Vanderbilt’s Virtual Classes Attract Huge, New Audiences

More than 176,600 people have registered (as of press time) to attend five Vanderbilt courses this spring and summer, virtually that is. The university’s first foray into massive, open, online courses—or MOOCs—launched March 4 on the platform Coursera.

“The public response to these offerings speaks well for Vanderbilt’s reputation in the world at large; people are demonstrably interested in what we do,” Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Cynthia Cyrus said. “It also shows the way in which digital courses can be a sort of megaphone, amplifying the wonderful knowledge and exciting ideas our faculty bring and sharing them out with the global community.”

The Coursera partnership is one of the first outcomes of the Chancellor’s Committee on Social Media and the Internet, convened in February 2012.

“Because Chancellor (Nicholas) Zeppos put this committee in place, Vanderbilt was able to take action very quickly,” said Douglas Schmidt, professor of computer science, associate chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Program and one of the faculty teaching a Coursera course this semester. “We’re now poised to be on the cutting edge of and leading new developments in this arena, rather than just reacting to them.”

Schmidt, and other faculty interviewed, believe teaching through Coursera will improve the experience of their own students in Vanderbilt classrooms.

“I plan to use the videos I am producing for Coursera for the face-to-face class I am teaching at Vanderbilt now. We won’t have to spend so much time in class going over introductory material—the students can watch the videos on their own time,” Schmidt said. “We can then spend the time in class doing what people come to Vanderbilt for—mentorship and collaboration and creating a design studio experience in the classroom. It’s really about personalizing the education for the students.”

The pilot courses are being produced largely with existing resources, with staff and students from across campus pitching in with video production, all on an extremely tight timeline.

“The provost asked me to participate on a Friday and our course profiles went live on Coursera on the next Wednesday, so I didn’t have much time to overthink the prospect and had to jump right in to course planning,” Pope said.

Schmidt’s course and that of David Owens, professor of the practice of management and innovation, began the first week of March. Owens’ own experience taking a Coursera course, and failing to complete the assignments, led him to customize his course on innovation to include different levels of engagement.

“One thing I’ve been thinking about is that it is unfortunate that people don’t press through,” Owens said. “I set my class up to include three levels – the basic level involves watching all of the videos—approximately 20 hours—and taking embedded quizzes along the way.” Owens’ second tier involves completion of different tasks and exercises, while the third requires participation in a group project.

While students globally have the potential to benefit from the online classes, Cyrus and others also see this is as a potential boon for Vanderbilt alumni.

“Our alumni are excited to have the chance to be ‘back in the classroom’ – both to remind themselves of what makes a Vanderbilt education special, and to sample pieces of our campus offerings that they might not have had time for when they were here,” she said.

The pilot project will continue in the fall of 2013, with courses will be hand-selected so each of the colleges and schools has the chance to participate. Cyrus anticipates having an open call for additional Coursera proposals during academic year 2013-2014.

– Melanie Moran
Visit to watch videos about digital learning at Vanderbilt and to learn more about these initiatives.