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


It wasn’t hard to find professors eager to join the experiment as Conway did. After all, he says it always has been his goal “to get as many people in the world as possible to speak the language of statistics.” 

Conway spent weeks last summer in the basement of Lewis Library on the preparation and taping of his 18 hours of lectures. He had help from Jeffrey Himpele *96, an anthro­pologist and documentary filmmaker who is senior associate director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and McGraw’s Laura Shaddock, who put Velcro on an iPad for Conway to wear on his hand like a paddle so he wouldn’t have to hunch over a laptop to show his slides. Conway and fellow professor David Wentzlaff both remarked on the extensive amount of time they had to spend in the Broadcast Center working with the staff there to ensure their detailed slides could be read by the global audience, some of them watching lectures not on laptops but on smartphones and other small devices. “We spent a lot of time in rehearsal just getting the color of fonts right,” says Conway.

By late August, two weeks before the start of Princeton classes and the launch of his Coursera class, Conway had 14 of 18 lectures in the can and was rushing to finish the rest. “I’m teaching two classes this fall, and our No. 1 obligation is to the Princeton students,” he said then. “When they arrive, that’s my job. I can’t spend any time on Coursera.”

Little did he know.

When the course went live, students overseas had trouble downloading the statistical software needed to do homework. The negative feedback on discussion forums was hard to take “because it was so many people and it was public,” Conway says. “We weren’t addressing glitches fast enough.” But “we righted the ship two weeks in,” he adds. Although the course was billed as “a friendly introduction to very simple, very basic, fundamental concepts,” the software programming language called R proved a stumbling block; Conway admits it’s tough for even his Princeton students to learn. 

Online, everyone feels free to carp. “Princeton students are not that blunt — and there aren’t that many of them,” says Conway, whose own brother, a systems analyst, groused, “You’ve been at Princeton for eight years. You’ve forgotten how to talk with people.” But there were also kudos from strangers, such as the waitress who preferred Conway’s videos to a live instructor in her M.B.A. program.

Mitchell Duneier
Mitchell Duneier

Duneier led off the experiment for Princeton, teaching “Introduction to Sociology” to 40,000 people over six weeks at summer’s start. Duneier recounted his experience in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (reprinted in PAW Oct. 19, as “The world is his classroom”) that traced his path from skeptic (thinking beforehand it would be “inevitably a pale reflection of on-campus learning”) to enthusiast. He was struck by the thousands of questions that were posted: in discussion forums; from study groups in coffee shops in Katmandu and pubs in London; by students in Nepal, Siberia, and Nigeria; and by a Philadelphia firefighter and an Atlanta travel agent. Duneier had no trouble with fonts or colors because he eschews PowerPoints and slides, instead lecturing without notes while sitting in a big, blue easy chair. “I don’t allow anything to come between me and my students,” he says. 

When he first returned to an empty McCosh 50 after Commencement to record the lectures for Coursera, he found himself “completely unable” to do it. “I couldn’t connect with people’s eyes,” he says. He started over again in the Broadcast Center, but still felt discomfort talking to the camera until the big, blue chair was trundled over from McCosh. Each week Duneier held seminar-like videochats with some of his far-flung students, as well as two Princeton students interning with him for the summer. The chats then were posted on the Coursera website for all to watch.

All the Princeton offerings drew students by the tens of thousands. Wentzlaff taught computer architecture. “Some [students] had the right backgrounds, some didn’t. There’s probably not 48,000 people in the world with the right background to take this course, frankly,” he says with a laugh. Software programmers from Silicon Valley took the course, as did two professors in India interested in using the lectures in their own classes. Most of the 48,000 fell quickly by the wayside. Wentzlaff said 1,000 to 2,000 watched videos and did quizzes each week, but only 200 took the tough midterm and final, which were graded by fellow students. Wentzlaff doesn’t know how many passed.

Of Duneier’s 40,000 students, 2,500 took the midterm and 1,200 took the final, but “tens of thousands were watching the videos and posting in the forums,” he says. “It’s just a different kind of experience. They are getting out of it what they want to get out of it.”

Electrical engineering professor Mung Chiang and Adelman were the most daring of Princeton’s Coursera experimenters, teaching their classes to their Princeton students at the same time. The Princeton students had more and longer assignments — projects for Chiang’s “Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes” class, essays for Adelman’s global-history students — but both professors dispensed entirely with live lectures. From their bedroom, library, or coffee shop, everyone watched lectures broken into seven- to 20-minute chunks interspersed with simple multiple-choice questions to see if the students understood the lesson. 

Chiang and Adelman had their Princeton students watch the taped lectures ahead of time and prepare to discuss them in a regular class or precept. Chiang created the “Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes” course in 2011, trying to entice today’s wired generation of students into unravelling the mystery of computer networks with such puzzlers as how Netflix makes movie recommendations, why Wi-Fi is slower in hotspots, and why the Internet doesn’t collapse under congestion. The course involved significant math as well as curiosity about the innards of the wired life. Chiang required his 30 students to show up twice a week for his 80-minute class to work through computer-networking problems together and pose questions. 

He also posted all the videos on YouTube (the other Princeton lectures are visible only to those who enroll through Coursera, and they disappear when the course is over). Chiang’s passion for teaching the world is explained in part by his personal journey from poverty in mainland China to opportunity as a schoolboy in Hong Kong to a scholarship and three degrees from Stanford University. The 35-year-old says of Princeton’s venture into online education: “This is living out the motto of this university. Education is the main service we can provide to all nations.” 

Chiang also says good riddance to live lectures. “Class time is for two-way interactions,” he says. When a professor stands there lecturing, “almost no one is paying attention. Most are checking email, Facebook, texting, tweeting, (or) finishing the homework. It’s a total waste of faculty and student time,” he says. Demonstrating that no good deed goes unpunished, a Coursera student in India posted Chiang’s 491-page textbook, Networked Life: 20 Questions and Answers — retail price $45 — online. 

Perhaps no one is more enthusiastic about the Coursera experiment than Adelman, a Latin America historian and director of the Council for International Teaching and Research, an entity created in 2008 as part of President Tilghman’s push to internationalize the campus. Adelman’s videos drew more than 1 million views and generated 400,000 comments in the discussion forums. The urbane, telegenic Adelman also hosted nine “global conversations” in a Woodrow Wilson School classroom bowl, where he interviewed other Princeton historians — Oprah-style — about different epochs, from the Ottoman Empire to the history of photography to the German siege of Leningrad in World War II (a Russian student took umbrage at Adelman’s mention that some starving Russians resorted to cannibalism during the nearly three-year siege).

Attendance at these global conversations was voluntary for the Princeton students. Adelman was hard-pressed to get as many as a third of his students to show up at 9 a.m., despite free bagels, pastries, juice, and coffee. He also staged two “Global Precepts” that linked a half-dozen student volunteers with a half-dozen international students via a Google video chatroom. Adelman tendered invites to some of the most active and insightful participants in the online forums. Seated around a triangular desk in the dark Broadcast Center studio, with professional cutaways and close-ups, the Prince­tonians looked as they might on Charlie Rose. But technological difficulties slowed the conversation with people from Italy, Venezuela, Australia, and China (the student there had to use Skype, since China censors Google).

Some of those participants later shared their views about the experience with PAW. Vikram Tandon, a retired PepsiCo executive in Delhi, India, extolled Adelman’s “erudition, ­energy, enthusiasm, and humor. ... I have come away from this course absolutely thrilled with what I have gained.” From Caracas, Venezuela, Lucia Fernandez, a stay-at-home mother with a law degree who once dreamed of becoming a historian, said that “this brief course has been a delight that I can’t begin to describe.” Derek Law of Hong Kong, a Stanford-educated engineer and business strategist who spends his free time reading about history, philosophy, and literature, thought the Global Precepts were “fantastic.” He devoted 15 to 20 hours a week to the class: “I got hooked on it.” 

These students tended to be older professionals and lifelong learners with college degrees, not barefoot teenagers with no access to higher education. Most of the 500,000 who enrolled in Princeton classes were from outside the United States, including large contingents from India and Brazil, Marsh says.

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