Engineering School Leads Columbia Into Online Open Courses

As part of a new University-wide partnership with Coursera, a “MOOCs” or massive open online courses startup, the Engineering School will be offering three courses online via in the spring. Interested students from anywhere in the world can sign up now for the following courses on Financial Engineering and Risk Management, co-taught by Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Professor Garud Iyengar and Lecturer Martin Haugh, with guest lectures by Professor Emanuel Derman; MOS Transistors by Electrical Engineering Professor Yannis Tsividis; and Natural Language Processing, given by Computer Science Professor Michael Collins.

The courses offered by Columbia via Coursera
(screenshot of the Coursera web site)

From sustainability and cryptography to astronomy and Greek mythology, Coursera has been quickly adding to its diverse set of free online course offerings. Since it launched in January of 2011, Coursera has partnered with more than 30 leading universities, including Stanford (where the startup originated), Princeton, and Brown. More than 200 courses are available on Coursera, and the nascent company boasts some 1.4 million students. Other MOOC providers in this burgeoning field include edX and Udacity, which are all providing the same or similar platforms to offer courses online for free, anywhere.

“We are looking forward to becoming involved in the new opportunities that MOOCs provide and to see where this takes us,” says Interim Dean Donald Goldfarb. “MOOCs represent a unique approach to higher education and it is exciting to be among those universities who will shape the future of this new educational paradigm.”

Indeed, Columbia Engineering has been offering an online education program since it launched Columbia Video Network (CVN) in 1986. A pioneer in the field of distance learning, CVN has enabled thousands of working professionals and remotely located students to earn their graduate engineering degree from anywhere. CVN students take the same exact courses and have the same homework assignments and exams as their campus counterparts. The only difference is in location. 

“The Engineering School has been one of the leaders at Columbia in doing online education so it made perfect sense for us to partner with the engineering folks on this,” says Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the University.

Though the market for MOOCs has gained momentum rather quickly, it is still too early to tell if this new trend in providing quality higher education online for free has staying power. But it makes sense to investigate.

“We’re going into this as an experiment with our eyes open,” adds Sreenivasan. “We are tackling it in a strategic manner so that we can learn how this works and where we can go from here.”

Currently, the University is exploring additional pilot courses to offer in the spring. The engineering courses via Coursera have already generated a fast-growing class roster. To date, a total of 46,176 students have signed up for the three courses. Faculty are excited to explore this opportunity but agree with the University’s cautious approach.

“You get more information when you’re involved in a process versus sitting it out,” says Iyengar. “It’s the right thing to do to see how and if this fits with our overall mission.”

Tsividis, who is Charles Batchelor Professor of Electrical Engineering, says that online courses “to some extent will change the way people all over the world are educated” and agrees that this model for free online education is a “work in progress.”

Iyengar adds, “What this allows people to do is be able to have access to an education which was otherwise not available to them.”

In fact, Coursera’s mission is to do just that – to provide universities the technology to enable the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students. The Palo Alto-based startup wants to give everyone access to “world-class” education that has so far been available only to a select few.

“It is great for a university to be able to view the world as its audience,” says Tsividis. “I am sure online education is here to stay. But I do not think it will replace traditional education. Both types of education have a place, and each can inform the other. In teaching online we take advantage of our experience from teaching in-class. But I think the opposite will also be true. As I prepare to teach this course online, and get exposed to recommended teaching techniques for this purpose, I have begun to get good ideas as to how to improve my in-class teaching.”

-Melanie A. Farmer

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