Princeton University to Offer Free Online Classes

The History of the World since 1300, Computer Architecture, and and Statistics One are just some of the Princeton University courses you can take without ever applying to Princeton, paying tuition or even stepping on to the campus, thanks to a new partnership between the school and a new online education organization founded by two Stanford University professors.

As part of efforts to use technology to enhance the Princeton academic experience and enable faculty to extend their teaching beyond the physical borders of the campus, the University is exploring the development of online class materials through the new education platform Coursera.

Princeton will join Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania in developing web-based course materials covering a variety of academic fields.

“The Coursera platform will allow our faculty to explore ways to improve teaching in our own classrooms, while at the same time allowing them to make exceptional educational opportunities available well beyond the confines of our campus,” Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said in a release about the partnership. “We are very pleased that faculty in a broad range of disciplines are interested in tailoring the use of this technology to their own particular courses for the purposes of improving both the impact and the scope of their teaching.”

Coursera, which was founded in 2011 by two Stanford computer science professors, is modeled on an interactive learning experience. The Coursera website features recorded video lectures that are embedded with quizzes and interactive exercises as well as forums for viewers to discuss materials and pose questions. Users from around the world may access Coursera for free.

“Coursera’s innovative platform will provide valuable opportunities for some Princeton professors who want to use online supplements to enhance their classroom teaching in ways that reinforce Princeton’s vibrant culture of student engagement,” University Provost Christopher Eisgruber said. “Princeton will also continue efforts to identify other collaborations and approaches that facilitate the pedagogical initiatives of its faculty, whether they are invoking new technologies or sustaining the virtues of traditional teaching methods.”

Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh, who is helping oversee the collaboration with Coursera, said the venture is part of Princeton’s broader efforts to support and encourage innovative uses of technology in teaching and learning.

The self-assessments embedded within the pre-recorded online materials, for example, provide faculty with real-time feedback about student learning so that classes may be used in more focused ways to address areas that require special attention.

“Students will be able to work through and review pre-recorded course materials at their own pace, giving them a better chance to master difficult concepts that are especially elusive when presented through the fleeting medium of live lecture,” Marsh said.

Psychology professor Andrew Conway said online lectures could supplement a course much like a good textbook, meaning more class time could be devoted to discussion.

Historian Jeremy Adelman, the director of the Council for International Teaching and Research, said such educational technologies promote more experimental and global learning opportunities. Coursera also supports supplemental materials such as interactive maps, he said.

“One of my big themes is change in global commerce,” Adelman said. “Imagine during the first weeks of the course asking students to go online to fill in a blank map of the world with what they have learned about what commodities were traded, who did the trading, where the main arrows of long-distance of trade are traced, and the technologies and religious beliefs of merchants…The point is, what is posted is not just my lectures and my chosen readings, but the product of the students.”

Adelman said the opportunity to share lectures with a worldwide audience is also an exciting prospect.

“My first priority is to my students at Princeton, but what I can share with them and encourage them to explore can equally be of value to others,” he said.

According to the Coursera website, the first Princeton class, Introduction to Sociology, begins in June. The six-week class will be taught by Mitchell Duneier. The class is one of eight Princeton offerings listed so far.