The world of online education gathers at CU

Growth, future of MOOCs considered at global Coursera Conference


Coursera connects educators and learners around the world via online technology. But it was the lure of face-to-face networking and knowledge-sharing – not to mention the beauty of the University of Colorado Boulder campus – that drew more than 450 Coursera partners from across the globe to the company’s fifth annual conference.

CU hosted the March 29-31 event, where attendees filled their days with an assortment of sessions in instruction, research, strategy and technology, presented by education and technology leaders from Coursera and from universities near and far.

CU first partnered with Coursera in 2013; the university’s 29 Coursera-hosted MOOCs (massive open online courses) are taught by 25 faculty members from all campuses and have reached 194 countries. MOOCs for cybersecurity certificates are in the planning stages at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, while further significant plans are in the works between Coursera and CU Boulder.

Before beginning the work of sharing best practices, Coursera leadership and a prominent figure on the national education scene took stock of the recent history of MOOCs and Coursera, while also offering thoughts on how and where online education might be steering the future of brick-and-mortar universities.

After spotlighting many points of pride for the CU system and his own Boulder campus, Michael Lightner, vice president for academic affairs, recognized CU regents in attendance at the conference – Chair Irene Griego and Regents Jack Kroll and Stephen Ludwig – and introduced Daphne Koller. The co-chair of the board and co-founder of Coursera said the company is privileged to work with 150 of the world’s best universities.

“We envision a world where anyone, anywhere can transform their life by accessing the world’s best learning experience,” Koller said. “This is not about lightweight little pieces of edutainment. … We really need to provide something that is a substantially better learning experience.”

Coursera’s growth curves have been impressively steep – from 10 courses five years ago to 2,000 today; from 150,000 learners to 25 million.

Among the lessons of the first five years: Online education means more than just online content. Some learners require access to local support with online learning, which led Coursera to establish what it calls learning hubs. They marry online education with face-to-face engagement, Koller said. One dramatic example: A University of Geneva learning hub took the form of a trailer that was airlifted to a Kenyan refugee camp; the solar-powered space is where schoolteachers help improve primary education.

Koller’s keynote preceded one from Ted Mitchell, the former undersecretary of education in the U.S. Department of Education during the last two years of President Obama’s administration. Mitchell touted the wide-reaching benefits of higher education – for individuals, economies, communities and businesses. He also pointed to how the changing nature of work and careers requires educators to catch up with current trends.

“Changes in the world of work make it more important to build opportunities for people to learn skills,” Mitchell said. “In America over the last year, we have seen evidence of what happens when people don’t feel that efficacy – that the economy just does to them – and people feel they have no ability to guide their own lives.

“We need to think more of learning as a lifelong enterprise (and) we have to understand that postsecondary education is no longer a destination.”

Mitchell predicted a future where young people will enter the workforce sooner, later returning to being a student in order to gain new skills for emerging careers. He sees that pattern – learn, work, repeat – continuing throughout life for individuals.

“By 2021, lifelong learning will become an expectation and a reality,” he said. That means new providers of education will multiply and challenge the role of traditional institutions of higher education.

“I want to give you encouragement: Universities will prevail,” Mitchell said. “You have decades or centuries of creating quality brands that stand for intellectual independence. … That brand, that equity value, is important. It stands for fundamental quality. But universities are going to have to become more flexible in developing new business models.”

He commended CU and the other 150 Coursera higher education partners for “taking bold steps and aligning your institutions with the new demand.”

“As you build, we also have to reflect. I would hope that at your campuses, the folks who are the very best at teaching, researching and learning … are engaged in (online education),” Mitchell said. “That’s the way we’ll achieve progress.”

Rick Levin, Coursera CEO, followed with a keynote that also emphasized the need for higher education to address the needs of lifelong learners, though he disagreed with Mitchell on the extent to which online learning will diminish the role of traditional universities.

“I don’t think we’re undoing our traditional work,” said Levin, who joined Coursera in 2013 after 20 years as president of Yale University. “We’re expanding the scope of what we do. Today, we’re maintaining the high-quality undergraduate and graduate degree programs on campus. That’s our sweet spot. It’s what every university does. But we’re going to add more.

“In the long term, it’s likely that most of you will be offering high-quality, fully online master’s degrees. I also think we’ll be offering more undergraduate courses for credit online. Not pseudo-credit … but real credit, acceptable by an institution, toward a degree.”

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