Lunch & Learn: Jeffrey Himpele on Coursera

Princeton courses on Coursera

Princeton courses on Coursera

Jeffrey Himpele, who directs the McGraw Center’s Graduate Teaching Transcript Program, leads pedagogy workshops and individual teaching consultations for graduate students & faculty (, and directs Princeton’s program of online courses offered on He spoke to the Lunch & Learn audience on November 7th, 2012 about the Coursera Project and Princeton’s involvement.

One of the most notable things about Coursera is its large adoption numbers, despite less than a year in use. Almost two million students have enrolled in Coursera, which offers free online access to classes, including lectures, readings, course content and assessments. At the time of this writing, in November of 2012, there are 1,822,099 participants, called Courserians, documented in a number that appears at the top of the home page at and updated every few seconds. Princeton began offering 9 courses in Coursera taught by 7 faculty in May, 2012. Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng launched the service in 2012 and now there are 34 institutions ( There are 203 courses as of today in Coursera (

Himpele explained the acronym MOOC, which stands for Massive Online Open Course, as one of the ways people define Coursera. It is massive indeed. In Princeton’s courses offered in Coursera, There are 94, 835 students enrolled in the most popular Princeton offering to date, a Statistics I course ( Himpele noted that the number of people who enroll is often much different from the number of people who actively participate, e.g. take exams, write papers, watch videos, and so on. For example, in a Sociology course taught by Princeton’s Mitchell Duneier (, over 37,000 people enrolled, but only about 2,000 took the midterm exam, and about 1,000 took the final exam.

Himpele stressed that although the numbers were interesting, that they were not the most important part of why Princeton uses the platform. Himpele, in his role at the McGraw Center ( in helping faculty to explore new ways of teaching, is using Coursera to change the way teachers teach and think about their courses and students, e.g. with more of a student-centered approach, and more interaction between students, their peers, and faculty. One question that Himpele raised with Coursera faculty was what the implications might be for using this platform to extend teaching and learning. He calls the project (and Princeton’s involvement in it) an experiment. He also stressed that key principles of pedagogy and scholarship (including evidence, logic, and rigor) are employed in this platform as in any other setting. He also asked faculty what kind of teaching is most effective for different situations, with different audiences, and at different levels of student understanding.

Himpele talked about the ways in which faculty used Coursera to flip lectures, one kind of active learning, in which students use asynchronous time (where faculty and students are apart) to watch pre-recorded lectures and other learning objects, and then use synchronous time (where the class comes together) to go deeper into the inquiry and exploration of the lecture topics. In other words, flipping suggests that faculty show content outside of class, and have active learning, thinking and discussion happen inside the classroom. Coursera talks about the potential benefits of active learning over traditional lecture:

“(A)n experiment in an introductory physics class (compares) a traditional lecture setting to one that uses active learning. In the active learning group, student engagement nearly doubled, attendance increased by 20%, and average scores on the same test increased from 41% to 74% (where random guessing would give a score of 23%).” (

The video lectures for Princeton based Coursera courses are often done in the Broadcast Center, which has resulted in an especially high level of content quality. In Coursera, videos of lectures are followed by a quiz to assess student learning and outcomes.  Coursera assessments allow for feedback that can assess student understanding, then quickly correct misunderstanding and  reinforce what is actually correct. Compare this to a typical exam where a student leaves the test thinking that they are correct in their answers for a time between meetings, just to find out that they were wrong some time later, possibly letting the wrong idea incubate and take hold. According to Himpele, Coursera allows many forms of exams and assignments, including self-graded problem sets and machine-graded assignments.

One question that people have about courses with 80,000 students: When they all submit a paper, who grades it? In Coursera, one answer is peer grading. Students submit assignments, then the assignments are re-distributed and graded by fellow students. Rubrics are often used to align the values and criteria of graders. Himpele says that peer grading helps to reduce the potential bias that faculty might otherwise have for typically high-performance students. Coursera says the following about peer assessment:

“This technology draws on two bodies of literature: First, the education literature on peer assessments. Following the literature on student peer reviews, we have developed a process in which students are first trained using a grading rubric to grade other assessments. This has been shown to result in accurate feedback to other students, and also provide a valuable learning experience for the students doing the grading. Second, we draw on ideas from the literature on crowd-sourcing, which studies how one can take many ratings (of varying degrees of reliability) and combine them to obtain a highly accurate score. Using such algorithms, we expect that by having multiple students grade each homework, we will be able to obtain grading accuracy comparable or even superior to that provided by a single teaching assistant.” (

Forums exist on the Coursera course websites to allow for exchanges of ideas, questions, answers, assessment, and feedback. Study groups often spontaneously emerge using the forums, and students use the forums to answer questions of other students. Some faculty create community teaching assistants, often a reward for more active, progressive students, according to Himpele.

For more information about Princeton’s involvement with the Coursera project, please contact Jeffrey Himpele at

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