Just visit coursera.org and choose from 222 courses from 33 global universities, for free

The prize for the ‘Best Overall Start-up’ at the latest edition of TechCrunch awards was bagged not by a geeky software project, or by a trendsetting mobile phone application, but by a project that symbolises the future of education — an online learning platform.

Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company, with its roots at Stanford University, offers online courses from highly rated global universities, for free, while a few courses charge a nominal fee for certification. These courses include lectures, reading material, activities, assignments and discussions.

Using the still-unharnessed potential of Internet technologies, Coursera offers as many as 222 courses from 33 global universities, which are designed by domain experts and are hosted on coursera.org. More than 2.6 million people have signed up for over 20 different categories of courses, ranging from computer science, economics, biology and philosophy to courses on Songwriting, The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color, The Ancient Greeks and even one titled A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.

Coursera was started by computer science professors Andrew N.G. and Daphne Koller from Stanford University in 2012 and received $16 million through venture capital.

The MOOC idea

It arose from exploring the potential of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) at Stanford. A decade earlier, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started archiving its video lectures, course syllabi and assignment notes on its websites as part of its Open Course Ware initiative. Following this paradigm, many universities put up their content on their websites for public access.

In India, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science emulated these attempts by archiving content for about 200 courses.

Free to download video lectures, slides and demonstrations have, to a great extent, enhanced the quality of education. Apart from academic institutions archiving their content, computer-based learning platforms such as the Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) have gained tremendous popularity in academic circles. Complex concepts with comprehensive graphic visualisations are making it easier for students to learn, unbound by the constraints of conventional classrooms. Also, the inherent advantage of learning at one’s own pace has spurred online learning.

There are intuitive frameworks that enable websites to offer academic learning environments. One popular choice has seen the implementation of Modular Object-Oriented Learning Environment (MOODLE) in many colleges. MOODLE is a free software, based on PHP, focused on enabling educators to build effective web-based learning environments.

Using environments such as MOODLE, an appendage to classroom learning, for assignment evaluation and tests, simulation and discussion forums can be effectively implemented.

With the powerful HTML5, the scope for designing browser-based simulations for courses without depending on native operating systems of users, or additional tools is a plus.

For instance, to simulate electronic circuits, it might require a proprietary tool to be installed on a specific operating system to run simulations. When this simulation can be coded in HTML5 and other browser technologies such as JavaScript, web browser becomes the platform, and isolates the dependency on user machine specific requirements to a great extent.

Other MOOC portals

Apart from Coursera, there are other popular MOOC portals: the for-profit Udacity, and the non-profit edX maintained by MIT.

edX is a collaboration between MIT and Harvard, offering many popular courses. Circuits and Electronics 6.002x offered by MITx, an introductory course on basic electronics circuits and analysis for undergraduate engineering, is the most popular course on edX, with about 1,50,000 students enrolled in 2012, making it more than the total number of on-campus MIT students who have enrolled in this course for the last 40 years.

Venkat Chinta, an undergraduate engineering student from Bangalore has taken a couple of courses on Coursera, one being a course entitled Design and Analysis of Algorithms, which is taught at Stanford, and finds that this engagement supplements his regular classroom learning. However, Venkat believes that while the courses open up opportunities of learning, evaluation might not be as credible. “Because the tests and assignments happen online, grading performance of students will be troublesome,” he says.

Modes of evaluation

To counter the problem of evaluation and also the prospects of awarding university credits for the courses taken on these MOOC portals, different modes of evaluation such as peer assessments, crowd sourcing to evaluate a complex problem, creation of digital artefacts with digital signature, simulations and online tests with non-identical questions are being experimented with. Even automated evaluation of essays using Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms is being tested.

The concerns about the academic credibility of these courses are the primary concern for colleges who might want to endorse the MOOC option for crediting certain courses. Evidently there will be no stringent scrutiny during evaluation of exams and assignments, unless the students are monitored by webcam or other tedious methods. Another concern already with the huge numbers enrolling free MOOC courses is that less than half of the students complete the courses they enrol in.

The future of MOOC

Recently, five courses on Coursera were deemed worthy of college credits by American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service. If this trend continues, students can get their college credits on MOOC-based portals and may end up spending less time in classes.