University of Illinois’ 1st Coursera class enrolls 26,000


If professor Jonathan Tomkin’s class met in real life, a stadium would be needed to seat them all. And Assembly Hall wouldn’t cut it: Its 17,000 seats would fit only two-thirds of the 26,000 students enrolled in Tomkin’s “Introduction to Sustainability,” which is the first University course offered on the online education platform Coursera.

In July, the University became the first land-grant institution to join the ranks of 16 other universities offering fully produced, tuition-free courses for anyone with access to the site. Currently, 19 universities have partnered with Coursera.

While Tomkin’s course is the first to go live, the University is in the process of preparing nine others to be available on Coursera this year.

First getting its start in a partnership with Stanford University, Coursera currently lists 120 courses on its website. Four new courses began just this week, and forty more will be in full swing by the end of September.

Tomkin said he felt especially nervous as he prepared his lectures and lesson plans. He was used to writing emails to 30 people or so, where any vagueness could be easily explained later in person. But now he communicates with tens of thousands at a time.

“When you realize that there’s a thousand times as many students in the class, you really have to be scrupulous,” he said.

Compared to lecturing before 200 or 300 students, the prospect of 26,000 people hinged on his every word isn’t an entirely pleasant thought for Tomkin.

“This is far scarier,” he said. “And it’s all in your head, of course, because you don’t see them.”

Tomkin isn’t the only professor wondering about the effects of a huge increase in class size.

Economics professor Jose Vazquez-Cognet currently lectures about 900 flesh-and-blood students and reaches 300 more online. But he was stunned to discover that even with a to-be-determined start date, his microeconomics course has already attracted 8,000 Coursera users.

“We are trying to figure out how to learn from Coursera,” he said.

In Vazquez-Cognet’s opinion, the success of Coursera’s grand experiment will hang on how educators adapt to an unprecedented number and diversity of pupils.

“It all depends on how much the educational value will be hurt by not being able to interact with the instructor on a direct basis,” he said.

For professors not experienced in online teaching, like geology professor Stephen Marshak, the transition was made all the more challenging by how quickly it happened.

As Marshak tells it, he found out about the Coursera partnership at 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday in July. And by the next morning, he was shooting a video promo for his new course, “Planet Earth.”

“It has been an intense period of time,” said Marshak, who has had to adjust to lecturing in a studio with nothing but a camera for audience. “It’s a cross between a class and a PBS special. The production value of the courses U of I are putting out are going to be very high.”

Tomkin had a much smoother ride; Even before the University partnered with Coursera, he was already creating his own massive open online course. That is why his course is the first ready for public release, and he’s ready to start teaching on a global scale.

“I think what’s really exciting is that this is a great way for Illinois to really reach out,” he said.

“(The University’s) mission is to teach people with a really wide variety of background. We’ve done a great job of that in Illinois, but this is great opportunity to do that for the whole world.”

_Editor’s note: The article has been updated from a previous version, correcting the name of the course, Professor Jose Vazquez-Cognet’s name and the number of institutions Coursera is partnered with. The Daily Illini regrets these errors.

The reporter can be reached at [email protected]_