Brown Community Helping to Drive the Coursera Revolution

The Brown University Daily Herald noted that three of its alumni are now working directly on improving the technical platform for one of the fastest-growing online university systems. Based in Mountain View, CA, Coursera offers free courses in partnership with many leading universities, including Brown.

Dora Chu explains that two of the Brown alumni now working in Mountain View came to their work from previous work in developing online education, while the third met Coursera through its early prototype courses.

Norian Caporale-Berkowitz typifies the type of worker drawn into this cutting-edge field. He started his work with online education as a part of CourseWire, a project that Brown University launched to develop science video tutorials.

A self-described “middleman between professors and engineers,” Caporale-Berkowitz works with professors to help them master the technology and builds the tools professors need.

Caporale-Berkowitz expressed an ardent belief in Coursera’s mission.

“I’m right at the cutting edge of what’s happening in online education,” he said.

Like many online models, Coursera is still developing its business potential. While it is not officially an educational non-profit like most brick and mortar schools, it has not yet been able to make a profit. Financed by venture capital, Coursera hopes to begin to support itself by offering a number of support services to tuition-charging schools. Its courses are free at base, but in order to receive any kind of credit or certificate, the student pays. Far more students sign up to take their free courses without either completing the homework or paying for a certificate.

Coursera and other online schools see a potential market in professional continuing education. Hoping to serve nurses and others in the medical field, they offer a large number of topics in health care issues. Both individual students and institutions can contract with the online school to verify identity and achievement of professionals who need real certification.

A growing number of universities like Brown work with Coursera both to offer classes and to make sure their students can take courses. Among the ways universities can use online courses, professors can use the pre-recorded lectures offered on Coursera’s website to “flip” their classes. “Flipped learning” is a model in which students arrive at class with the lecture already seen or heard, and class time is then used for working on practical application of the material.

Online lectures have both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to relationships with professors. Most obviously, in an online setting, students do not really meet their professors. One of the Brown alumni, Anne Trumbore, pointed out that there’s also an advantage in taking an online distance class from a well-known teacher at a prestigious university:

Coursera also offers the opportunity to interact more closely with instructors. Most students do not have the benefit of working closely with a professor who is a “leader in their field,” Trumbore said. Large lecture halls are common, especially in many underfunded public institutions where getting spaces in classes and graduating in four years can be difficult, she added.

Online universities can reach students anywhere. Although Coursera is based in the United States, it partners with many international universities, including Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Melbourne in Australia, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Perhaps its chief source of establishing itself in the field of online education was its initial partnerships with prestigious schools like Stanford, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.


01 31, 2013
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