Online computer science courses attract 85,000 students

Author: 
Kim Luke

Computer science is leading the way in the University of Toronto’s experiment of offering online courses accessible to anyone, anywhere - with 85,000 students already enrolled.

“The landscape of online education is an exciting new frontier, and we're thrilled to be taking a leadership role in exploring it,” said Sven Dickinson, chair of the Department of Computer Science.

The department is offering three courses this fall and winter through Coursera, a platform offering open online university courses. Learn to Program: the Fundamentals has more than 48,000 students signed up so far and its follow-up course, Crafting Quality Code, already has nearly 15,000 students enrolled.  Neural Networks for Machine Learning has an enrolment of nearly 22,000.

The U of T joined Princeton, the University of Michigan, Stanford, the University of Edinburgh and others on Coursera in July and according to Coursera, U of T’s computer science courses are already among its most popular offerings. 

One of the key reasons is the quality of the instructors. Neural Networks and Machine Learning, for example, will be taught by Killam-Award winner Geoffrey Hinton, one of the world’s leading researchers in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the programming courses are co-taught by Paul Gries, who is a member of the President’s Teaching Academy.

Massive Open Online Courses – also known as MOOCs – are an emerging trend largely because of their tremendous potential to bring education to people who do not have access to quality courses. 

Suzanne Stevenson, vice-dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Arts & Science has been one of the champions of MOOCs at U of T, not only because she sees it as a chance for the university to share its excellent teachers with the global community but because she believes it will improve the quality of learning for U of T’s own students. 

“All of the computer science faculty teaching the MOOCs are also using the online materials to teach via an inverted classroom model. Passive in-class lecturing is being replaced with interactive video clips and online materials that students view at their own pace," said Stevenson. "Embedded quizzes and other interactive activity monitor students’ grasp of the subject matter and stage their access to further materials, thus allowing for self-paced learning. 

“The freed-up class time can be used for more activity-based learning and engagement between U of T instructors and students.”

For Jennifer Campbell, who is co-teaching the two programming courses with Paul Gries, one of the challenges of teaching a MOOC is not being able to see students’ faces to know that they “get it”.

“I'm used to huddling in the hallway with students after class answering questions, chatting with students in office hours and replying to individual student emails, but those types of instructor-student interactions aren't possible in a MOOC where there are thousands of students with widely diverse backgrounds and abilities.” 

Instead, how well the online students are “getting it” will be assessed through quizzes, weekly programming exercises that will be auto-marked, and a final exam done online using multiple-choice questions. The “local” U of T students taking the course for credit in the inverted classroom model will watch the online material before coming to class and lecture time will instead be used for a variety of activities that promote active learning. In addition to the online coursework, they will have assignments that are marked by teaching assistants as well as midterm and final exams written on paper as usual and marked by instructors and TAs.

“We're very excited about this change to our local courses and anticipate that it will improve learning outcomes,” said Campbell.

The department is also planning to incorporate the materials into a purely online version of the course in the future, adapting the MOOC model to meet UofT student needs. This will help students get a head start on their studies the summer before they begin a computer science program, and help those students who need the flexibility to take the course online.

And U of T will be offering two additional online courses beginning in January and February respectively:  The Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work will offer The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) will offer Aboriginal World Views and Education.