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U of T’s Biggest Class Ever

Coursera brings online learning to the masses

It would take almost 50 Convocation Halls to hold the 82,000 students who signed up for U of T’s introductory computer science class in the fall. Fortunately, they didn’t have to squeeze into a physical classroom; rather, they took “Learn to Program: The Fundamentals” online, thanks to the university’s new partnership with Coursera, a company specializing in Internet-enabled learning.

Online learning is booming: Coursera, in partnership with more than 30 universities in the U.S. and Europe, now reaches some 1.7 million students in 196 countries – with U of T being the first Canadian university to join the platform. And it’s an intriguing challenge for instructors Paul Gries and Jennifer Campbell of the computer science department, who are co-teaching the introductory programming class. “We’re figuring it out as we go,” says Campbell.

This giant experiment is called a “massive open online course,” and U of T is offering five of them this school year – three in computer science, one in social work and one through OISE. They’re free to take, and open to anyone (sign up at They don’t quite duplicate traditional university courses – there are no invigilated exams, for one thing – and so students do not receive university credit. But they do get a certificate of completion, a potentially valuable asset in today’s competitive job market.

Much to the relief of Gries and Campbell, the “massive” concept does not involve having tens of thousands of students peering at the instructor by video link in real time. What it does involve is actually much more sophisticated: Students learn from online modules, each lasting from five to 10 minutes and packed with multimedia content. For the programming class, each module begins with a short recorded video introduction from Gries or Campbell, which then dissolves to a screen where lines of computer code appear, along with additional commentary from the two professors. Thanks to a program called OmniDazzle, the instructors can draw freehand on top of whatever else is on the screen – rather like a TV sportscaster analyzing football strategy. The students can also take quizzes, and write and submit computer programs, which get assessed automatically.

What excites Gries and Campbell even more is how, in the for-credit version of the course, this new teaching venture will benefit the more than 350 U of T students who enrol each term. For one thing, the “local” students can study the online modules at home, and come to class better prepared; this will also free up class time for more creative and interactive learning. “We want our students to have the best possible experience,” Gries says.

For the university, the Coursera partnership is an experiment with tremendous potential. “It’s uncharted territory,” says Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice-provost of academic programs. “It allows great teachers to experiment with new methods. And it makes these wonderful teachers we have at U of T available to people
on a very broad scale.”

Watch an introductory video to U of T’s Learn to Program: The Fundamentals course.

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