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The Way of the Future

Online education has been a part of UVA for years, but Coursera opens the University to the world

If it were a typical class, UVA physics professor Louis Bloomfield says he would need Scott Stadium to seat the students who’ve signed up for his “How Things Work” seminar this January. Bloomfield isn’t bragging: More than 20,000 students from around the world have enrolled in his course.

Luckily, none of them will have to brave the cold to watch Bloomfield lecture on the Hoo Vision jumbo screen: His class will be taught on Coursera, a new online course system that gives universities the ability to reach more students than few could imagine just two years ago.

Bloomfield—one of five UVA professors who will teach a noncredit Coursera class next year—envisions an interactive class where thousands of students will watch videos of him explaining the physics of a bicycle as he rides one.

“This will reach people who otherwise have very little exposure to science at all, let alone physics,” Bloomfield says. “I tend to get interested in new ventures and taking risks.”

The move to Coursera, a for-profit company considered the leader in providing massive online open courses, or MOOCs, vastly expands UVA’s online reach. A total of more than 60,000 students have signed up for the University’s five courses.

The university announced its agreement with Coursera in July, within days of President Teresa Sullivan’s reinstatement by the Board of Visitors. The board initially sought her resignation in part because some members believed Sullivan was not moving UVA fast enough into online education.

The College of Arts & Sciences and the Darden School had for months been looking into ways to offer a sampling of UVA classes through MOOCs; however, their negotiations with Coursera seemed to come as a pleasant surprise to Sullivan and members of the Board.

“I applaud the president, deans, and faculty members for their efforts and results,” University Rector Helen Dragas (Col ’84, Darden ’88) told the Washington Post after the Coursera partnership was announced. “I think it’s fair to say that work was going on that some members of senior administration may not have known about.”

While the entrepreneurial spirit that led to the Coursera agreement is typical of how many new programs are introduced to the University, the late-breaking nature of the announcement illustrated for many how decentralized the efforts are to integrate emerging technologies into the classroom at UVA.

To create a more comprehensive picture and assess relevant efforts across Grounds, Sullivan asked the Faculty Senate in July to provide an overview of online education at UVA. It found that online educational technology is being integrated into most traditional classroom courses, with professors using it for everything from group video chatting to digital media labs where they can work with students in creating 3-D animation.

The senate also highlighted that UVA, like many universities, has for years offered online degrees and classes. Graduate students can take online courses in everything from engineering to education, and there are a host of UVA certificate programs offered by the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, from project management to public administration.

The faculty report listed numerous other initiatives, such as the Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI), which works to promote ways information technology can support research and learning. There’s also the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities (IATH), which has been researching ways to develop information technology as a tool for scholarly humanities research since 1992.

And there are various digital collaborative initiatives across Grounds that provide space for students and faculty to work together on projects digitally.

“Instruction and scholarly activities at UVA—and I’m sure at any other large institution like ours—have become so tightly interwoven with the digital environment and online technologies that you cannot separate them anymore,” says biomedical engineering professor William Guilford, who chaired the faculty task force that compiled the report. “They are all one big, inexorably intertwined blob.”

After her reinstatement, Sullivan also announced a grant program for professors to develop more “hybrid” classes that blend in-person interactions—such as class discussions, group work and lectures—with Web-based or digital technologies like online course materials and assignments, group websites and blogs.

Ten professors each won a $10,000 grant. That means that this year, students in professor Malathi Veeraraghavan’s computer networking class have access to more online materials, including videos of Veeraraghavan working out problems herself and showing different techniques of dealing with network issues.

And students in Emily Scida’s “Elementary Spanish” can take online grammar tutorials, which will free up class time for more practice in simulating real-life, in-person communication, an example of the “flipped” method of online teaching that Sullivan says she believes is most likely to change learning on college campuses.

“The promise is that you have more quality time with your professor,” says Peter Rodriguez, Darden’s senior associate dean for degree programs and chief diversity officer. “You’re not sharing in monologue, you are engaging in dialogue.”

Except in Christian Gromoll’s probability class. The math professor says he’s still giving the standard in-class lectures, but used his grant to create a software program that allows students to master concepts through repeated—and unique—quizzes throughout the semester until they are satisfied with their scores.

The University’s partnership with Coursera, however, is the most controversial aspect of weaving technology into the UVA learning experience.

Coursera’s founders and other proponents of MOOCs claim their model will revolutionize higher education. They envision a future where millions of people will become empowered through access to a world-class education—and the professors who provide it—for free.

“This is helping professors teach their passion to a very large audience,” says Andrew Ng, one of the founders of Coursera.

But skeptics say MOOCs carry significant risks to institutions like UVA. MOOCs can require costly investments in their creation—one college is rumored to have spent millions creating a single MOOC course—and there is little financial return: The courses, after all, are tuition free.

In addition, Coursera, like most companies offering MOOCs, has yet to develop a way to prevent cheating or plagiarism—a troubling hurdle for a school that prides itself on a one-of-a-kind honor system crafted out of Jeffersonian ideals.

“We know these issues are on the horizon,” says Stephen Nash (Col ’13), chair of UVA’s Honor Committee. “They are ones we have to grapple with and think carefully about.”

Students and administrators who are unconvinced about the initiative find relief in the fact that, for now, the University’s venture is experimental in nature. No credits or certificates will be offered, and administrators will be closely watching for the effect Coursera has on teaching methods and the the university’s bottom line.

The first MOOC was held in 2007—a lifetime ago in the digital era—as a graduate psychology course taught at Utah State University. Typically, the class had five students. As a MOOC, 50 enrolled.

Not long after, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a hodgepodge of computer programs such as RSS feeds, Moodle and Second Life to distribute content to thousands of students at once.

MOOCS gained momentum last year when 160,000 students signed up for an artificial intelligence course run through Stanford University on what is now known as Udacity, a competitor to Coursera.

Typical online courses differ from MOOCs because they are largely aimed at mid-career students, require an application process and charge tuition. Their enrollments are in the dozens, not the tens of thousands.

Yet there’s very little research that shows online instruction can be as effective as face-to-face learning. Online education strips away the crucial dialogue between a student and professor, what UVA Professor Mark Edmundson opined in the New York Times as the “improvisation” of teaching.

“MOOCs, as they are currently constructed, take the worst things about higher education and amplify them,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, chair of UVA’s media studies department. “If you think that a lecture of 400 students is an imperfect learning environment, then you better believe a computer screen that’s going to connect 5,000 students is a much worse thing.”

Coursera was launched in April of this year by Ng and Daphne Koller, both Stanford University computer science professors. The company has about $22 million in financing, including $3.7 million in equity investments from the California Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, according to several reports.

The company received a major boost when several top-tier universities, including Stanford and Princeton, signed up for the program last summer. More than 200 courses offered by 30 universities are currently offered through Coursera, which boasts a student enrollment of more than one million.

Part of Coursera’s draw for universities is that it provides a platform that many have struggled to create. To support so many students for a course, information technology departments would have to work around the clock to make sure videos and quizzes are posted in a timely manner and servers don’t crash.

“It’s never been done on that scale,” Ng says. “A university would have to put in a lot of work into developing a system that would work.”

But there are still costs for universities, even on Coursera. Robert Bruner, dean of the Darden School of Business, notes in his blog that online education “is more likely to spawn losses for the traditional not-for-profit colleges and universities—this stems from the cost of creating digital content and reinventing programs.”

John Simon, UVA’s provost, believes it’s an investment worth making.

“We do see technology playing an increasingly important role in the delivery of information,” says Simon. “We are convinced that technology can enhance learning, and we will have to experiment to determine how to use technology best.”

Vaidhyanathan agrees that the experimentation with technology is necessary. But when it comes to MOOCs, he warns that should profit pressures increase for Coursera, academics—and UVA’s reputation—could suffer.

“If they’re going to get into business with a for-profit company like Coursera, they better do so very carefully, with a strong sense of the academic mission and without any illusion that companies don’t have their own motives,” he says. “We [could] be encouraged to adjust our curriculum to maximize consumer response rather than any academic endeavor. To dumb down our courses to reach the largest base. They could ask us not to talk about anything controversial in fear of alienating consumers. Everyone is a potential consumer.”

Terry Moe, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a domestic policy think tank, says the questions being raised about MOOCs at UVA are common at many universities.

“Look, these universities are thinking, ‘We need to get on board and we need to get involved and we want to be on the cutting edge of this thing,’” says Moe. “It’s providing some of the best content to the whole world at a very low to marginal cost. This has never been true in the history of the world. It’s a mind blower.”

But for Gromoll, the math professor, what’s mind blowing is how the developing technology can directly affect student learning.

“The most important element with what I am doing is making the technology provide a motivation for students to practice much more than they usually do,” Gromoll says. “That’s the secret in math, it’s work, practice. So the technology allows me to sort of turn exams on their head. As we know, students will go to great lengths to improve their scores.”


Colleen Kelly
Associate Professor and Director of the MFA Acting Program

Course: Acting I
“I’ve created a series of behind-the-scenes videos for acting students to watch outside of class before they see a play the department is putting on. There are interviews I do with the costume designers, the lighting people, everyone who has a hand in the play but that acting students might not realize has an impact on acting. Then the students are required to dialogue with students from other sections of the class and come to their class prepared to have a discussion. I’ve found the videos add a depth of perspective for students. They understand that during the rehearsal process, things are different than how they might be in the play. They can see what that process is about, how a scene evolves. In the past they would have a dialogue about what they saw in the play, but not have access to see what it took to put it on. They would go see the play and then talk in class with a professor about their experience. This is opening up a new level of knowledge for them.”

Christian Gromoll
Associate Professor of Mathematics

Course: Probability
“In a traditional math class, a student works on homework and has some quizzes, and that all works toward a final. But students typically don’t invest that much time in practicing. One of the biggest challenges is to motivate a student to practice problems. So I designed software to facilitate that. For each unit they can take a quiz as often as they want. and we take their highest grade. It’s a great deal for the students, but the most important element is that it provides a motivation for them to practice much more than they do.
The average student takes about four to five quizzes per unit, some as many as seven or eight. Traditional, one-time exams give partial credit to allow for mistakes that students make that are not gaps in their knowledge. Having multiple exams is sort of the replacement for that. It’s very early to see if it’s making a difference in how effectively the students are learning, but anecdotally the later quiz scores are higher than the initial ones.”

Emily Scida
Associate Professor of Spanish

Course: Elementary Spanish
“I am using technology to ‘flip’ as much of the typical class material to outside the class, leaving more time in class to apply more real-life scenarios of speaking Spanish.
We actually began having hybrid courses 10 years ago, but there was no interactive part to the old software. We wanted something that could provide a more cultural and interactive experience. We still wanted the quizzing function, but we also wanted something that was rich in cultural interaction. We found one that provides a video that’s sort of a newscast on a cultural aspect, say family. Students watch the video and they get quizzed on it, but they also are asked to ‘help’ the reporter acquire more information by interacting with it, completing a series of tasks. It seems that students are better prepared in class, though it’s early to know for sure.”


Foundations of Business Strategy
Michael J. Lenox (Engr ’93, ’94)
Students will explore the underlying theory and frameworks that provide the foundations of a successful business strategy. Lenox, who teaches at the Darden School of Business, was recently recognized as one of the top strategy professors under 40 in the U.S.

Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses, Parts I & II
Edward D. Hess (Law ’71)
This course focuses on common challenges faced by existing private businesses when they attempt to grow. Hess teaches at Darden and is an executive-in-residence at Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepre-neurship and Innovation. His book, Smart Growth, was named a Top 25 book for business owners by Inc. magazine in 2010.

How Things Work 1
Louis A. Bloomfield
Designed for non-science students, this course is a practical introduction to physics and science in everyday life. It considers objects from the world around us, identifying and exploring the scientific concepts upon which they’re based. Bloomfield, a professor of physics, has been teaching at UVA since 1985. He is a former co-host of a television series on the Discovery Channel and has appeared on the National Geographic Channel.

Know Thyself
Mitchell Green
The course is described as an investigation of the nature and limits of self-knowledge from the viewpoints of philosophy, psychoanalysis, experimental psychology, neuroscience, aesthetics and Buddhism. Green is a professor of philosophy. His research concerns the nature of cognition and emotion and the relation of both to communication in our own species and in others’.

The Modern World: Global History since 1760
Philip Zelikow
This class begins with the revolutions of the late 1700s, tracks the transformation of the world during the 1800s, and analyzes the cataclysms of the last century, concluding with the new phase of world history we are experiencing today. Philip Zelikow is a history professor and the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 2003-04, he directed the 9/11 Commission. He currently serves as a part-time member of President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.