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Tapping Into Online Knowledge

Massive open online courses, such as Coursera’s, present opportunities that people and businesses shouldn’t pass up

by Alexander H. Tullo
December 3, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 49

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
A mortarboard with a computer mouse instead of a tassel.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

This past spring, my wife called me into the study, where I found her staring at a laptop screen. She had just received an e-mail from a friend in Brazil telling her about free online courses from the likes of the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, Berkeley.

I dismissively assured her that it sounded too good to be true and that what she was looking at would probably turn out to be just some lectures streaming online.

Then I clicked on the link in the e-mail, which took me to Through Coursera, these schools were indeed offering tuition-free online courses—about 30 of them at the time—in computer science, math, business, and the humanities. The courses involved lectures, homework quizzes, and final exams, all administered online. Instead of college credit, certificates were promised to students who successfully completed courses.

It didn’t take me long to convert from skeptic to eager participant. I have long harbored a desire to go to business school, and on Coursera I found the kind of course I have always wanted to take: “Introduction to Finance,” taught by Gautam Kaul, a professor at Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

So I enrolled, half expecting the course to be like one of those Great Courses series on DVD. Again, I was wrong. The class was rigorous, covering difficult core financial concepts such as compounding, net present value, internal rate of return, cash flows, bond valuation, stock valuation, risk, and the capital asset pricing model. I compared it with the finance course that is part of Michigan’s master of business administration curriculum and found that, for the most part, they covered the same material.

Each week’s lecture entailed about two hours of streaming video, which provided one big advantage over in-person lectures. When I daydreamed, got lost in my notes, or didn’t understand something, I could rewind to repeat what I had missed.

To complete the course, I had to pass five out of nine weekly quizzes as well as a 100-minute final exam with marks of at least 70%. The questions were true/false, multiple choice, and fill-in. The fill-ins were the toughest. Coming up with, say, $453,376 after a series of calculations and submitting that exact answer online required a leap of faith. In math and science courses, professors correcting homework problems will generally give partial credit if a student had the right concept but merely made a dumb mistake. Coursera offered no such crutch.

Quizzes and exams asked students to apply financial principles to problems about retirement accounts, refinancing choices, and company decisions. Discussion groups allowed students to share clues and insights about the problems. They were also the only way to review wrong answers. One of my few disappointments with Coursera was the lack of formal review of the problems in lecture videos or otherwise. Also, Coursera has no provision against cheating other than its honor code.

I failed two of the quizzes, both of which were related to statistics. I found some solace in the discussion groups, where many students complained that these particular quizzes were untethered to the lectures. “For exams 1 through 6, we were given slices of ham, bread, and mustard and instructed to make a sandwich,” said one. “For exams 7 and 8, a 400-lb boar strutted in with a sign that said, ‘Eat me.’ ”

I passed the final and received my certificate. I also learned a lot about finance. Even before completing the course, I reevaluated my own retirement plans. I’ll use the knowledge to help me finance my next house or buy my next car. As a C&EN reporter, the knowledge will help me decipher arcane discussions in chemical company conference calls or demystify corporate decision making. Considering that the course cost me only the eight hours per week I put into it, the value was tremendous.

It won’t be long before millions of people share similar experiences. Some 130,000 people enrolled in the Michigan finance course alone, and Coursera now offers 200 courses. The ability of these enterprises to transfer knowledge to people all over the world is staggering. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, famous for describing a world made “flatter” through information technology, called Coursera a “revolution” that could close the gap between business’s need for skilled employees and tuition rates that are rising much faster than inflation.

And Coursera is only one of several massive open online course platforms that have sprouted recently. Other examples are Udacity, which was cofounded by Stanford University computer science professor Sebastian Thrun, and edX, a joint venture between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

The chemical industry should seize on online learning as a means of training employees. A company like Dow Chemical could encourage accountants and plant workers to take courses in basic chemistry or climate change. Its chemists could study business or economics. All it would cost Dow is a little time for administrators to organize study groups.

Coursera is not nonprofit. Its business model anticipates a growing interest among employers. The company is looking to sell student information to potential employers and host company-sponsored courses.

It would be neat if Coursera could tap into deep-pocketed companies rather than students, some of modest means, for funds. And to use a term I now know well, I’m sure these firms would find that the net present value of such an investment would be positive.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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