Tel Aviv University and the Technion announced Sunday that they were joining Coursera, the educational technological company offering online courses. Some 80 universities worldwide, including Princeton and Brown, have already joined the project. TAU and the Technion will join Hebrew University, which has been the only Israeli representative in the project.

The two universities will at first offer four online classes in engineering, archaeology, biology and culture studies. The Technion’s first class will be conducted in English and Arabic, deal with nanotechnology and nanosensors.

Such courses have been gaining momentum in recent years throughout the world, especially in the United States. The New York Times called 2012 the “Year of the MOOC” ‏(massive open online course‏). Hundreds of thousands of students worldwide signed up for dozens of online classes in various subjects, from the History of Rock to Analysis of Algorithms.

Criticism, concern

Recently, the initial enthusiasm has made way for criticism and concern. Last month, several philosophy professors from San Jose State University wrote an open letter stating their refusal to use edX material presented by a well known Harvard professor, fearing that their university was searching for ways to decrease the size, or even close, their department.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” they wrote, “administrators at the CSU ‏(California State University‏) are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

A Gallup poll held among presidents of U.S. colleges last month revealed that only precious few ‏(2 percent to 8 percent‏) think online education will solve colleges’ financial challenges, improve students’ learning or reduce tuition fees.
Prof. Allen Garber, in charge of Harvard’s MOOCs, visited Israel recently and in an interview with Haaretz, declined to try to forecast the future of online courses, admitting that at this stage, the project is still in the trial and error stage. As far as he is concerned there were three main goals in establishing edX: making Harvard classes accessible worldwide, improving campus education, and examining the ways students study. Garber says that all three goals are interconnected and one cannot be successful without also advancing the other two.

Harvard offers six online courses − and is about to add more − while some 350,000 students have already registered. Despite the tensions surrounding the issue, Garber believes that a leading institution like Harvard can’t afford to be left out of such a project. He disputed claims that online classes would replace faculty staff, but rather he sees them as a way to enrich the classroom experience.

To date, Hebrew University offers only one class in Hebrew − Prof. Idan Segev’s lectures on neuroscience − but is planning at least three more courses in the upcoming months. The first of these is by Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestseller “A Brief History of Mankind.” Several American universities have already shown interest in the course.

Vice Rector Prof. Orna Kupferman, in charge of the online studies at Hebrew University, says: “Some people believe that in 15 years, universities as we know them won’t exist, and instead there will only be 10 universities that will teach the entire world. We want to be one of these 10 universities.”

No more ‘social hothouse’

Still, Kupferman is aware of the fears attached to online classes, and believes that some of them are justified, such as the fear that in the future there will no longer be small study groups. She is also realistic about online’s disadvantages: “Universities are also social hothouses. Pedagogically, it’s very important to see the students’ glimmering eyes.” Still, she believes the university must take part in the experiment and learn the lessons.

Idan Segev’s online class ended last week. Some 40,000 students registered for the course, but less than 2,500 actually took the exam, which was on the course’s website. The low percentage of those who took the exam isn’t surprising, and is similar to most online classes.

Segev calls the experience as “the most exhausting course in my life,” explaining that “I simply couldn’t make a mistake. If I have a slip of the tongue during a live class, and one of the students says something, I can correct myself. In this case, I simply stood and talked without any feedback. It’s very difficult emotionally not to see the students’ eyes, which reflect if they understand the point or not. I’ve never taught 40,000 students at the same time.” Despite the difficulties, Segev is proud of the course.

He, too, believes online classes are probably the future of academic studies, in one form or another. “Universities will be completely different in a decade,” he says. “Even today, when students encounter a weak lecturer, they go online to find a better lecturer from MIT. Eventually they take the local exam, but actually study the course abroad. Obviously, in the future the best classes will be available on the Web. What will happen to the weaker lecturers? They won’t go online, and the universities will have to reconsider the significance of lecturers.”

Still, Segev isn’t worried about the future of research. “Those who aren’t the best at lecturing but are fine researchers will continue to teach and conduct research in small groups. Bachelor degrees will probably be all online. This will signify a dramatic change in the academic world.”