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The world is a U-M classroom on Coursera

November 2, 2012
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The city bus in Madrid, Spain, that Ruben Fernandez rides to work every morning is also a classroom where he has taken a course about finance from a University of Michigan professor.

During his daily commute, Fernandez would watch the professor’s lectures on his iPhone as they were streamed for free by the education company Coursera. Thousands of other students were doing the same thing across the world.

“I love learning about new subjects,” said Fernandez, a 25-year-old telecommunications engineer who also took a U-M course about the history of the Internet.

U-M was one of only four universities to partner with Coursera when the company started offering classes earlier this year. In recent months, the number of schools has shot up to 33 with more than 1.35 million people enrolled in nearly 200 countries. Coursera’s founders say it’s growing faster than Facebook.

Mehreen Tahir takes Coursera classes from her home in Pakistan.

Mehreen Tahir takes U-M classes on Coursera in her home in Pakistan.

The college-level courses involve lectures by professors, assignments, exams and online forums where students can study together. U-M is offering seven courses now. Those who complete the required work receive a certificate.

But many students are like Sarah Siteman in Nova Scotia, Canada, and just enjoy watching the lectures for self enrichment and not pursuing the certificate.

“The real value in the classes for me is learning something I didn’t know or making me think differently about something,” said Siteman, 67, who worked in a university library before retiring.

Siteman just finished the 10-week course Internet History, Technology and Security, taught by Charles Severance, a clinical associate professor at U-M’s School of Information.

More than 49,000 people signed up to take Severance’s class. Only 14,000 logged on for the first lecture and 11,000 took the first quiz, the professor said. About 4,500 stayed until the end for the certificate.

Severance created a world map showing where his students were located. Europe, North America and India are covered with pinpoints along with large swathes of Africa, South America and Asia.

Charles Severance pinpoints the location of his Coursera students on a world map.

Charles Severance pinpoints the location of his Coursera students on a world map.

His lectures were translated into 20 languages by students who took the initiative on their own.

“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Wow, my lectures are translated into 20 languages and I didn’t lift a finger,” Severance said. “It’s the law of large numbers. When you get enough people, someone will spend 30 minutes to translate the lecture into Romanian. It’s beautiful.”

Severance, known by his students as “Dr. Chuck,” was also excited about how the class became a self-organized community of learners. He didn’t have to spend much time in the forums answering questions because the students helped each other.

“With 6,000 students, there might be 100 who are confused,” he said. “But there will be 500 who absolutely, solidly know what’s going on. So those 500 students answer the questions as they come up.”

Sabrina Kirschner takes Coursera classes from her home in Germany.
Sabrina Kirschner prepares for her U-M course on Coursera in Germany.

Sabrina Kirschner prepares for her U-M course on Coursera in Germany.

Sabrina Kirschner, 27, high school teacher in Viersen, Germany, said she was surprised how easy it was for non-English speakers to follow Severance’s class.

“While university classes are usually quite competitive,” she said, “I had the feeling that in every discussion forum, the

fellow students were really helpful and considerate, even providing translations for those who have to suffer from language barriers.”

Students also set up a Facebook page that became a popular forum to discuss the class and work together.

One common complaint about Coursera is that the classes lack the real human contact between students and professors found in the traditional classroom setting.

But that wasn’t a big concern for Toni Alsford, who took the Internet history class and creates health seminars for a living in New Zealand.

“Most of the classes I took at university were large, and I had very little contact with my lecturers,” he said, “so I wasn’t worried at all about having little contact with the teacher.”

He said he appreciated the flexibility, watching the lectures at his convenience and being able to listen to them again if necessary. But he said that at times he could be easily distracted and struggled to focus on the lectures.

“When the course is just one internet tab among many, it can be easy to decide to browse another site and leave class and assignments for later,” he said.

As a teacher, Gautam Kaul’s experience was completely different. The professor of finance at U-M’s Ross School of Business said that Coursera forced him to focus more and improved his instruction.

“I suddenly realized there’s no audience. I’m talking to a camera,” said Kaul, whose course was watched on the bus by Fernandez in Madrid. “So it made me very focused, and I knew I had limited time to record.”


Kaul said that 130,000 students signed up for his Introduction to Finance class, and 80,000 logged on to watch the first video. On the last week, 20,000 were still involved in the course.

“For me, this is a powerful way of being known globally,” Kaul said. “It’s showing your product, instead of just saying, ‘We have a good product. Come to Michigan.’”

Mehreen Tahir had never heard of U-M until she began taking the Internet history class on Coursera. The 25-year-old woman in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, has a degree in telecommunications engineering and is using Coursera to explore other fields of study.

“I have finished two courses from the university, and I’m in the middle of two more,” she said. “It was purely by chance I selected these courses because they interested me. Now I would say that I hold the University of Michigan in high regard. It’s got some great instructors.”

For the Spanish version of this story:  http://espanol.umich.edu/noticias/comunicados-de-prensa/2012/11/02/universidad-de-michigan-amplia-difusion-internacional-con-coursera/

 

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