Virtual Frontiers

Where will Emory's venture into global online courses lead us?

By Erin Crews 09C 09G

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Look at a map plotting the locations of the 45,000 students who enrolled in music professor Steve Everett’s digital sound design course last spring and one thing becomes clear: the class reached every corner of the globe.

The course was Emory’s first foray into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), and Everett says more than half the students lived outside the United States.

“I don’t like to focus on numbers so much when we talk about MOOCs, but the numbers are pretty amazing,” says lead MOOC producer Lee Clontz. “In the first nine or 10 weeks of teaching classes, we had about 1.5 million video views, which is staggering.”

Last fall, Emory was one of a small number of elite institutions to join Coursera, an educational technology company that provides an online platform for universities to offer free classes to anyone with an internet connection. Founded only a year and a half ago, the company now boasts 83 partner universities and facilitates courses in seven languages. At last count, there were 4.7 million Coursera students.

“This is incredibly powerful,” says Lynn Zimmerman, senior vice provost for undergraduate and continuing education. “I cannot think of anything else that we do that would have the kind of reach that any one of these courses has globally.”

When Emory was in a time crunch to identify its first three Coursera courses, Everett—then the director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE)—reached out to Kimbi Hagen, assistant professor at Rollins School of Public Health. She had collaborated on the CFDE’s University Course on HIV/AIDS and would design a similar course for Coursera, organizing a guest-lecture lineup that draws on Emory’s extensive expertise in the area, as well as its connections with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Law professor Polly Price taught Citizenship and US Immigration, Emory’s first course on Coursera’s optional “Signature Track,” which charges a small fee to students in exchange for a verified certificate of completion—representing, perhaps, a glimpse of what’s to come.

A Revolution in Higher Education?

Advocates speak of MOOCs as an advancement that is changing the landscape of academia and has the power to bring enlightenment to millions of people without other means of accessing education. Detractors say that online classes provide diminished instruction that lacks critical elements of a university education and that licensing them leaves many institutions vulnerable to budget cuts.

The faculty and administrators I spoke with at Emory all fell somewhere in the middle, embracing the excitement around MOOCs while acknowledging the validity of skepticism. There is palpable tension between the idea, on the one hand, that MOOCs represent a new vision for education and the role of the university and, on the other, the notion that MOOCs are simply a natural extension of Emory’s mission.

“I don’t feel it’s a threat in any way to Emory,” Zimmerman says. “There’s so much more that goes into education than knowledge transfer. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage in the experiment. There is a certain element of education that has a higher goal of enriching humanity, and MOOCs are showing us that there’s a global way to do that now.”


Steve Everett taught Emory's first MOOC, Introduction to Digital Sound Design, earlier this year.

Real-World Impact

When Hagen began designing her course, she imagined her students would be laypeople who wanted to know more about AIDS—perhaps they had family members who were HIV-positive or at risk.

“I did not really understand at the time that this was truly going to be global,” says Hagen, who is also assistant director of Emory’s Center for AIDS Research. “It wasn’t until the class opened and people started posting on the discussion forums that I began to get my first inkling that the majority were from outside the United States. I had AIDS physicians in Africa and India who had taken it because, as much as they knew about the clinical aspects, they wanted a bigger picture and other perspectives.”

More than 18,000 students enrolled in Hagen’s class, from as far away as Uzbekistan and Madagascar—174 countries total. Those numbers presented challenges: how do you assess the work of thousands of students? (Coursera offers multiple-choice quizzes and peer-evaluated essays, though Zimmerman says, “In reality those are kind of a nightmare.”) Hagen discovered that plagiarism is a culturally embedded concept, the definition of which many students could not agree on. Language barriers became a problem for some non-native English speakers tackling essay assignments.

Hagen admits that she missed the face-to-face interaction with students in a live classroom. “The hardest part is that I was used to looking out at a classroom and seeing people and getting body-language feedback,” she says. “And here I’m just looking at a lens.”

But then personal stories began trickling into Hagen’s inbox. “I realized that we’re reaching out to these places where they’ve never heard of Emory before, but what we know here affects actual people’s lives,” she says. “Real people were able to make changes.”

One student worked for a food distribution organization that revamped its nutritional outreach program for AIDS patients after listening to the lectures. “Our clients are going to be healthier now because of Emory,” she told Hagen. Peace Corps volunteers projected the videos onto buildings for entire villages to watch. A Cleveland man had been HIV-positive for eight years but didn’t have the courage to tell his family until he took the class. Since then, he has biked across Switzerland to raise money for an AIDS service organization.

“Probably the single biggest thing this course has taught me is that when we say Emory’s in the world, we totally mean that with this opportunity,” Hagen says. “There is a massive impact that Emory can have around HIV.”

An Expanded Learning Experience

For Everett, one of the most exciting elements of the Coursera experience was the activity on the discussion forums. “I think these forums are the secret,” he said during an online learning panel shortly after he finished his four-week course. “A student would ask a question about one of my lectures, and an engineer in the Netherlands would answer with very detailed information—much more than I know about that topic,” he continued. “Students were getting this expanded learning experience.”

Everett’s Coursera course is based on the first half of his popular two-semester Emory class, which can accommodate only 15 students. There is always a wait list. As an experiment, he allowed some students who hadn’t taken the fall semester of his Emory course into the spring semester class—if they enrolled in his Coursera class beforehand.

He was surprised to find that the students who had taken the Coursera course were as well prepared as the students who had taken the fall semester of the course in a live classroom. “Because of these discussion forums, they had so much more information that my Emory students didn’t have. They were talking about this field in ways that I had always hoped,” he said. “I was totally convinced that this is a much better opportunity to engage students in this global understanding of how the field works.”

Call to Action

When the provost put out a membership for the new Faculty Advisory Committee on Online Education, more than 80 faculty from across the university applied. “I think that’s a record,” Zimmerman says. “It really speaks volumes about where Emory faculty are and how enthusiastic they are about this new frontier.”

Judy Raggi Moore, who developed the virtual language acquisition method used in Emory’s Italian classes, was tapped to chair the committee. The group collected proposals for Emory’s next set of Coursera classes during the summer and is preparing to announce their selections.

This year’s Coursera faculty at Emory will benefit from strengthened infrastructure and resources to support their courses. There is a new, dedicated studio space in the library, and the CFDE will provide training on video delivery before production starts this fall. Clontz’s team will double in size with the hiring of a videographer, production assistant, and instructional designer to help faculty think through how best to deliver material in 15-minute segments, the maximum the platform will allow.

“It’s a different way of thinking about what you’re trying to convey,” Zimmerman says. “Instructional design is a real skill—it’s a whole field these days. It’s really tied to what we understand about how people learn and how they retain information; how they need to be reinforced periodically and have time to reflect. I think [teaching a MOOC] impacted all three faculty in terms of how they go forward with their in-class teaching.”

Flipping the Classroom

Everett is now the dean of the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but he will offer his sound design class as an Emory Coursera course again in January. Next time he teaches in a live classroom, he plans to use the videos as a way to enrich students’ experience.

“I’m going to use all this content in a ‘flipped classroom’ for my first semester,” he says. “Now I’ll be able to turn that course into more of a compositional class where I can finally talk about how you actually create sound patterns, which I’ve never had time to do in the 30 years I’ve been teaching the course.”

Zimmerman believes the possibilities for creating a flipped classroom are the greatest reason for the university’s involvement in MOOCs, and Raggi Moore agrees. “It’s the whole notion of a flipped classroom where the relay of information occurs outside the class, and what occurs inside is the development of critical thinking,” Raggi Moore says. “If the transfer of information and the simple first quizzing on it can occur outside, then it’s very exciting to imagine what could happen inside the classroom.”

Moving Forward

Beyond the next round of courses, the faculty committee will guide Emory’s approach to online education in the years ahead. “We are trying to be futurists and think forward,” Raggi Moore says. “Where could we go? How could this eventually become self-sustaining?”

The university is also offering its first Semester Online courses this fall as part of a consortium of seven top-tier US universities. These private, tuition-based courses—called “SPOCs,” or small private online courses—are approached in much the way that study abroad is. But the advisory group will focus primarily on Coursera and MOOCs, where Zimmerman and others believe there may be greater opportunities for reaching new audiences and for pedagogical innovation. Raggi Moore shares the concerns of some who suspect MOOCs will eventually provide a way for universities to “farm out and reduce numbers,” but she also thinks there is much to gain.

“Who knows? It might free up resources. It might give us a different use of classrooms. It might give our students different roles. Who knows what could happen? But if we don’t undertake this, we’ll never know,” she says. “I’m excited by what seems to me an unlimited horizon of possibility.”

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