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Pullias Lecture delves into online courses debate

Computer science professor discusses evolution of Coursera

Daphne Koller
Stanford University Professor Daphne Koller delivers the lecture. (USC Photo/Kathy Christie)

The 36th Annual Pullias Lecture on Feb. 19 centered on the fiercely debated topic of online open access to higher education, also known as Massive Open Online Courses.

Daphne Koller, co-founder and co-CEO of Coursera, the education company spearheading the movement to offer free college courses online, delivered the lecture on the heels of USC President C. L. Max Nikias’ critique of the courses during his annual university address.

Koller, a professor in computer science at Stanford University, discussed the evolution of Coursera, which offers online classes from universities around the world and boasts an enrollment of 6.6 million students.

Nikias had spoken about the “academic earthquake” of online education, noting the university’s own model that delivers academically rigorous online graduate programs to students around the world.

He emphasized, however, that undergraduate level programs are most effective with “face-to-face intellectual and creative encounters” and raised concerns about the prevalence of open online courses that accommodate thousands of remote students but offer questionable quality and see significant dropout rates.

In her welcoming remarks, USC Rossier School of Education Dean Karen Symms Gallagher referred to Nikias’ comments, including his emphatic assertion that USC would not offer open online courses, which he had compared “to the dot.com bubble of the 1990s, when the focus [was] on the number of users rather than on the value that was created.”

Gallagher, author of a number of op-eds on the deficiencies of open online courses and their vast difference from online/blended programs offered by USC Rossier, expressed the value of diverse perspectives toward the shared goal of improving access and success in education.

Adrianna Kezar, who co-directs the Pullias Center for Higher Education with William Tierney, gave opening remarks. Michael Quick, executive vice provost of USC, introduced Koller.

The professor described how the open online course movement began in the fall of 2011 when Stanford decided to offer three free graduate courses as an online experiment. Within a few weeks, 100,000 students were enrolled in each.

In an example of the far-reaching impact of open online courses today, Koller shared the story of a social psychology professor, who taught only 12 students per semester in his liberal arts college but teaches 250,000 students in his open online course. She described how students, who do not receive college credits, can find economic benefit from the “verified credentials” they earn.

Koller also outlined how Coursera can facilitate more personalized instruction, as faculty members can use “big data” from thousands of students to identify patterns and make modifications

The annual Pullias Lecture, dedicated to the memory of Earl Pullias, is hosted by the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education. The series features a nationally recognized scholar each year who contributes to academic dialogue on significant topics in higher and postsecondary education.

Pullias was a prolific writer, teacher, administrator and consultant, and he was one of the founding faculty members of USC’s Department of Higher and Postsecondary Education in 1957.

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Pullias Lecture delves into online courses debate

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