Coursera, one of the education startups that is fueling the MOOC (massive open online courses) trend, hosted their first meetup yesterday at Flood Park in Menlo Park. (For background, here is a great piece on the evolution of MOOCs and their growing role as a platform for elearning.) The initial idea was to get ~100 students and supporters together to meet the faculty and begin building some offline connections to compliment the online courses. When 500+ people rspv’d in the first week they knew this would be more than a casual backyard BBQ. The final attendee count was closer to 900, with people signing up for the morning or afternoon blocks.
Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, the Stanford professors who founded Coursera, were easily accessible throughout the event and briefly shared how this worked stemmed from a desire for “democratizing higher education, moving it from a privilege of a few to a basic human right.” They are just starting out on this journey, having launched partnerships with several universities and have already had more than 900k students sign up for their classes.
While it is way too early to really say exactly how higher education will be ‘disrupted’ by MOOCs and other online learning startups, it was clear to see the community support and appetite for connecting offline, in the real world. I was pleased to hear the Coursera team talk about their plans to expand these offline events to reach more of their students, a majority of which are outside the US and are not just university students. Prof Koller captured the essence of life-long learners, describing their users as people looking to “expand their minds or improve their communities.”
As online learning systems continue to expand the definition of student, university and school, I think the most intriguing aspect of these shifts is how online tools can foster richer offline exchanges. I see meetups as one form of the classroom of the future, bringing together people who are passionate about learning and sharing around a particular topic, meaningfully blending the experience across the physical and virtual world. This combination of free & high quality online content with targeted offline exchanges is really what is going to change our understanding and expectations of teaching and learning.
I’m curious to see how other online content providers translate their experiences offline, as well as how the community itself will organize to further their learning and deepen the experience.