Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Coursera, Michigan, and why Provosts never want to do anything that might improve education

Today the web was alive with the announcement that some major universities (including Michigan) have signed up with Coursera, a company that offers free massive on line courses.
The Provost of the University of Michigan explained this new development in these words:

This is an exciting venture that opens up a new avenue for us to expand our public mission and share our expertise with tens of thousands of intensely
interested students all around the globe.
Our Coursera offerings will in no way replace the rich experiences our students obtain in classrooms, laboratories and studios here in Ann Arbor.
Instead, with Coursera, we will expand our public outreach, better connect with prospective students and with alumni, and develop online resources that
can supplement the learning experiences of our own students.

I have been part of the university system in one way or another for the last 50 years. I understand why provosts say what they say, and why universities do what they do.
The funniest part of this letter is the remark about not replacing rich classroom experiences. Does he mean the ones where 500 students listen to a lecture while using Facebook? Or does he mean the ones you can skip as long you can figure out to pass the multiple choice tests?
There may be rich educational experiences at Michigan but they are certainly not in classrooms nor are they in courses any larger than say 10 or 20 students.
Why is Michigan doing this? Because they want to improve education? They could improve education by not actually offering courses in the first place. Any Michigan student can tell you how boring most lectures are and that they simply endure them because they want a degree.
Michigan figures they can make money and not have to change in any way to do it. Every provost wants to spend as little on teaching as possible. That is why there are large lecture halls in the first place. 
And no provost at a research university wants to force faculty to change how they teach or he will soon be an ex-provost.
Coursera, I fear, is yet another make believe venture like MIT's open courseware before it, that will allow universities to pretend they are changing while staying the same.

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