Current Issue

May 15, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 12


The future of education?

As the world gets a taste of Princeton, Princeton gets ideas to improve at home

By Christopher Connell ’71
Published in the May 15, 2013, issue

Andrew Conway
Andrew Conway

Andrew Conway, a senior lecturer in psychology, was skeptical when Princeton’s leaders began discussing with the faculty whether to join the rush by the country’s top universities to teach courses over the Internet to the world. “I thought we ­needed to keep Princeton, Princeton,” Conway recalls. “We should be like Broadway: no ­cameras, no cellphones, no videos. To experience Princeton, you have to go to Princeton.”

But last fall Conway found himself teaching his introductory statistics course, which normally enrolls 80 students, to 95,000 students online. Strangers came up to him in New York’s Penn Station to ask, “Are you Professor Conway from Coursera?” So did a waitress in a midtown restaurant.

“Never would I have imagined there’d be that many,” says Conway. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

Coursera is the education company launched last year by Stanford University computer scientists Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller to allow anyone in the world to take courses — free — with videotaped lectures embedded with quizzes, computer-graded homework assignments, and online forums. The companies are called MOOCs, for “massive, open, online courses,” and Coursera offered classes from Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and Michigan. Now it lists more than 300 courses from 62 colleges and universities on three continents. These are like the public-television courses of old on steroids, with two-way interaction and pedagogical techniques for ensuring that students understand what they are watching. 

For some of these masses, there also is the carrot of certificates of completion that they may be able to use to impress employers or even university admission officers. Coursera has arranged with Duke University, the University of California-Irvine, and the University of Pennsylvania to offer five courses for credit, with students paying for a proctored exam and for a “transcript” from the American Council on Education’s credit-recommendation service.

The half-million students who signed up for Princeton’s nine free classes receive neither credit nor certificates — just the satisfaction of tasting an education that now costs $56,570 a year. It remains very much an experiment, but one that has stirred excitement among faculty members who believe it will pay dividends for the quality of instruction for undergraduates. 

“A year ago I’d never heard of Coursera or a MOOC or any of this stuff,” says Conway. “Now I actually joined Twitter to keep up on the MOOC news.” 

Coursera, which describes itself as “a social-entrepreneurship company,” has raised $22 million from venture capitalists. It is organized for profit, but that is a long way down the road. MIT and Harvard each pledged $30 million to get their rival company, edX, a nonprofit, off the ground. There’s also Udacity, another for-profit startup that sprang out of Stanford’s computer science department. 

Quantitative courses such as computer science, math, and engineering still are the big draws of the MOOC world, but Coursera and its rivals all are expanding into social sciences and arts and letters. From the start, Princeton offered Mitchell Duneier’s “Intro­duction to Sociology” and Jeremy Adelman’s “A History of the World Since 1300,” along with courses in statistics, math, and computer science. 

While altruism and a desire to share knowledge are driving some of this ferment over MOOCs, some participants are hoping to make money by charging for credits or certification, building skilled talent for corporations, and pumping up textbook sales. Notwithstanding its nonprofit status, edX is charging its dozen universities $250,000 to post a new course online and promising a 70 percent share of any revenues generated.

Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, Princeton’s president-elect, says Princeton isn’t in the MOOC business for the money, but to “advance the University’s mission and improve the quality of education that we offer students on our campus and reach people who are not on our campus.” While other institutions’ motives may differ, “our first objective is to make sure we are delivering to Princeton students the best education we can.” He questions whether MOOCs will generate revenue at all, but adds, “that’s something Coursera and others worry about. We’re not focused on that. We’re focused on education.”

Princeton’s bet on MOOCs thus far is modest: about $250,000 to tape lectures in classrooms and the University’s state-of-the-art, three-camera Broadcast Center, as well as course-development grants for faculty and stipends for graduate assistants, says Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh ’85, Nassau Hall’s point person for the experiment. Marsh, an attorney who focused on intellectual-property issues when he worked in the University’s general counsel’s office and in private practice, notes that Princeton’s arrangement with Coursera isn’t exclusive. The University remains free to offer online courses on its own or with Coursera’s rivals.

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