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Smart Guys Turning to Online Courses

Will internet education replace traditional universities? Where are lectures harder to give — in the classroom or in front of the camera? Would George Clooney be convincing in the role of a real teacher? The Dean of the HSE’s Faculty of Psychology Vasily Klyucharev, who conducts a neuroeconomics course on Coursera, provides answers to these questions.

‘I was curious to prepare it, but I was a hundred per cent certain it wouldn’t take place,’ Vasily Klyucharev says describing his course Introduction to Neuroeconomics: How the Brain Makes Decisions. His venture into Coursera was an experiment conducted under very difficult conditions. Having worked 14 years at major European universities and research centres, Vasily Klyucharev came to the HSE to reform the Faculty of Psychology, which was experiencing difficulties. In just a year, a new academic focus – neuroeconomics – appeared in the Faculty. In addition, the Centre for Cognition and Decision Making was established and received the latest equipment, and a Master’s Programme in Cognitive Science was opened.

Vasily Klyucharev’s doubts were connected not only with a shortage of time; neuroeconomics is an extremely specialized field that is seemingly for a rather narrow audience. The subject nonetheless interested Coursera participants.

67,000 people

registered for the course

Around 25,000 

watched the lectures

8, 000

are discussing the course on forum

Over 4,000

decided to take the exam

Who said massiveness was bad?

These thousands of students include biologists, humanitarians, and businessmen who are all interested in finding out what they can take from neurobiology and use, for example, in marketing technologies. ‘I didn’t need to change anything in particular compared with the usual ‘offline’ courses; except perhaps making the material a little simpler and more accessible,’ Professor Klyucharev notes. Helping with this were tech specialists who reformatted slides shown during lectures to include visual effects.

Opponents of online education often point to its disorganization (on the other side of the screen are thousands of students that are impossible to follow) and to the difficulty of ‘feedback.’ But the mass has positive effects that the lecturer has faced in studying forum posts in the course: ‘There is a “critical mass” of smart guys that are self-organize in a very interesting way and that initiate unique debates that you yourself begin to follow.’ Groups are spontaneously formed based on interests and countries, and ‘advanced’ students are helping the ‘newbies’ understand the key concepts of science: ‘One can see an economist ask about neurobiological methods, and another student, clearly a neuroscientist, immediately answer him.’ Such an intensive exchange of views and powerful ‘feedback’ cannot be achieved under normal conditions.

Why does a teacher need Coursera?

The instructor’s main motivation is in the fact that public online courses can be used as advertisement. Thanks to Coursera, you can significantly broaden not only your student audience, but also a network of professional contacts. Colleagues regularly leave Vasily Klyucharev comments on social networks, and he himself has asked several Western scholars and experts in their respective fields to record small, videotaped comments to add to his lectures. No one has refused.

 In general, I’m not against actors or robots giving lectures in our place. But how will students react if instead of me, they see George Clooney?

Vasily Klucharev
Dean, Faculty of Psychology


‘For me, this is turning into a micro-school: I talk with students and academics, colleagues comment on my slides and express their ideas on interesting topics – these are all bonuses that I did not expect from Coursera,’ Vasily Klyucharev says.

Whoever sets out to prepare such a course should be advised to find an assistant and set aside time in advance to interact with students on the forum.

And the Oscar goes to…

A course on Coursera involves a series of pre-recorded lectures, but the technical side of things there is no less important than its content. The first recording experience can come as a shock for many instructors. ‘I never left a lecture as tired as I did after a Coursera video recording. It is difficult on the physiological level – you stand in one place and it is not clear where you’re talking. As for me, I’m used to walking around during lectures. This even stimulates the thought process,’ Klyucharev comments.

Recording each lecture took an average of three hours. After the video was edited and everything finalized, a one-hour lecture was uploaded to Coursera.

This is difficult work for teachers unaccustomed to filming. Perhaps actors or virtual characters who read the text would be better at coping with the filming? ‘In general, I’m not opposed to actors or robots giving the lectures in our place. But how would students react if instead of me they saw George Clooney? Some well, but some with a grain of salt. If the hypothetical Clooney uses mathematical formulas, however, he must understand at least something in mathematics,’ Klyucharev adds.

The storm of universities

While George Clooney will not likely steal the Fields Medal from Grigori Perelman, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) could substantially impact the development of traditional university education. ‘I was a bigger skeptic towards internet education before the beginning of my project on Coursera. I'm probably retrograde. I like to hold paper books in my hands. And then I received a biological education and worked with animals and medicine in practical labs. Maybe the new generation does not entirely care where they see the teacher, be it on a screen or in an auditorium,’ Klyucharev explains.

Almost all theoretical courses can be done online, he says. Perhaps in the future, people will study at the university not for five or six years, but for a much shorter period of time: students could complete core courses online and then go to academics for more exclusive knowledge.

But one advantage to traditional universities that online education lacks is the opportunity to conduct research. ‘And without research, you have not graduated,’ Professor Klyucharev concludes.

Oleg Seregin, HSE News Portal

Author: Oleg Seregin, July 30, 2014