Coursera is a new education technology for-profit company founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University.  The website provides freely accessible online courses in the fields of Computer Science, Healthcare, Humanities and Social Science, Mathematics and and commerce.  Each course typically includes short video lectures and assignments to be submitted, usually on a weekly basis. In most humanities and social science courses, and other assignments where an objective standard may not be possible, a peer review system is used (Source).

Earlier this week Coursera announced that it had reached the 1 million users mark.  Visitors from all around the world have been accessing the site, watching video lectures, interacting with one another and completing assignments.  In this TED talk Daphne Koller gives us some valuable insight into some of the data behind these interactions.  With such a large pool of activity data analysts can begin to pull apart and try to understand how “each keystroke, comprehension quiz, peer-to-peer forum discussion and self-graded assignment builds an unprecedented pool of data on how knowledge is processed and, most importantly, absorbed.”

On whether this sort of innovation in technology dooms the traditional  university Koller quotes Mark Twain:

“College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.”  

However she goes on to explain that “I beg to differ with Mark Twain, though. I think what he was complaining about is not universities but rather the lecture-based format that so many universities spend so much time on. So let’s go back even further, to Plutarch, who said that, “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” And maybe we should spend less time at universities filling our students’ minds with content by lecturing at them, and more time igniting their creativity, their imagination and their problem-solving skills by actually talking with them.”

Innovations such as Coursera aim to increase access to quality education and ensure we are using the internet to its maximum potential.  I don’t believe that these innovations aim to replace traditional modes of education such as brick and mortar institutions.  However, institutions will have to up their game to compete with alternative forms of higher education, especially if Coursera develops the accredidation end of their business.

To my understanding this places Vancouver Island University in a solid position as we are traditionally focused as a  teaching-centred university. It will be the role of educational technologists in teaching and learning centres to help our instructors develop the literacies and practices associated with teaching online.  I believe that the campus experience in association with a well crafted set of online activities can be an extremely rich experience for our students.  If we can use the data collected in online environments to inform and customize our practice as instructors, we can provide an even better experience.