Cooper Union to Offer Free MOOCs

POSTED ON: November 17, 2014

student and laptop

The Cooper Union will be developing its first-ever Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] to be made available free-of-charge to the world beginning in May 2015. The two courses, in chemistry and computer science, will be aimed at high school students but will contain college-level material offered as preparation for the College Board Advanced Placement exams in those fields. Funding for the MOOCs comes from a pair of $50,000 grants The Cooper Union recently won in a national competition for MOOC proposals. Over 7000 students have already signed up for the classes since September with enrollment steadily increasing.

The competition, organized by edX, a non-profit MOOC platform established by Harvard and MIT in 2012, requested proposals for courses aimed at high school students, particularly focused on AP-tested subjects in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM. The Cooper Union proposed courses in chemistry and computer science. (There are no AP tests in engineering.) Both were accepted as part of a rollout of 26 courses created by 14 institutions. The Cooper Union is the only one to offer a chemistry course and is one of two institutions, along with U.C. Berkeley, to offer a course in computer science. Scheduled to be fully launched in September of 2015, after a partial rollout starting in May, the courses will be available online indefinitely. Like the other AP courses offered by edX, they will be free of charge.

The edX AP courses received a national spotlight on Wednesday when President Obama highlighted them during an address at the White House. Standing before a gathering of the nation's public school superintendents, he announced that edX would also offer certification of completion to students free of charge. "So if you are student that has mastered the material, but can't afford the certification that proves it, edX will provide it," he said. The commitment is part of ConnectED, the president's five-year program to close the technology gap in public schools. "We have to encourage more young people, especially young women and minority students to study in the fields of the future like math, technology, engineering and science," he said.

"This is a great opportunity," says Anita Raja, associate dean of research and graduate programs and professor of computer science. "The goal of a MOOC is to reach a large group of students – an order of magnitude more than a traditional classroom – and allow them to learn at a pace that best suits them. Globally you could have thousands of students per course. They can learn about the subject, about Cooper Union and the type and quality of education that is being offered here.”

"Our overall goal is to create courses with rigorous content that will simultaneously serve as vehicles for outreach and fostering more interest in STEM," Prof. Raja says. "So that's what is going to set our courses apart. We want the content to be engaging and interactive in an effort to reach out to a diverse population, not just the usual targets. How do we reach out to more women and other under-represented groups and show them that this is an exciting area they can look into for their undergraduate majors? We want to demonstrate what careers are out there and why is this interesting. So not just what students need to learn but why should they be learning."

Prof. Raja is the project director for the two courses. She will co-teach the computer science course with Yosef Skolnick, an AP computer science high school teacher. Ruben Savizky, associate professor of chemistry, and Lori Zaikowski, adjunct professor of chemistry, will author the chemistry course. The development costs will be fully covered by the grants from edX. Though the courses will be the first MOOCs offered by The Cooper Union, they are not its first online-only courses. The Summer Writing Program, also aimed at high school students, has offered a virtual version of its fee-based program via the Moodle platform since 2013.

While some MOOCs are offered in "real time" with live lectures and a grading staff, the Cooper Union courses will be "asynchronous," allowing students to take them at their own pace. Such MOOCs are typically organized into short lessons that can be repeated as needed. The MOOC authors plan on including videos of themselves speaking directly to the camera, evoking the interpersonal style of pedagogy that The Cooper Union is known for.

"It is interesting because it is a non-traditional way to teach," Prof. Savizky says about developing his first-ever MOOC. "It caters to a different type of learning. A lot of students are brought up looking up things online where they want the basic information first and if they want more they can find it. And it has caused me to pay more attention while I am lecturing in front of my students to stop and think, 'Wow. I just said that five minutes ago. Why am I repeating myself?' It's caused a lot of introspection on my part on how I can teach things differently."

But as a new form of teaching, there are still issues, Prof. Savizky says. "We haven't quite nailed down the challenge of offering lab work. We have some options, like virtual simulations. For example in learning about gases you might have little balls representing molecules and see what happens if you change the pressure, temperature or volume. Another option is to film the experiments in the labs and have students watch what goes on and then postulate or formulate questions." The College Board has a set curriculum of 16 laboratory experiments, and chemistry kits for these are commercially available to schools.

Assessment – determining how well the student is learning – must also be considered in an asynchronous course without a dedicated staff. "We plan to have various versions of feedback like quizzes, exams and questions at the end of each chapter," Prof. Savizky says. "And only when they have mastered that idea do they move to the next topic. This gets students that are challenged by the topic to master it before they move on. And they do it at their own pace." The final assessment will be the performance of the student in the AP exam offered by the College Board.

Asked about long-term plans for future MOOC development, Professors Raja and Savizky say they may consider offering more pre-college-focused MOOCs to complement the Summer STEM program. But they do not envision using MOOCs for the undergraduate program. "I can't see it," Prof. Savizky says. "We have always been a small school. These are more for trying to reach a very broad audience. It might indirectly affect the undergraduate program in that it may draw more people into applying who may not have known about The Cooper Union or who may not have known they had an attraction or an affinity to STEM areas. I don't think we are going to try and incorporate any of this into any of the classes we currently teach." 

Still, Prof. Raja sees a changing learning landscape. “I don't see MOOCs taking over,” she says. “I think these are complementary approaches to learning. We will have the traditional style of teaching and we will also have MOOCs. Blended courses will allow educators and students to tap into the benefits of both approaches. The fundamental challenge remains the same: how do we help students be better learners and how do we get educators to be better educators?”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.