03/31/2013 12:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

CU-Boulder Profs To Teach Global Classrooms Through 'Massive Open Online Courses'

Come next fall, four University of Colorado professors will teach in a way they've never taught before.

Their classes will potentially be made up of tens of thousands of students. They won't fret if half of their class "drops out" or never even shows up for the first day because that's just the nature of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

And their lessons will be reaching a global audience -- with students from Argentina to Zimbabwe signed up for the free classes. Grading and gauging students' learning, the professors admit, will be a huge task in and of itself, and colleges and employers will inevitably need to decide one day whether to accept or recognize credits or certificates from students who complete coursework through these free online platforms.

CU's Boulder campus is giving Coursera -- an enormously popular online platform that offers free classes to a global audience -- a test run, becoming the first university in the state to do so.

The four professors will be teaching comics, physics, linear programming and power electronics. Their foray will help the university decide whether being part of the MOOCs is a worthy endeavor for the sake of making education more accessible or a waste of resources in an era of dwindling funds.

For one professor, it will literally be an experiment -- testing how well students learn physics in MOOCs compared with a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. But the common theme that hooked CU's

inaugural group of Coursera professors is the appeal of high-quality education being offered to the masses and the ability to market to an international audience what CU has to offer.

"CU's commitment to Coursera is significant to me because we're saying, 'We need to put the humanities out in the public,'" said William Kuskin, chairman of CU's English Department and the professor who will be teaching "Comic Books and Graphic Novels" in the fall. "I'm honored to be part of an educational system that at no profit is willing to do this. My fondest hope is that I teach 20,000 students and a fraction of them will say, 'Geez, if that's what it's like over there, I want to come to CU.'"

Challenges ahead with Coursera

In coming months, the professors will create the material for the classes that are already being advertised on Coursera. They'll be repackaging curriculum that they've taught to classes that, in some cases, were 25 students or less, so that it can be consumed by the masses.

In February, CU announced it would be joining roughly 60 other colleges and universities from the United States and internationally to partner with Coursera, a site that has reached more than 2 million students across the globe.

Prior to making the announcement, Michael Grant, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education, and Michael Lightner, an engineering professor and co-director of the Lab for New Media Strategy and Design, worked behind the scenes to recruit professors to be the first to teach CU's Coursera classes.

Grant said he's impressed with the professors' willingness to be so experimental and invest their time to design the Coursera curriculum.

"There are several potential benefits for CU," Grant said. "Time will tell how valuable and important they turn out to be. Being one of the universities in the program will definitely make our name available to many individuals who may not have been very aware of our academic strength, and some of them may decide to eventually enroll at CU if they have a positive Coursera experience."

Now, the largest classes CU professors teach are about 400 people in the campus lecture halls. Some faculty members do well with large classes and receive high student praise, Grant said. Others do better in the more common smaller classes, he said.

"Most really good teachers are able to recognize what is going well and what is not and make appropriate adjustments in the classroom," Grant said. "Whether they will be able to do so in the Coursera context is yet to be determined."

The decision to join Coursera has prompted some -- including CU Regent Stephen Ludwig, D-Denver -- to ask whether CU should be giving away material for free. Regent Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, raised concern that professors might not know what they're getting into, citing news last month that Richard B. McKenzie, an emeritus professor at the University of California, disengaged from his "Microeconomics for Managers" course because of "disagreements over how to best conduct" the course.

Still, the regents and university leaders are interested to see how the school's involvement with Coursera can help with the university's branding -- especially given the fact that international enrollment at CU is the largest it has ever been, and officials want to see that segment of the student population grow. Coursera can offer a showcase for those potential international students.

Teaching a worldwide audience

The largest class Kuskin has ever taught numbered about 120 students, and he had support from teaching assistants.

As he plans for his comics course, he is thinking about getting Wayne Winsett, owner of Boulder's Time Warp Comics, to guest lecture on "comic economics." Typically, Kuskin's CU students visit Time Warp for that guest lecture.

Because comics are visual, the reading material will be able to be presented nicely online, Kuskin said.

But there are some components of the course that will need to be done entirely differently, especially when it comes to grading, Kuskin said.

"I've had 4,000 students enroll in just two weeks, and I'm anticipating thousands of more students," Kuskin said soon after his class went up on the Coursera site. "I usually teach critical thinking through writing, and I grade that writing. I would need the whole state of Colorado to be grading my Coursera course. I'm going to have to work out an exam system that will allow me to gauge critical thinking, and I see that as an educational challenge."

For Kuskin, American education remains one of the country's top products and something he's excited to share with the world because it "allows for people to take in information and make it their own and then use that information in an entrepreneurial way."

Sriram Sankaranarayanan, an assistant professor in CU's computer science department, will be teaching the linear and integer programming class.

Sankaranarayanan said he wishes that when he was growing up in India -- and was fascinated with computers -- he could have taken classes through a platform like Coursera.

"It's an amazing time to be growing up in," he said. "There's so much knowledge at your fingertips, and you just have to be motivated to sign up."

Sankaranarayanan said the material he prepares for his Coursera class will be a benefit to his students on the Boulder campus because they'll be able to watch the videos online for supplemental material.

A teaching experiment

CU professor Robert Erickson has given much thought to how he'll develop his power electronics course for Coursera, and he's going to try to replicate his campus class as much as possible.

"We've already spent the last 30 years developing a curriculum that's well accepted by industry," he said. "The Coursera audience will be very different. Anybody can sign up. It's free. And a lot of them won't finish. I think that doesn't matter. We should still present the best course we can, and that's based on the experience that I -- and my colleagues -- already have. It's important that we don't dumb it down."

CU professor Michael Dubson will be teaching an introductory physics course in parallel with an in-the-classroom first-year physics course on the Boulder campus. The teaching is a research experiment that will help Dubson gauge how well people are learning in MOOCs.

The students in both classrooms will take a pre-test to gauge their background knowledge before they start the course.

"On the one hand, people say, 'Oh, surely the students in the MOOCs won't do as well because there aren't the various social pressures for them to perform. They are at a serious risk of exiting the class, and they're not paying for it. But there's another way to look at it. The MOOC students signed up for the class because they have a deep interest in physics, and maybe that will counterbalance the lack of social support."

Months after the class is finished, Dubson and researchers will analyze the data and publish a report that will help people understand just how effective teaching is in a massive, worldwide classroom.

"I think all professors believe that teaching a course simply doesn't mean just delivering information to a student," Dubson said. "It means providing a healthy learning environment that makes the delivery of information effective."

He shrugs off the notion that universities should worry about giving away education for free through MOOCs.

"First-rate education is already available for free. There are books in libraries," he said. "But learning is much more complex and rich. The web makes it easy to deliver information -- but that's not the same as providing a learning environment."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or

CU on Coursera

The University of Colorado's Boulder campus will offer the following four courses for free online via Coursera beginning on a date still to be determined:

"Comic Books and Graphic Novels" taught by William Kuskin

"Physics 1 for Physical Majors" taught by Michael Dubson

"Linear and Integer Programming" taught by Sriram Sankaranarayanan

"Introduction to Power Electronics" taught by Robert Erickson ___



The 11 Best Online Bachelor's Programs (US News & World Report 2013)