Digital Classrooms: New Paths In Education

By Ellen Gilbert

It’s just a few years since MOOCs (massive open online courses) appeared on the scene. In 2011, Google research director Peter Norvig and computer scientist Sebastian Thrun taught the first MOOC (/mu:k/), a class on artificial intelligence, under the auspices of Stanford University. More than 160,000 students enrolled. Thus was born what Uncharted authors Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel describe as “a revolution in higher education.”

There are naysayers, to be sure, prophesying doom and gloom as a result of the surge of enthusiasm for online learning. According to American Interest contributor Nathan Harden, MOOCs, spell “the end of the university as we know it. In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.”

An amusing rejoinder to Harden appears in a Daily Riff article (“Here a MOOC, There a MOOC, Everywhere a MOOC, MOOC…”) where writer C.J. Westerberg considers “16 Possible Effects of MOOCs: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Whatever the outcome, MOOCs appear to be here to stay, causing what a recent New York Times article described as “a snowballing revolution in education.”


Online courses are available for free to just about anyone who can log into a computer. Under the rubric of programs like “Coursera” anyone can sign on—for free—for courses ranging from “Internet History, Technology, and Security” taught by University of Michigan computer scientist Charles Severance, to “Classics of Chinese Humanities” taught by Ou Fan Leo Lee of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Sites like “Harvard Medical School Open Courseware” are designed for specialist learning communities, and smartphone apps help prospective students and current participants in the course selection process, and allow users to access classes away from home.

Two-year-old Coursera is, so far, among the most successful ventures in online education. It exists thanks to millions of dollars of venture capital provided by investors like the International Finance Corporation (the investment arm of the World Bank); Laureate Education (a “higher education company” managing dozens of profit-making universities around the world); and individual entrepreneurs like Yuri Milner. At this writing the Coursera website indicates that there are 8,057,367 participants enrolled in 672 courses offered by 110 Coursera “partners.” Ivy Leagues and distinguished universities from abroad figure prominently in the mix. Coursera recently scored a coup by hiring former Yale University President Richard C. Levin to serve as its chief executive.


Universities weighing the decision about whether or not to embrace online teaching are stepping into largely uncharted terrain and must ask themselves whether they should join up at the risk of “devaluing higher education,” or do nothing and risk being left behind.

Princeton University chose early on to be actively engaged in the digital revolution. The University’s McGraw Hill Center for Teaching and Learning coordinates the effort, and about a dozen Princeton faculty members currently teach Coursera classes. They include sociologist Miguel A. Centeno (“Paradoxes of War”); computer scientist Robert Sedgewick (“Algorithms, Part I”); bioethicist Peter Singer (“Practical Ethics”); and astronomer David Spergel (“Imagining Other Earths”).

“My motivation was to try to see what this new thing called a MOOC was like,” says Centeno. “And, of course, to experience the ability to reach many more than will ever hear me lecture, or read one of my books.”

It may be no coincidence that Centeno, the Cuban-born scholar who came to this country at the age of 10, is also the force behind Princeton University Preparatory Program. “PUPP” as it is known, seeks to provide academically gifted students from low income families with financial aid as well the opportunity to develop the necessary academic skills, confidence and leadership abilities to flourish at top institutions of higher learning.

“I hope that ‘Paradoxes of War’ will get a conversation going not just about war, but about sociological analyses more generally,” says Centeno. “My aim in teaching is always to get people thinking in new ways.”


Coursera is not the only the game in town. Princeton recently announced that several faculty members were signing on with a newer venture called NovoEd. One of them making a switch from Coursera to NovoEd is history professor Jeremy Adelman. His “World History Since 1300” will be taught synchronously in two, six-week modules on the Princeton campus and as a MOOC on NovoEd.


Adelman acknowledges that the main draw of NovoEd is its use of “groupware,” a software program that allows greater interactivity among students. “I know from teaching in Princeton that when the learning experience is fired up, the students are really learning from each other,” he observes. The result, he adds, is that “I can be a better teacher.”

Having both Princeton students and NovoEd registrants in the same class makes a lot of sense to Adelman, whose recent book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (Princeton University Press), was met with excellent reviews. Adelman believes that teaching history should “bring the world into the history of itself.” Rather than Coursera’s emphasis “on lectures and machine-graded assignments,” Adelman looks forward to proving NovoEd’s superiority by having students from all over the world working on collaborative projects as they learn about each other’s vocabularies for concepts like “conquest,” “trade,” and “globalization.” An effort to do outreach using the Coursera iteration of the class proved unsuccessful, he reports. Wanting “to offer something to the world where higher education systems have been shattered,” he created a separate section of the course for Syrian refugees, but “internet constrictions” made it untenable.

Which is not to say that Coursera doesn’t aspire to a higher calling, too. “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education,” observes the Coursera website. “We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

More recently Coursera announced “Global Translator Community,” consisting of partnerships with international organizations to make their MOOCs available in foreign languages. To date, Coursera offers courses with subtitle translations in 13 foreign languages, with Chinese, French, and Spanish among the most popular. The company reports that only 40 percent of those taking Coursera classes live in English-speaking countries.

Adelman’s NovoEd class is, essentially, “the same course,” he taught before: “an exploration of the history of the modern world since Chinggis Khanth [sic] that focuses on the connections between societies from the time of the Mongol conquests and the gradual, but accelerating ways in which connections became ties of inter-dependence.” The NovoEd version will, however, include some “very new materials” and assignments and projects will be less “traditional,” with “pre-assigned questions” and collaborative projects in lieu of individualized paper assignments. Teaching the class in two modules will give students greater opportunity to experience different peer groups.


Centeno describes his Coursera version of what was originally called “The Western Way of War,” as “pretty close to the original but, of course, much abridged. It’s been a lot more work than I thought, but I have also learned a lot about what is critical in the material and what I have missed.”

Students challenged to maintain the momentum of regularly logging on to a class and doing work assigned by someone outside of a traditional classroom—and the faculty who teach them— are, to be sure, just getting the hang of it and have lots fine-tuning to do. The potential, however, is huge as more data is amassed. The New Digital Age authors Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen call online learning “a game changer,” citing MOOCs’ ability to collect and use data effectively as an important plus. A BBC Future segment aired last fall similarly enthused that “when students learn online, every mouse click is tracked. Harness this wealth of data and we can create the ultimate in personalized lessons.”


Princeton area residents interested in learning about something new —or adding complexity to what they already know—have at least two venerable institutions from which to choose: Princeton Adult School, and Evergreen Forum. While they are not (yet) online options, the range of subjects both offer is remarkable, and new topics are regularly introduced. Class leaders in both programs usually come from nearby institutions of higher learning or corporations, and students are particularly ready to meet a good challenge. Indeed, Evergreen Forum was founded about a dozen years ago when people who signed on to audit classes at Princeton University were tired of being relegated to the back of the classroom and prohibited from participating in the conversation. Evergreen Forum typically offers about 20 classes that cast a wide and somewhat idiosyncratic net. Spring and fall semester offerings are usually taught during the day at the Princeton Senior Resource Center. Offerings this coming fall include “Woody Allen: Light and Dark,” “Contemporary Business and Economic Issues,” “Fatal Attractions in Literature,” and “The Amazing Avian Artists.” Last semester students got to choose from “World of Downton Abbey, “Alice Munro,” “1913 and the Armory Show,” and “Georgraphical Links: Explorers.” The six-to-eight week courses cost $60, and the enthusiastic response to some offerings sometimes necessitates a lottery. See

The Princeton Adult School, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, is a much larger enterprise, currently reporting that it offers “300+ in-person courses; 1,000+ online courses, and 3,600+ students.” With all-year-round evening classes, Princeton Adult School was founded “to offer to the adult residents of the Princeton area—regardless of race, color, creed, place of national origin, or sex—a variety of educational courses for their bent and enjoyment.” An online catalog of the classes, which are held at various locations in Princeton, is divided into categories like “Digital Photography,” “Foreign Languages,” “Dance,” and “Personal Enrichment.” Course fees vary and there is a $10 registration fee. Visit

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