Is Coursera the key to online learning at UVA?

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The University of Virginia recently partnered with Coursera, an online learning company. Stock image.

Last week, UVA announced it was the latest university to partner with Coursera, an online learning company started last fall by a pair of Stanford professors. The deal is being presented as a win-win: since no money is exchanging hands, it’s a way for UVA to expand its brand for free, administrators said. But the timing has raised eyebrows, and some faculty want to make sure the University isn’t limiting its options when it comes to online learning.

Coursera made headlines in April, when it announced partnerships with four top-tier universities and a $16 million round of venture capital funding from investors. The news caught the attention of a group of Darden professors already planning a visit to Silicon Valley.

The faculty members decided to drop in at Coursera’s Mountain View headquarters to chat with its Stanford professor founder, Daphne Koller.

They liked what they heard, said Peter Rodriguez, an associate dean and professor of business administration at Darden, including the fact that they were making everything free—University’s didn’t have to pay, and neither did online students.

“They had a positive goal to get as much good knowledge out into the world as possible,” Rodriguez said. And some Darden courses could lend themselves well to Web-based learning, his colleagues thought—the school already offers non-resident programs and courses for current managers that could potentially be taught online. They left the meeting planning to do more research and follow up.

That was June 7. Three days later, UVA announced the sudden departure of President Teresa Sullivan, and online learning quickly became a hot button issue in the debate over the ousted president’s leadership. Both on the record and in private e-mails released under the Freedom of Information Act, Rector Helen Dragas claimed UVA lagged behind its peers when it came to embracing web-based learning, and laid the blame at Sullivan’s feet.

Based on those e-mails and recent comments, it appears neither Dragas nor Sullivan knew faculty were already exploring the option of partnering with Coursera on their own. And, as it turned out, the Darden leaders weren’t alone. Professors from the College of the Arts and Sciences were also calling the company with questions.

Odd coincidence? That’s precisely what Rodriguez says it was. “There was this massive interest in online education which was legitimized when Stanford and Princeton got into it,” he said. Now everybody wants in.

If there was a buzz around online options before Sullivan was forced out, it only got louder once she returned. The faculty already interested in Coursera pooled their efforts and took their findings to central administration. Vice Provost for Academic Programs J. Milton Adams said there was likely pressure to sign on the dotted line last week, because Coursera was preparing to announce its next batch of partner universities.

Now, four faculty members are preparing web-based classes for 2013 on business management, history, philosophy, and physics that they hope will appeal to a broad population.

“This is the way it’s supposed to work,” Adams said. “Faculty members were asking questions and exploring possibilities, and the administration was saying ‘Our job is to help

you, and make this work.’”
William Guildford wants to see that kind of ground-up input continue. Guildford chaired the Faculty Senate’s task force on online education, one of a number of groups assembled last month to examine the financial and leadership concerns cited by Dragas as justification for the ouster. The group released a report the day after the Coursera announcement showing that the use of the Web as an instructional tool is widespread at UVA, with everything from video lectures to full graduate courses offered online.

The new partnership could be a good way to test out one form of Web-based learning, Guilford said, but he doesn’t want to see things end there.

“Focusing down on one model of a set of models is fine if you have evidence it works,” he said. “But online learning is very far from that.”

What UVA needs, he said, is somebody to keep an eye on everybody’s efforts to teach online and track what works best.

“We’re really just looking at a grand experiment,” Guildford said. “You don’t figure these things out without trying them.”

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