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

Andrew Conway
Andrew Conway
PHOTO: PETER MURPHY

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.

Wentzlaff
Wentzlaff
PHOTO: PETER MURPHY

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
PHOTO: PETER MURPHY

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.

Jeremy Adelman
Jeremy Adelman
PHOTO: PETER MURPHY

Adelman also put me in touch with Jonathan Rees, a labor historian and professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo, who took the course to learn more global history but also as reconnaissance behind enemy lines. Rees is a strong trade unionist who views MOOCs as a threat to professors’ jobs and student learning. “MOOCs exist so they can be automatic. It’s education by machinery,” says Rees, who wrote thousands of words about Adelman’s class on his blog, “More or Less Bunk.” He is highly complimentary of Adelman’s abilities but caustic about the structure, including grading of essays by fellow Coursera students. He notes the tremendous attrition rate — fewer than 2,000 of Adelman’s 92,000 students wrote essays — and concludes that “every student deserves a caring education professional directly monitoring their progress,” not computer-graded quizzes.

The collegial Adelman not only followed Rees’ blog, but contributed comments there. “I can’t really congratulate him enough for his good sportsmanship, for putting up with my sniping,” says Rees. Adelman did not know that Rees was the son of the late labor economist Albert Rees, a Princeton professor and provost in the 1970s. The younger Rees grew up in Princeton, graduated from Penn, and was an AFL-CIO researcher before moving into academe. “Jeremy’s intentions are completely noble and extremely admirable, but even an instrument for good can be turned into an instrument for evil,” Rees says. “To focus on the continuing-education aspects of MOOCs is to deny the higher-education reality that there are people who are trying their best to cut labor costs.” He and Adelman will debate the issues on a panel at the American Historical Association’s meeting in January 2014.

However exciting were the conversations online, Adelman found that his Princeton students were oblivious to them. They weren’t required to follow them, and most didn’t. He thought he was more present than ever in his Princeton students’ lives (“they see me on their laptops, they see me at the live dialogues, they get emails from me a lot more often”), but the student evaluations at the course’s end were “very mixed,” to which Adelman was unaccustomed.

“The one thing I learned about this experience is that the spinal cord of a conventional Princeton survey course like this one is the lectures,” Adelman says. “Once I took the spinal cord out, the course went quite gelatinous. It lost its structure. So I have to build it back in.” He also found that students fell behind watching the lectures in the week they were assigned for discussion in precepts. “That wasn’t good,” he says. 

Again this fall, Adelman’s global-history students in Princeton will have to log into Coursera to watch his taped lecures, just as the masses do. For the Princeton students, he hopes to rebuild the course’s spine by scrapping precepts and replacing them with projects requiring teamwork. “I will be their coach,” he says. Students will be expected to post threads online “and get the rest of the world’s ideas on things they are working on.”

Adelman remains an enthusiast about the potential he sees in this lectures-on-tape format for both Princeton students and the global audience. Notwithstanding the mixed student reviews, he says, “I have never seen such good final papers (and) take-home exams in 20 years of Princeton teaching.” The students, he adds, benefited from “being able to replay lectures and work off comprehensive notes instead of the hasty scrawl derived from watching live lectures.” 

Sara Gonzalez, a sophomore from Avon, Conn., says she loved Adelman’s taped lectures at first “because I was able to watch them on my own time, and taking notes was much easier with a pause button. But after some time, I felt that I missed out on a connection with the professor. I wish I had gotten more face-time with him. Some of the spontaneity of lecturing live is lost.” Her father, Mario Gonzalez ’77, was surprised that this was what they were getting for their tuition dollars.

Mario Gonzalez, an Argentine-born businessman, says he is “happy that Princeton is using the Web to expand its global reach and to share its vast pool of knowledge,” but watching lectures on video “robs the student of the most important component of the Princeton experience: the ability to question and interact with some of the most accomplished people in the world.”

At least a second year of the experiment is planned, Marsh says, with the pioneers repeating their courses and Nassau Hall soliciting ideas and volunteers for additional ones. Chiang is planning a new, less demanding version of his ­networks course for Coursera’s audience this summer. He isn’t calling it “Networking for Dummies,” but says no math beyond simple addition will be required. Claire Gmachl, another electrical engineering professor, used Coursera to tape lectures for Princeton students in a class this spring, but the course was not shared with the world. 

Professor Robert Sedgewick, founder of Princeton’s ­computer science department, believes online education “is the future. The old way — a professor just sitting at a blackboard — is not efficient. It is just not going to work.” Sedgewick, who co-taught two algorithms classes on Coursera with Kevin Wayne and taught other classes on his own, calls MOOCs “an unbelievable opportunity for somebody who’s committed to disseminating knowledge” and says the University “should be investing in this on the scale of their investment in the library [annual budget: about $54 million]. If Princeton doesn’t, other institutions will.”

But Princeton’s future in MOOCs is still far from determined. “There’s a lot of hype around some of this online activity that suggests it’s a kind of panacea that automatically produces better education. We know that’s not the case,” says Eisgruber. “I think we are finding things that do work. I would expect us to find things that don’t work for us. ... We’re taking a critical attitude and figuring out where the benefits are for Princeton.”

Might MOOCs pose a threat to Princeton’s intensive, residential-education model? Not at all, he believes. Coursera won’t “diminish the demand for a Princeton education one iota,” Eisgruber says. “It will have the opposite effect. It will give people a peek at what we’re offering — and more people will be clamoring for it.” 

Christopher Connell ’71 is an independent higher-education writer in Washington, D.C.