth said that the faculty members selected to teach Wesleyan’s first online courses met three criteria: their expressed interest, their experience with successfully teaching large classes, and their willingness to experiment.

In addition to Roth and Szegedy-Maszak, three other Wesleyan faculty members will offer MOOCs. Professor and Chair of Economics Richard Adelstein will teach “Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics,” Professor of Psychology Lisa Dierker will teach “Passion-Driven Statistics,” and Associate Professor of Film Studies Scott Higgins will teach “The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color.”

The five Wesleyan courses will not begin until February, but as of Friday they had an aggregate enrollment of over 10,000 students, Szegedy-Maszak wrote in an email to The Argus.

“That’s not a typo,” he added.

Each MOOC comprises a series of about 35 ten-to-fifteen minute video lectures presented over five to seven weeks. In addition to adapting to the video format, Adelstein noted that he will have to modify the way he presents the content of his lectures.

“[At Wesleyan] I teach in fifty-minute chunks, not in fifteen-minute chunks,” he said. “I can digress, I can tell jokes, I can spin out of context, I can take an example and tell a story about it [when] I have forty minutes to talk about it. But I can’t do that in fifteen minutes, so I’m going to need some practice.”

Most, but not all, of the institutions offering MOOCs on the Coursera platform award a certificate of completion to their online students. The evaluation of members takes several forms including online quizzes and peer-review through online chats. For some of the Wesleyan-sponsored courses, the nature of the assigned homework and the methods, if any, for evaluating students are yet to be determined.

Szegedy-Maszak said that he anticipates that anyone who gets a passing grade will receive a certificate from Coursera indicating successful completion of the course. But he emphasized the difference between such a certificate and an academic course credit that can be transferred to a four-year institution.

“I think of this type of learning as enrichment because someone can follow a subject pretty much at his or her own pace and get something out of it,” he said. “It can’t—and it’s not meant to—replicate the experience of taking a full class at Wesleyan, but I think it can still be engaging and useful.”

Adelstein said he would prefer to follow Princeton’s model in giving his lectures.

“You can watch them or you cannot watch them, and you don’t have to do anything,” he said. “I’ll drop in on the chat rooms occasionally, and at the end, I won’t sign anything.”

At present, Coursera’s online courses are free. Szegedy-Maszak said that he believes this feature is attractive.

“I like the fact that it’s free, at least for the time being,” he said. “The idea of democratizing the material is very appealing to me. We’re using material that we have developed at Wesleyan, an elite liberal arts institution, and we’re making it accessible to many people who—for reasons of culture, geography, economics, etc.—could never come here.”

Coursera does not pay anything to its participating institutions or their lecturers. Each school bears the cost of producing the videos and the stipends it gives its faculty.

“Coursera is contributing nothing financially, and so Wesleyan is donating these five courses, picking up the entire tab for producing all of [them],” Adelstein noted.

In his email to The Argus, President Roth wrote that Wesleyan’s costs of producing the videos are limited.

“Our own investment is modest,” Roth wrote. “And Coursera is exploring different revenue models.”

Adelstein said he doubts that the current model of schools footing the cost of the courses will be sustainable.

“What I suspect Coursera ultimately wants to do is to make money doing this, and what that is going to ultimately require is that someone’s going to have to pay for the courses,” he said. “And if somebody pays for a course, they’re going to want something in return, a certificate, or something.”

Adelstein said he is nevertheless intrigued by the prospect of opening up his lectures to people around the world.

“I think in my course I have something important to say, and it’s different from what all the other professors of law and economics teach,” he said. “[I’m doing it] because it sounds like fun. I could realize my lifelong ambition to become a rock star. If there are 40,000 people who are hanging on my every word in fifteen-minute chunks, I could go viral!”

In addition to Wesleyan, the schools currently contributing to the Coursera platform include: Brown University, California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Duke University, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Ohio State University, Princeton University, Stanford University, among many other higher education institutions.

  • Adelstein IS a rock star, he just wears the economist mustache