Project Details



Democratising elite higher education by turning learning upside down

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Project Twitter: @coursera

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  • Community Engagement
  • Education
  • Audiovisual
  • Social Software

For almost all their life universities have been elite institutions, places of higher learning, inaccessible to ordinary people. Even in much of the developed world it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that access to a university education became commonplace. Less than 10% of the world’s population has a university degree.

Now, thanks to innovations like Coursera, students with a computer and an internet connection are able to study virtually any course they like, from one of scores of universities, at their own pace. What was once an elite pastime has been opened up to a mass market of many millions.

Coursera provides videos of lectures taught by world-class professors, as well as ways for students to reinforce their knowledge through interactive tests and join a wider community of learners. This makes peer review possible so students can give one another feedback and assess their work.

More than 70 universities are part of the Coursera consortium, and by late 2013 their 395 classes had attracted 9,500,000 enrolments from students in 195 countries. While much of the focus of school reform has been on learning in small classes and groups, Coursera has gone in the opposite direction: the most popular class has 180,000 students.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not without their critics and challenges: only a minority of students complete a course, and the business model is unstable while the issue of accreditation is still a work-in-progress. These challenges are manifest for Coursera and its competitors such as edX: perhaps the non-institutional, employer-focussed approach taken by Open Badges will prove instructive.

Nevertheless, Coursera believes part of its impact lies in introducing people to a much wider range of knowledge, which they might then pursue on their own terms. Courses range from algebra to plant biology, from algorithms to the ancient Greeks, from how to reason and argue to how to run a random controlled trial to test a drug. Online platforms like Coursera should allow teachers to adopt more imaginative approaches to learning, by blending online self-paced learning with more social, interactive and collaborative face-to-face classes.

Coursera is democratising elite higher education by turning learning upside down: classes could become places of discussion, while most of the instruction is delivered by computer.

Image © Can Stock Photo Inc. / michaeljung

Last updated: 09th of May, 2014

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