Partnering with Coursera, Reaching Out to the World

The University of Toronto is treating Coursera as a way of sharing their knowledge with learners across the world. Photo by Imabase.

The following interview is with Cheryl Regehr, the Vice Provost for Academic Programs at the University of Toronto. The University of Toronto recently joined the ranks of Stanford University, the University of Michigan, Princeton, Duke and Johns Hopkins University, among others, in partnering with Coursera. Regehr discusses the University’s decision to join Coursera and provide free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to the world. She discusses why the University entered into the partnership, describes the partnership—including whether credit will be assessed for courses completed—and explains how she expects it to impact the University’s adult learners.

1. Why did the University of Toronto decide to partner with Coursera?

The opportunity to partner with Coursera was brought to us by faculty members who have colleagues at Stanford University. We were then invited by Coursera to join the partnership. The opportunity sounded excellent; that we could be a part of a consortium of outstanding universities and give us an opportunity to bring knowledge generated at the University of Toronto to the world.

2. What is the nature of the relationship? Is there going to be an availability of courses for University of Toronto students, or is the University of Toronto going to be delivering courses for Coursera to use?

We have got at present five pilot courses that are being offered through Coursera and these courses are available to anyone in the world. Students do not need to be registered with the University of Toronto, though University of Toronto students could take them. They are distinct from the other kinds of offerings that we have at the university.

3. Who is your target audience for these courses?

At this point, we’re not exactly sure who the target audience is. We are looking at Coursera’s information in terms of who takes these courses. The five courses that we currently have on offer we have 30,000 registered in at this point, and we believe that these are people form all over the world. Coursera, as we understand it, has students from 190 countries. The target audience is really anyone who’s interested in expanding their knowledge base and having access to these wonderful learning opportunities that we and other universities are providing.

4. How do you expect the availability of massive open online courses to affect the University of Toronto’s adult enrollment?

All the students at University of Toronto are adults; we really did see this as distinct from the other kinds of offerings we have at the university. We have for-credit courses, which the vast majority of our students are enrolled in—we have 78,000 students in our for-credit offerings at both the graduate and undergraduate level—and those are quite distinct from what’s offered at Coursera in terms of the length of the courses, the depth of the courses, and the method of evaluation. All of our other courses for enrolled students are part of a program; so a course is only one small piece of a program, leading them to a particular desired outcome.

The other sets of offerings that we have are continuing education offerings. The continuing education offerings are offered through our School of Continuing Studies… and those are for people who are looking to obtain knowledge in a particular area, so often related to their employment. People can take those courses as a one-off course of they can take them as part of a program that leads to a certificate.

The offerings that are available through Coursera are quite different, because they are massive—the nature of contact with the professor is absolutely different, the nature of interaction with other students is different, and certainly the modes of evaluation are different when we’re looking at very large numbers of people.

5. Will these courses be worth credit, or count toward degrees?

They’re definitely non-credit, and they do not count towards degrees or towards any kind of… continuing education program.

6. How does the university plan to monetize these courses?

The monetization through Coursera is not exactly clear. We are engaging in this now with no monetization model. We have many, many forms of outreach at the university; we provide public lectures, we have science outreach where we bring students in from local public schools to engage in science activities, we have community mentorship programs for at-risk youth to give them a sense of what university is about to encourage them to go to university. This is really part of our offerings to the general public. … We’ve always done that in our own community and this is a way to do that on the worldwide level.

It is possible that there are some monetization options available for Coursera, although that’s not entirely established at this point, so for instance, people may choose to get a certificate of completion and there may be a small fee for that for people who complete and wish to get a certificate—although that won’t be required of people. That would be one of the possible options.

7. When people pay that fee for the certificate of completion, does that income go to Coursera alone, or is there a portion of that which goes back to the university that delivered the course?

A portion of that would definitely go to the university, but that hasn’t been established yet and at this point, none of the certificates are monetized.

8. Do you see demand for online programming surpassing the demand for traditional, in-class higher education any time soon?

We offer online courses in various ways at the university—we presently have some professional programs that are offered online, although people also come into the university for certain components of it. We offer online courses at the undergraduate level and we really do that as a way of increasing access of our students to our courses. … We certainly do have some online courses at the university.

How Coursera courses are distinct is that they’re shorter and they have different types of aspects to them, and they’re certainly less intensive. What we do find is that students are often interested in taking an online course for convenience, in order to help it fit into their schedule or for some other reason, but at this point we have no indication that students want to do that instead of the intensive experience that they have by being part of a campus and interacting with people in person and sitting in classes and attending study groups with others. We don’t see that that’s going to be anything that changes in the near future, but that online opportunities provide a great adjunct to the other kinds of learning opportunities that people have.

9. Is there anything you would like to add about the University of Toronto’s partnership with Coursera and where you see it taking the university?

At this point we’re very excited to be part of this initiative. It’s a learning experience for all the universities who are engaged and we are very excited to see where this takes us.

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Readers Comments

Vera Matthews 2012/08/22 at 11:54 am

It really concerns me that so many public institutions are entering into these partnerships to deliver free programming without a sense of how to recoup their losses. Are our tax dollars paying for a computing professional in Indonesia to benefit from the knowledge created on our tax dollars?

I don’t understand why our focus is on opening accessibility worldwide when we still need to open accessibility to higher education at home. Public institutions should certainly be allowed to deliver open programming as an outreach method, but I think it should be reserved for those in their service areas.

Tyrese Banner 2012/08/28 at 10:36 am

I hate it when discussions about the outreach activities of universities gets boiled down to dollars and cents. Look; it’s an important part of any higher education institution’s mission to deliver outreach programming and share knowledge with students outside the enrollment grasp. This is probably a low-cost way of doing so.

I think the best way to turn this into a learning exercise for institutions is to see how the courses actually go–see what works, see what doesn’t. Then, start offering MOOCs for massive-enrollment introductory courses. This way, people have a free method of gaining introductory knowledge of a subject stream – many will even be enticed enough to sign up for a program. Surely it would be lower cost than running 10 instances of the same introductory class across four campuses. Then, MOOCs can begin to drive enrollment and can be monetized.

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