Teaching Introduction to Sociology is almost second nature to Mitchell Duneier, a professor at Princeton: He has taught it 30 times, and a textbook he co-wrote is in its eighth edition.
But last northern summer, as he transformed the class into a free online course, he had to grapple with some new questions: Where should he focus his gaze while a camera recorded the lectures? How could the 40,000 students who enrolled online share their ideas? And how would he know what they were learning?
In many ways, the arc of Duneier's evolution, from professor in a lecture hall to online instructor of tens of thousands, reflects a larger movement, one with the potential to transform higher education. Already, a handful of companies are offering elite college-level instruction — once available only to a select few, on campus, at great cost — free, to anyone with an internet connection.
Moreover, these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, harness the power of their huge enrollments to teach in new ways, applying crowd-sourcing technology to discussion forums and grading, and enabling professors to use online lectures and reserve on-campus class time for interaction with students.
The spread of MOOCs is likely to have wide fallout. Lower-tier universities, already facing resistance over high tuition, may have trouble persuading students that their courses are worth the price. And some experts voice reservations about how online learning can be assessed, and warn of the potential for cheating.
MOOCs first landed in the spotlight last year, when Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, offered a free Artificial Intelligence course, attracting 160,000 students in 190 nations. The resulting storm of publicity galvanised elite research universities across the United States to begin to open higher education to everyone — with the hope of perhaps, eventually, making money doing so.
The expansion has been dizzying. Millions of students are now enrolled in hundreds of online courses, including those offered by Udacity, Thrun's spinoff company; edX, a joint venture of Harvard and MIT, and Coursera, a Stanford spinoff that is offering Duneier's course and 200 others.
Top universities with courses like Duneier's stand to gain, both in prestige and in their ability to refine their pedagogy; few seem worried about diluting their brand-name appeal. The risks are greater for lesser universities, which may be tempted to drop some of their own introductory courses — and some professors who teach them — and substitute cheaper online instruction from big-name professors.
"We've reached the tipping point, where every major university is thinking about what they will do online," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. "In a way, the most important thing about these MOOCs from the top universities is that they provide cover, so other universities don't need to apologise about putting courses online."
In the rush to keep up, elite universities are lining up to join forces with a MOOC provider. Coursera, which began with Princeton, Penn, Stanford and the University of Michigan in April, leads the field, with 33 university partners. But edX, too, is expanding rapidly — the University of California, Berkeley has joined, and the University of Texas announced it will use edX courses, for credit. Already, students in one Udacity class can get credit through the Global Campus of Colorado State University.
Most MOOC providers are making plans to offer credit — and charge fees for certificates and supervised exams.
'The wild west'
Duneier has been thrilled. "Within three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I'd had in my whole teaching career," he said. "I found that there's no topic so sensitive that it can't be discussed, civilly, in an international community."
The online discussion forum spawned many global exchanges. Soon after Duneier talked about social norms, using as his example the lack of public toilets for street vendors — including an embedded video of New York vendors talking about the problem — students in Hong Kong, India, Russia and elsewhere commented on the situation in their own cities.
Meanwhile, around the world, study groups were forming. In Katmandu, Nepal, Dipendra K.C., who is 22, connected with four older classmates, meeting in person to prepare for the midterm and final. "We were looking at the lectures and the discussion forum and pointing out topics the professor was highlighting, to try to predict the questions on the exam," he said.
To create the feel of a Princeton seminar, Duneier used a video chat room in which six or eight students — Dipendra was one, others came from Siberia or Iran, as well as Princeton — discussed the readings; other students, over the course of the week, could replay the video and comment.
For Doug MacKenzie, 34, a Philadelphia fireman who was part of the seminar, the video chats with far-flung classmates were the highlight.
"I was just thinking, this is really neat, to be able to talk to someone in Siberia," he said. "This class opened my eyes a little about how my parents raised me and why I behave in a certain way."
The price tag — zero — was crucial. "I've always wanted to go into a degree program, but the problem is that I don't have the money," said MacKenzie, who has taken four MOOCs.
Most MOOCs package their lessons in short segments, with embedded quiz questions to keep the viewer engaged, and provide instant feedback. But the approach is still experimental — especially in the humanities.
"This is still brand new, it's still the wild west," Duneier said.
As with other MOOCs, less than 5 per cent of those who enrolled in the sociology course completed it: 2200 midterm exams and 1283 final exams were submitted. Some students listened to all the lectures and did all the readings, but did not take exams. There was no practical reason to take the exams, since Princeton — unlike Udacity, edX, or other universities working with Coursera — does not give certificates of completion.
"I wouldn't be comfortable giving any kind of certificate until we know more about how it's working," Duneier said.
Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton's provost, said that while his university's first four MOOCs were going well, he had no plans to offer credentials.
"Our primary goal in doing this is to find ways to improve education on our own campus, to take the passive experience of students scribbling notes while a professor talks, and have some lectures they can watch, to free up classroom time for more interactive activities," he said. "It's terrific that we can put information online for people to share, but we don't want to mislead them into thinking it's the same as a Princeton course."
The New York Times