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Posted on Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Hundreds of thousands flock to free University of Michigan classes offered on web-based Coursera platform

By Kellie Woodhouse

Engineering and computer science professor J. Alex Halderman teaches one of the largest lectures offered by the University of Michigan.

There are well over 500 students enrolled, and they don't all sit in a cavernous lecture hall.

Instead, 15,000 students log on to a Web-based platform to participate in Handerman's "Securing Digital Democracy" class.

"It's mind-boggling," he said.


University of Michigan is one of more than 30 colleges to use Coursera to offer free online courses.

The class is part of U-M's growing Coursera portfolio. Corusera is an online platform that allows universities, including Stanford and Princeton, to offer free courses online to anyone.

Other U-M Coursera courses have attracted 90,000 and 133,000 students, according to Martha Pollack, U-M vice provost.

To put that in perspective, 133,000 students is more than three times the total graduate and undergraduate enrollment at U-M.

Coursera reported in August that more than 1 million people from 196 countries have enrolled in at least one online course.

Coursera and programs like it, including edX, launched earlier this year by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are quickly changing the landscape of higher education.

"There really has been a tsunami, a sea change, in what’s going on," Pollack told the Board of Regents during a Thursday meeting.

The Ann Arbor-based university launched its first Coursera class, Model Thinking, last Spring and had more than 50,000 students sign up. There currently are three free U-M Coursera courses being offered online, with four more to begin in the near future.

Topics range from finance to Internet history and class assignments include anything from online class discussion to quizzes to end-of-term papers.

"It's extremely different from teaching students face-to-face," said Halderman, whose digital democracy class began on Sept. 3. "It's so much about building a community around the material and around the class. Students don’t just sit there and watch online material, they also have conversations with each other and with me."

Students don't get credit for completing the course and aren't penalized if they drop out prematurely. Typically, the number of students who complete a course is far less than the number of original registrants.

Teaching the course is work-intenstive, Halderman explained. Handerman prepares lectures, initiates discussions, creates assignments and holds weekly office hours using a video chat function. Simply put, teaching thousands of students a complex topic isn't easy.

"It's been a learning curve," he said. "It's definitely more work than a normal course."

But there is reward.

Using the platform comes with a certain amount of prestige and the courses are a good way to connect with prospective students and alumni. Moreover, Pollack said the courses could possibly be monetized by offering completion certificates.

The Coursera platform also can be used to supplement paid classes at the university.

"Why are we doing this? This is a question the regents have asked me," Pollack said. "We want to lead in shaping the future of online education. ...We are a public university and it's consistent with our mission to share our expertise."

U-M was one of the four original universities to use Coursera. Less than a year later, there are now 33 colleges using the platform.

"I am absolutely sure that technology like this is going to have a big impact on how these universities function," said Halderman, whose Coursera class is still open for new registrants. "What that impact is going to be remains to be seen."

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Tue, Sep 25, 2012 : 12:01 a.m.

Many of today's cutting edge tech companies don't care as much about fancy degrees but more about work experience and demonstrated competence. They test applicants and see what they know, not what piece of paper they have. This form of education could really be a game changer.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 11:36 p.m.

I'm taking one of these courses now (Finance) and am very grateful for the opportunity. Yes, the lectures are lectures, but I can listen to these when I have time rather than having to meet on campus at a certain hour (and I really enjoy our professor's talks.) If Coursera were only lectures, it might not be that useful...however, in this course, the assignments are well designed to make us think, work, calculate, and apply the concepts. The discussion boards provide interaction and help from fellow students, when I get stuck on a problem. Many, many of my fellow participants are from other parts of the world, where it is probably even more difficult to access a similar course. No, it's not the same as attending a small, interactive college seminar...but it's not all that different from a large lecture class where most of the learning comes from attempting problem sets and getting help from your classmates. I suspect these on-line courses are going to eventually play a much larger role in higher eduction. But for now, Coursera and the other similar programs are trying to figure out how to make it actually work. If you enjoy learning something new, consider signing up and being part of the experiment.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 10:31 p.m.

Good for U of M,however, I take exception that they want to be the leaders in this. REAL college courses have been availalbe from MIT since 2002 and Harvards a ew years later, Google "Open Courseware." But as others have pointed out, this is the future of education where the Best teachers will focus on teaching and not Research. The one missing ingredient is the collaboration with other students and the tendency to become even less connected to the world.

John of Saline

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 8:35 p.m.

There are courses on iTunes U, as well, for free.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 8:50 p.m.

That is quite different, as those are simply recording of classroom lectures, with no interaction and are not in any way really adjusted to the new medium.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 7:53 p.m.

It seems to me that like any new technology, it can be done well, badly, or anything in between, but the important thing to realize that it is not a simple replacement for something old, but a completely different new thing. "Distance learning" has been with us for a long time, and there have been courses on TV and even radio. Britain has had great success for years with its Open University. It would be a disaster if administrators tried to make such courses take the place of regular classroom learning, but it could become a boon to people who want to keep up with advances in scholarship and technical fields, since in many ways knowledge learned in college becomes obsolete quite quickly these days. It may also help people who want to finish college, but had to drop it for various reasons. I think that once things shake down, we will realize that this is not a substitute, but a new medium that must be utilized in new ways.

greg, too

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 8:31 p.m.

Agreed. The problem is, I believe that there are a lot of people, including people in Washington and Lansing, who see this is as the future of education or a way to increase college enrollments and the amount of degrees handed out.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 3:54 p.m.

At one time the future of ed seemed to be going to include lots of tv lectures. I visited a friend once and went to her class at a University in Detroit. There were students there (a classroom full, maybe 20). and at the time for class to start, a TA came in and took attendance, then left. As soon as he left and the tv lecture began, the students started visiting, and some played cards, etc. The lecture was boring and useless in the extreme. As often happens with lectures, even with a live body delivering it, is that whatever is recited on the tv is also laid out more clearly and more usefully in the reading assignments. At the end of the hour, the guy came back, took attendance, and left. The future of education. Blah. TV screens and computers can't really replace the human person, live and breathing. I have studied foreign language using the Rosetta Stone computer programs. It's great, but until I get a chance to carry on conversations with real people, it just fades away.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 3:47 p.m.

It's great that some profs are putting content on the internet and allowing people to access it for free. But let's not call this a college course, because it isn't - and isn't even close. And on the other end, logging in to one of these classes and checking a few things out doesn't make someone a student. A college course isn't just about presentation of content. It's about students doing work, faculty assessing that work, and interaction between the prof and students. Being a college student isn't about just checking out a website every now and then, and moving on when you lose interest. Offerings such as Corusera have potential and some interesting things can be done with them. But anyone who sees this as the future of education is seriously misguided. In particular, this encourages people to think of education with the same 'click and go' mentality that is used to surf the internet.

Angry Moderate

Tue, Sep 25, 2012 : 5:01 a.m.

Most courses at traditional universities aren't teaching much anyway...and they have plenty of students showing up every once in a while just to check things out.


Tue, Sep 25, 2012 : 1:37 a.m.

Here. Here! BTW yours truly is not academe


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 3:46 p.m.

How long before this becomes the actual model for University courses? Not long I think...

greg, too

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 5:22 p.m.

Sad thing is, in some ways, you might be right. And we will all be worse for it.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 3:36 p.m.

I am taking one of these courses now. Sure, I have a full-time job and might not hang in there through the whole course, but I have already learned some great things and haven't regretted the time spent. It's great continuing ed for interested adults. I highly encourage everyone to give it a try, if not out of interest in the subject area, then out of interest in the future of education.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

Believe me, this is not free.


Tue, Sep 25, 2012 : 1:33 a.m.

Agree. Anytime something is promoted as "free" my snake oil detector starts redlining. . .i am going suggest ye olde economics course on "opportunity cost".


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 6:34 p.m.

The cost is subsidized by the instructor and student assistants ( through the use of their time ) or the host university ( through their facilities / employees time ) or the folks who pay the tuition or the paying students.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 3:34 p.m.

Well, it's pretty free at the moment. The professors are already paid a salary and they get paid no extra to do the video lectures. Sure, you already paid some of them to learn what they are imparting for free now (graduate student stipends, state support for public universities), but that's sunk cost. There is some overhead, but it is born by the non-profit Coursera. That at least, is my understanding from one of the U of M professors involved. Were you thinking of some other cost(s)?

Steve Krause

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 1:56 p.m.

I actually took one of these classes, "World Music" and I blogged about it extensively here: First off, the number of actual students in these classes is more 3,000 to 5,000 because the vast majority of people who register are just there to check it out and aren't actually in the class for the long-haul. Second, at least in the case of "World Music," there was really no teaching or interaction at all, just content thrown up on the web and some meaningless writing assignments and tests. I'm all for online teaching-- I'm doing it right now at EMU, and I've been doing it for years and years before Coursera and its partners "discovered" it. MOOCs might be good for something, but they are no alternative to the status quo. And if this really is the future of education, we've got a huge problem.

greg, too

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 5:21 p.m.

Spot on. Mass market assembly line education has it's is to help people brush up on certain skills, such as programming or written languages (I brushed up on python in a course), but it should never be confused with getting an actual college education. In this rush to get people degrees we are actually lessening the educational experience and cheapening the degrees people have. Pumping out more BA's, MBA's, etc. will not make us a smarter populace. It will just keep students in debt and keep the diploma framing companies in business. But it should not take the place of a traditional education.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 3:39 p.m.

@ Steve: Amen.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 1:39 p.m.

I really like the presence of human beings other than myself; faces with visible reactions, oral discussion, cooties and all. I love computers, but I won't likely give up real people for it. As long as it's just a way for people to learn on their own, it's an interesting concept. The idea of getting a college degree this way sounds pretty empty to me (and from what I've read about transfer credits from such "universities" to real ones, it seems that real universities aren't enamored of it either).

Angry Moderate

Tue, Sep 25, 2012 : 4:59 a.m.

Yet Harvard and MIT are both involved in online course platforms, and thinking about providing certificates and college credits to these students.

Dog Guy

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 1:31 p.m.

Large class numbers to be sure, but how many hits do A. D. Moore eletrostatics videos get on Brevity is an assist for most of us.

Rork Kuick

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 1:18 p.m.

Maybe no degree, but you can learn something. I'm wildly enthusiastic. I'd also like about 20 TV vaguely-educational stations, particularly in foreign languages. We need to find ways to get an edge in a global economy.

greg, too

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 5:31 p.m.

And how would blasting people with even more information help us get an edge in anything? Well, it would help the companies who manufacture the equipment and create the content, but it would not help the populace in any way as they are already bombarded with enough information as it is. I would love to see an "exit interview" a year later from students in these courses to see how much they have guess is that it would be staggeringly low. It's this logic that is driving the commercial aspect of the MOOC movement. It isn't based in an ounce of academic pedagogy whatsoever. Most of the profs who are involved in the various offerings, from what I have read, are just trying to get information out to people, not recreate the education system. It's when the money people get involved that everything goes to pot and people get delusions of grandeur. By the way, on directtv at least, I have at least 20 stations in other languages, from Al Jeezera through Telemundo...I remember right, I can also get thai and russian stations too. They are already out there and have been since the 1980's.


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 1:11 p.m.

Great way to reduce the cost of getting a degree! Reducing Teachers and Grad asst.

greg, too

Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 5:14 p.m.

Actually, a university in Colorado has taken a Udacity course (a different MOOC) from a student and given them credit for it. I've taken that course and while I found it informative, I also found it just not to be the same as being in a classroom. Plus, as I have readin multiple articles, cheating is so much easier in these courses, so most people really aren't learning all that much, just finishing little movies and quizzes. I really hope this is not the trend education is heading in....I've taken a couple, even some taught by U of M faculty, and it just isn't the same as being in a classroom. But if it did become the norm, it would further reinforce the trend in the education world from people wanting to learn to people just wanting a piece of paper as fast as possible. And after everyone has a BA, is the MA the next thing we will require everyone to have? Then maybe a Phd to manage McDonalds?


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 2:37 p.m.

@ Alan...don't bother with facts...


Mon, Sep 24, 2012 : 2:14 p.m.

You don't get credit. Same as MIT's opencourseware.