Free On-line Classes: Fantasy and Science Fiction?

Yesterday, in From Silicon Valley, A New Approach To Education, NPR highlighted the free-online class offerings of Coursera. If the purpose of Coursera was solely “to bring more classes from elite universities to students around the world for free online,” then an ESN Facebook wall recommendation to check-out Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World (and other offerings) would have been plenty. Why? In an idealistic way I agree with Daphne Koller (Stanford), “By providing what is a truly high-quality educational experience to so many students for free, I think we can really change many, many people’s lives.” . . . Question: Do you agree?

But I was taken aback by the assertion, that “online classes could bring university classes to millions of people who are now effectively cut off.” Why?

  1. On-line education demands the resources necessary to access it.
  2. The question of the “value” of free on-line classes to those “effectively cut off” when no credit is offered.

Three stories:

    • Free online classes and the questions they raise are not as new as one might think. A friend of ESN working in The UofC law library shared with me
      • “Ever since I came across Yale’s online courses about 2 years ago, I have wondered when this idea was going to catch on. Yale has quite an array of courses online, though they are not set up for human interaction or for grading. Why do this?? . . . Colleges and universities can extend their influence quickly and extensively with such courses. People from anywhere in the world would be able to take courses they would never otherwise engage. Major challenge – how many free courses? How much to pay for the rest, so that they can count for a degree (bold added by author of this post).”
    • An ESN Facebook wall response to my initial post asking “Can/will online classes ‘bring university classes to millions of people who are now effectively cut off’?”

    • “The issue of geographical isolation from university level education is something that we have had to think about a lot in the Scottish Highlands, a region (half the country) which never had a university until 2011, despite the Lowlands of Scotland having four dating from the fifteenth century! Establishing the University of the Highlands and Islands has been part of the reinvigoration of a historically deprived and exploited region which still has significant geographical challenges. We use a mix of online courses and ‘blended learning’ which enables students in remote locations to participate in tutorials using video conferencing. In Scotland university education is free for all undergraduate students anyway, so cost isn’t an issue as it is in the above article. The advent of this type of technology though, has meant that people in ‘remote’ (a very relative term!) areas have been able to access higher education for the first time, without having to abandon already fragile communities. . . . This link is to my own department, which is at the forefront of developing these regionally sensitive methods of learning: . . . I’d be fascinated to know where the students were located who were taking advantage of the course featured in the article (bold added by author of this post).
  • I have a friend who serves with the Haitian Connection Network. They are establishing learning centers in Port–au-Prince, Haiti in partnership with the University of the People. Currently, University of the People offers the following four “practical” undergraduate degrees:
    • Associate (A.S.-B.A.) and Bachelor (B.S.-B.A.) degrees in Business Administration
    • Associate (A.S.-C.S.) and Bachelor (B.S.-C.S.) degrees in Computer Science.

A Wrap (for now): It strikes me that Coursera is ideal for the academic/curious, homeschoolers (maybe they could get credit for it), high achieving high schoolers, a retirement community group, a local discussion group, etc. The material provides an excellent opportunity for continuing ed (a more interactive form of The Great Courses), an avenue to get ahead, a broadening of  horizons. But to “bring university classes to millions of people who are now effectively cut off” through on-lines classes:

  1. significant resources are necessary to participate in these classes, i.e., focused web resource/access for the on-line class offering. In the United States, I think partnerships with libraries, local community centers, and educational outreach programs are vital. From a “global” perspective, how helpful are the classes to “bring university classes to millions of people who are now effectively cut off?”
  2. an opportunity for recognition/degree completion is necessary for those “cut off” to take the next step.  Maybe building skills and listing on-line classes on one’s resume will open some doors, but to consider that enough at present is Fantasy and Science Fiction of an unhealthy kind. Isn’t the “degree” still considered a key piece of employment?

Tossing it back to you:

  1. “Can/will online classes ‘bring university classes to millions of people who are now effectively cut off’?”
  2. Are you in some way involved with on-line education (or the researching of it) as a form of serving a wider community? If so what does it look like, what have been its challenges? Feel free to share links . . .
  3. What are ways that followers of Christ can best use free on-line classes to share loving God with “head, heart, & hands” AND loving neighbor? What is an avenue you’d recommend a campus ministry such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a focused ministry such as the Emerging Scholars Network consider exploring?
  4. As always, I want to read/hear what you have to say regarding what I’ve shared. Please help me refine my thoughts/musings . . .

More thoughts regarding on-line education in queue 🙂

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    James Paternoster commented on April 23, 2012 Reply

    It may be helpful to distinguish between learning and certification. Those are quite different things, and already in some tension in our education system.

    If the goal is learning, a (good) free online course is a boon. Students who can’t find a good teacher locally can, increasingly, find a good teacher online. This is sometimes necessary even in education-rich communities such as mine where the occasional bad teacher provides a good grade and course credit, but not a good education. Much harder to provide is the interaction with a teacher and fellow students, but there, too, progress is being made. The recent Stanford AI course offered free worldwide provided a certificate of completion to those who successfully completed the course, and the course creators are committed to expanding the course offerings. We have yet to see how far such learning can go, but ESN members are already participating in a measure of remote learning community.

    Will new forms of certification follow the new forms of online learning? That’s a tough question, and I suspect it’s the bigger problem, even if it’s not the most important consideration.

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on April 23, 2012 Reply

      Excellent point James!

      In the context of educational offerings, I idealistically long both for learning and credit (in some form) to be given/offered — even if the student chooses not to pursue credit, e.g., auditing a class can be very helpful for reflection and/or skill development for a variety of reasons.

      How true it is that a “for credit class” does not necessarily mean learning will occur for some/all participating students. Again a number of factors may come into play, but the educator (or the campus’s approach to learning) may be the primary barrier. At times, one longing for learning must pursue it through creative means and on-line education provides a rich new opportunity — with blogs even providing one form of “remote learning community” 🙂

      Maybe it’s time for ESN to offer periodic core courses or webinars by faculty mentors. I wonder if there would be interest in a virtual, academic, and on-going Following Christ Conference. Note: It’s great to see The Christian Studies Center’s exploration of on-line learning is still up-and-running, Hope to check in with them and their work at Urbana12.

      “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” — Jesus as quoted in Luke 12:48b

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on May 2, 2012 Reply

    Harvard and MIT must have been listening to/anticipating my critique of Coursera 🙂 They’ll offer a certificate in their new educational/research venture.

    “Harvard and MIT Put $60-Million Into New Platform for Free Online Courses.” Nick DeSantis. Chronicle of Higher Education Blog. 5/2/2012,

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