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Digital Learning

Coursera: Frequently Asked Questions


What is Coursera?

Coursera is an online platform for open-access, non-credit classes, available at no cost to audiences around the world at Such courses are commonly known as MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses. This platform was developed at Stanford University in fall of 2011 by computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. It is operated by Coursera, Inc., an independent company dedicated to working with high-quality university partners. The company made its first foray into offerings from partner universities in April 2012 and has since enrolled more than 1.3 million students around the world. Vanderbilt joined as a partner in September 2012.

When will the first round of Vanderbilt’s Coursera courses begin?

Vanderbilt’s pilot with Coursera will begin in Spring 2013.

When will any additional rounds of Vanderbilt’s Coursera courses begin?

We will begin planning in January 2013 for a second round of offerings. If you are interested in proposing a course, please contact Associate Provost Cynthia Cyrus, who is coordinating the curricular review.

Which faculty will participate and what courses will be taught?

  • Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative, taught by Jay Clayton, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and director of The Curb Center at Vanderbilt;
  • Research Data Management: Best Practice and Applied Methods (tentative title), taught by Paul Harris, associate professor of biomedical informatics and director of the Office of Research Information;
  • Innovation Strategy: Managing Innovation and Creativity in Individuals, Groups, and Organizations, taught by David Owens, professor of the practice of management and innovation and director of Executive Development Institute, Owen Graduate School of Management;
  • Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights, taught by Jamie Pope, instructor of nutrition, School of Nursing; and
  • Pattern-Oriented Software Architectures for Concurrent and Networked Software, taught by Douglas C. Schmidt, professor of computer science and associate chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Program.

    Learn more about these courses at Vanderbilt's portal on the Coursera website.

What support is available to participating faculty?

Production Support: Faculty are responsible for all course content, including lecture materials, supplemental materials, and quizzes and tests. They will, however, get assistance with video production. Course videos are typically 10-20 minutes in length, but the number and frequency of the videos are up to the faculty instructor. Faculty will have a videographer available to tape and edit the content, upload the videos to Coursera, and help troubleshoot technical issues. The format and location for each class are negotiable and will be determined in consultation with the videographer. Courses currently available in Coursera variously use screencast lectures (e.g. PowerPoint or other types of material) with talking-head or voice-over narration, live lectures, or simple faculty narrative.

Course Design Support: For support of course design, especially teaching and assessment strategies, the Center for Teaching will serve as a “hub” for faculty working with Coursera. They will be available for consultations throughout the course design and implementation phases. For more information, contact Derek Bruff, or consult the Center For Teaching’s website, “Support for Coursera Faculty”.

How were faculty chosen for the first round of Vanderbilt’s Coursera courses?

For the first round of offerings, faculty were nominated by each of the school deans and the Chancellor’s Committee on Social Media and the Internet. The nominations were reviewed by the Provost’s Task Force on Online Education with a view to identifying a set of courses that represented a range of topics and formats. The final selection took into account such details as the faculty member’s existing course load and upcoming research deadlines, the existence of a course module that might appeal to a broader audience, and faculty willingness to be a part of the learning process and offer feedback to their faculty peers.

Will participating faculty be given course relief or additional compensation?

The university is currently reviewing the place of online education as an institutional endeavor, including questions of faculty participation and compensation. For the pilot offerings, faculty will either be provided with compensation for an overload or made eligible for compensation through our revenue sharing agreement (which addresses potential revenue from monetization strategies still under development at Coursera).

Will faculty be required to offer courses in Coursera?

No. Participation in online teaching can be declined or deferred. Digital learning often requires a different skill set than the face-to-face classroom engagement that is our institutional norm and requires the faculty member to learn new skills. Even for faculty eager to explore this kind of teaching, finding the right time to explore digital learning options is important.

May current students take Vanderbilt Coursera courses for credit?

No. Coursera offerings are not eligible for credit at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt faculty may, however, incorporate Coursera materials in their Vanderbilt courses in a “flipped classroom” model, using Coursera materials as a kind of digital textbook. Exploring these and other new pedagogical practices is one of the opportunities that drew us to the Coursera partnership.

Why is Vanderbilt doing this now?

Vanderbilt’s Coursera pilot program represents part of the university’s ongoing efforts to ensure the experience it offers its students, alumni/ae, faculty, staff, prospective students and community takes advantage of significant learning opportunities and leverages technology to more effectively fulfill our mission. The exploration of digital learning is representative of two key aspects of our mission – “creative experimentation of ideas and concepts” and as a way to enhance our goal of “dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach.” It is important to note that Vanderbilt has been exploring this idea for several years; this project grows out of our existing conversations and prior experience with digital learning at Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt School of Nursing, for instance, has been using digital learning effectively for over a decade, and pilot projects in digital education have been undertaken by individual faculty members across the institution.

What does Vanderbilt hope to gain by participating in Coursera?

Vanderbilt must continue as an innovator in the use of technology in research and pedagogy. Partnering with Coursera and exploring other digital learning practices will give us the chance to think through the pedagogical implications of digital learning, to assess our strengths and weaknesses, and to help us make informed decisions about Vanderbilt’s future endeavors in digital learning. Faculty teaching in these initial Coursera offerings will join upcoming conversations hosted by the Center for Teaching and others on campus, conversations aimed at exploring and understanding this digital landscape.

What other online education plans is Vanderbilt involved in?

A variety of constituencies (the Chancellor’s Committee on Social Media and the Internet, the Center for Teaching, the Faculty Senate Strategic Planning and Academic Freedom Committee, etcetera) are exploring a variety of questions related to digital learning and technological development at Vanderbilt. As these groups continue their research and recommendations, any additional plans in relation to digital learning will be announced on this website.

Will Vanderbilt begin offering undergraduate degrees online?

No. Our forté is as a research university that offers a four-year, immersive, residential experience to our undergraduates. The opportunities for residential learning in the Commons and in College Halls and in other living-learning communities on campus cannot be replicated in a digital environment. Neither can the organic link between faculty-student classroom engagement and the undergraduate research and learning experience. Digital offerings should supplement and enhance those things that we do well, not replace them.

Will Vanderbilt begin offering graduate degrees online?

We already have hybrid programs through the School of Nursing. Other programs are also looking at ways to capitalize on the digital learning environment. We will ask the faculty involved in the pilot projects this year to share their experiences of working in the digital environment with their faculty peers to inform these conversations in the future.

How is this initial foray into online education being funded and how will it be sustained in the future?

For the pilot project, we are working largely with existing resources, supplemented by provost’s funding to cover some costs involved in producing the media content. The longer-term university financial strategy will be worked out this year.

Will students be more inclined just to watch online instead of coming to class?

Online lecture videos have the potential to enhance face-to-face teaching, by shifting some of the content delivery to before or after class and giving students opportunities to review lecture material repeatedly and at their own speed. That said, the Coursera courses are not full courses in the traditional sense. Most Coursera courses run between 5 and 10 weeks, functioning more as modules than entire courses. Although some Coursera courses may overlap in content with some Vanderbilt courses, our face-to-face courses address more and deeper learning objectives, which are often better met through in-class experiences.

Will students start simply taking classes for free online in lieu of enrolling in college?

There is no way to know the true impact of these technologies without taking calculated steps such as this pilot program. We do not see Coursera as a replacement for the experience that students receive at Vanderbilt. Rather, we will learn from this initiative and move forward armed with best practices and new information about the utility of this digital learning environment for the teaching and outreach that are so central to our core.