In the latest edition of the dean's letter, Dean Klag explains the Bloomberg School's rationale behind giving away so much of our faculty's course content—free of charge.
Why give it away for free?
I get asked that question all the time. Why do we put so many of our courses on the Web and allow anyone in the world to access them without charge?
I’m sure I will hear this question even more frequently as people learn about our latest effort. You may have heard of MOOCs (massive online open courses). Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, pioneered the concept when he put his artificial intelligence course online for free. To everyone’s amazement, 160,000 people signed up. Two other Stanford professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, were concurrently developing online teaching tools that allowed for standardized assessments, peer review and crowd-sourced responses to questions. Their free, open-access courses also found incredible demand.
As you can imagine, these developments have caused quite a stir in the academic world, not only because of the scale but also because of the lack of an economic model. Lots of questions and uncertainty surround these efforts, but they hold the promise of revolutionizing education.
Aware of our long commitment to open online education, Professor Koller asked us in April if we would participate in Coursera (the company she and Ng founded). Only a few months old, the company already had partnered with four universities, raised $16 million and been featured in The New York Times.
The opportunity to increase the reach and impact of our open education efforts was tantalizing. Coursera works much like our distance education courses. On Coursera, however, we offer only part of a course, and learners can participate as much, or as little, as they choose. They can skim content or they can be assessed (via tools that are minimal compared to our usual online offerings). Coursera lacks the intensive interactions with faculty and teaching assistants that make our online courses so effective and popular, but it does allow us to scale up our online teaching efforts.
The response to our mid-July announcement of the availability of eight new courses was remarkable. Within 24 hours, over 12,000 people had registered. By mid-September, more than 100,000 learners had signed up. You can too: www.coursera.org/jhu.
All of this is possible because more than 15 years ago our School had the foresight to invest in e-learning. The original goal was to create a resource to teach health officers who could not attend class full time. It has evolved to include 113 professionally produced Web-based courses. Our Internet-based MPH class is now almost twice as big as the face-to-face class (419 to 241). In fact, this form of learning is so popular that more than half of our enrollment in online courses is from full-time students in East Baltimore. What’s more, our faculty use a Web-based system that we developed, called CoursePlus, to support classroom teaching. CoursePlus lets students take standardized assessments to make sure that they are learning course content. It also gives students, faculty and TAs the ability to collaborate on class-specific projects outside the classroom. Teaching our cohorts of doctoral students in Taiwan and Abu Dhabi would not be possible without our Web-based platform.
Building on our initial experience with distance education, we joined the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative about eight years ago. OCW is dedicated to digitally publishing high-quality educational materials from academic courses. We have posted slides, syllabi and thousands of digital images for more than 100 courses and, for some courses, audio files of lectures as well. Our OCW site gets 30,000 unique visitors a month, and since we started, millions of people who might otherwise never have had the opportunity have learned of the methods and impact of public health.
So why does the School fund these efforts and why do our faculty contribute content without the promise of immediate financial returns? Our faculty have an almost evangelical belief that educating people about public health is a good thing, that the more people who understand the principles of prevention and population health, the better the world will be. This evangelism is also why we are so committed to teaching the undergraduate major in public health in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences—the most popular major in that school.
All of us have examples of how personal interactions with teachers have changed our lives. When Carl Taylor and Barbara Starfield passed away, for example, I received many emails from all over the world attesting to the power of classroom teaching and personal mentorship. The challenge for the future is how we use new online tools to deliver information efficiently while enhancing the opportunities for interaction with our faculty. The “flipped” model of education where lectures are delivered online and class time is reserved for discussion is one example. Rather than viewing this new technology as a threat to traditional education, we have to continue to integrate it into how we teach—while evaluating outcomes to develop the best strategies. Our goal should be to use the best of both worlds, traditional classroom teaching and online learning.
A key part of the Johns Hopkins University mission is knowledge for the world. I interpret this in two ways. The first is a mandate to continue to do research and generate new knowledge. The second is to disseminate the knowledge that we produce. Using MOOCs, we can achieve the latter in a way never before envisioned. We are the first school of public health to contribute courses to Coursera, but I doubt we will be the last. We can reach more people, more quickly with our lifesaving knowledge. And that is well worth the cost of giving it away for free.