Coursera launches humanities courses

April 18, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

Coursera, a start-up founded by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, officially launched today, announcing new partnerships with Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, in addition to its existing partnership with Stanford.

While online education start-ups like Coursera have recently been on the rise, most university-level “Massive Online Open Courses” have been in the fields of computer science and engineering. Coursera’s new course offerings, however, include classes in Greek and Roman mythology, world music, science fiction and history.

“I was looking at the list of courses and saying, ‘Oh my, I want to take this course and this course,’” Koller said.

The challenge of offering humanities classes to hundreds of thousands of students is that the auto-grading techniques commonly used for engineering and computer science do not transfer over easily as methods for assessment in the humanities.

“Multiple choice doesn’t really work for a poetry class,” Ng noted.

In addition, with so many students, it would not be feasible for any professor, even with teaching assistants, to grade such a massive volume of homework assignments, Ng added.

To handle this problem, Coursera has created a system for peer grading, in which students will be trained to evaluate each other’s work based on a grading rubric provided by the professor. Once the system verifies that the students understand the professor’s grading criteria, they will be asked to grade each other’s submissions.

While this may sound dubious to students who are accustomed to being graded by their professors, or at least qualified teaching assistants (TAs), Ng said he has published a paper showing that averaging the results of multiple graders actually provides more accurate grading than individual Ph.D. students.

“We hope that the grading will be comparable to the average TA,” Koller said.

Coursera also announced Tuesday that it has raised $16 million in venture capital funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates. Ng said that the funding has enabled them to focus on building the education platforms, and that for now, the company is not concerned with turning a profit.

“For now, we are focusing on giving the students a great resource,” Ng said.

“Stanford gives an amazing education, but I hope Stanford’s reach will become much bigger,” he added. “I see a future where Stanford educates millions of students.”

Koller also emphasized that the start-up is committed to keeping its courses free.

“There is a huge problem in lack of access,” Koller said. “There are people who cannot access a Stanford-quality education. Even if you charge what we called a token amount, they wouldn’t be able to afford the class. We feel strongly committed to make the classes accessible to everyone, and we think it’s possible to do it while still making this a sustainable venture.”

Currently, both Koller and Ng have taken part-time leave from Stanford to run Coursera. They said they are unsure about their future plans and whether they will be able to return to full-time teaching soon.

Koller said she is fueled by her belief that online education will not be a short-lived trend.

“This is not a fringe phenomenon,” she said. “I think the world of higher education is going to change in ways that we can’t predict. Technology is going to change education in profound ways, whether or not we like it. ”


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