History in the making: The 1st Coursera Partners’ Conference

panel at coursera conference

Amy Gutmann, Thomas Friedman, Martha Kanter,  William Kirwan, and Daphne Koller.

The 1st Coursera Partners’ Conference took place at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 5th and Saturday, April 6th, 2013. The first notable event of the conference was the panel discussion lead by Amy Gutmann that took place on Saturday at the majestic Irvine Auditorium. The invited panelists included (from left to right):

  • Thomas Friedman, author of the popular book “The World is Flat” and NY Times columnist.
  • Martha Kanter, Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.
  • William Kirwan, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
  • Daphnee Koller, co-founder of Coursera.

The topic of the discussion was the role of open online learning in the future of higher education. The topic is clearly one that deserves everybody’s attention as it is increasingly  clear that MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, will certainly transform secondary education in the not-so-distant future. What is happening right now, including the conference and all the discussions, agreements, deals, and certainly upcoming conflicts, are of historical importance and one can only hope that we will all participate and shape this discussion.

The room was packed with the 400+ participants of the conference. Everybody seemed to share the excitement of offering courses of top universities in the U.S. and the world for free to everyone with an internet connection.

Will MOOCs mark the end of higher education as we know it? 

All the panelists agreed that this would not be the case. Indeed, Amy Gutmann, in her opening remarks noted how revolutionary ideas can often be the cause of unreasonable fears and misconceptions. Socrates was skeptical about the “invention” of a writing system as he feared that would make our brains lazy and weaken our memory capacity.  The invention of the “book”, several centuries later, also generated the fear that there would no more be a need for teachers and educational institutions as we would learn everything from the books. Likewise, MOOCs generate similar concerns for higher ed institutions. Why would you pay $60K to top universities if you can get their courses for free? The answer to that question was that the residential experience cannot be replaced by online education.  Indeed, MOOCs can improve the quality of the educational experience on campus as they will enable  “flipping the classroom” or offering “blended” models of instructions.  Online access to the content of the course will allow the instructor to use class time for meaningful interaction and collaboration. University professors and students will have more class time to develop critical thinking and other skills instead of consuming it in lecturing and note-keeping.

MOOCs will certainly transform education and they come at a critical time.

I have no doubt in my mind that they will be a perfect solution for the self-motivated , life-long learner who already is becoming be typical 21st century learner.  College degrees will no longer suffice to give us the qualifications we need for life.  This trend is already evidenced by current Coursera data. More than 50% of the enrolled students already have a bachelor’s or higher degree.

I have no doubt in my mind that MOOCs will leave us all better educated.

Will MOOCs materialize the dream of equality in education? Will free access to top online courses ensure that we will all have equal opportunity in education and in life? I doubt this will happen. How do we ensure that MOOCs will not be responsible for creating an even stronger elite of people who were privileged to afford the even more meaningful education that top universities will be able to offer their residential students by, e.g., flipping the classroom?

To that question,  Friedman said that it is, indeed, a typical effect of globalization that the  everybody is lifted. The bottom will be lifted higher but so will the top, and that’s OK. Amy Gutmann chose to emphasize the importance of lifting the bottom.

MOOCs are changing the world for the better. Let’s be part of the change and make sure that we will see more opportunity for those who are less privileged than those who already are.