Two Columbia professors are adding online classes to their courseload this semester.
Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs will launch an online course on sustainable development Tuesday, while Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, began teaching a course on viruses Jan. 9. The massive open online courses, supported by Coursera, are free, open to the public, and not for credit.
"Online global courses are part of the world's ongoing information revolution – a revolution that is now fundamentally expanding access to education. While MOOCs are in their early days, I am a big believer in the use of the new information technologies to help create worldwide expertise, shared understanding, international cooperation, and effective problem solving," Sachs said in an email from Hong Kong. "This was simply impossible until the most recent years, and it's a very exciting advance."
Sachs is teaching his 14-week course in conjunction with the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which he also directs.
"I hope and believe that the 'Age of Sustainable Development', the new MOOC, will help students everywhere in the world to master the new tools of sustainable development," Sachs said.
Despite the many possibilities for increased online engagement, the impersonal nature of MOOCs remains an obstacle for students and professors alike.
"It's kind of missing something if you are taking only online courses and not taking them in real life," Joseph Rosales, CC '17, said. "Even though we are the ones paying for it, they are not getting the full effect. Professor interaction, even if you can talk to them online, it's not the same."
Sachs said that this can be overcome by combining the online format with direct interactions between professors and students.
But such a direct interaction will not be a part of Sachs' first MOOC, and with enrollment already in the thousands, Sachs admitted that keeping participants engaged once the class begins will be a major challenge.
"I am taking many steps to help maintain student interest and engagement," Sachs said. "I will do a number of live interactions with the global student group, through videoconferencing, Reddit AMA sessions, an active chat board on Coursera, and other means."
Racaniello debuted an online course last fall about how viruses work and decided to put his course on how viruses cause diseases—which he also teaches on campus—online this semester. Racaniello records the videos for his Coursera classes during his Columbia lectures, which benefits both sets of students.
"Most of my students are really grateful that I record the lecture, so they can go back and listen over and over again. They tell me all the time that they wish every professor in Columbia did this," Racaniello said. "It's early days in the Columbia MOOC experience—not a lot of professors have done this but I think it's a really rewarding experience and most professors should try it. You see a level of interaction that you have never seen before."
Columbia has made a concentrated effort to increase its online offerings in the past few years. The university debuted its first two online courses in fall 2012, while a University Senate taskforce released a report on how Columbia should pursue online education last December.
Columbia currently offers 10 courses on Coursera, and both Sachs and Racaniello believe the University should continue to offer online courses.
"Columbia should embrace the MOOC in a big way. They could offer some kind of certificate." Racaniello said. "Perhaps in the long run they could offer some sort of degree for participation in these courses—not necessarily equivalent of going to Columbia but something that would be valuable to people, and they could even charge for that," he added.
"I am confident that Columbia will be a trend-setter in this great new opportunity, and I'm very excited to be part of this early application of the new online approaches," Sachs said.
Ke'ala Lopez, CC '17, who has taken online classes before, pointed out one advantage of Columbia MOOCs.
"It's good to have that out there for the public, to see the caliber of Columbia and to advertise for our school," Lopez said. "It's a really good way to get ourselves out into the community."
Yasemin Akçagüner contributed reporting.
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Correction: A photo caption for this story said that Sachs' course had over 1,000 students enrolled. His course actually has almost 30,ooo students enrolled. Spectator regrets the error.