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/ September 7, 2010
NYU To Offer Free Online Courses, Enhanced Student Versions For Credit

With this semester’s launch of NYU Abu Dhabi, John Sexton’s idea of a “global network university” is quickly becoming reality. And NYU’s new video course ware project may be the University’s most global idea yet.

Later this month, the University will begin posting full videos of lectures from select courses to its website and YouTube, making them free to anyone interested in the material. With this move, NYU will join schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon that have pioneered the practice.

However, in a much more visionary twist, the school will also experiment with offering some online courses to NYU undergraduates for credit. Students would watch all of the lectures online, freeing the professor for more small-group meetings and personalized instruction.

The interface for students would be much more interactive than a normal YouTube video. It would allow for “pop-up definitions, live links to primary sources that professors mention in passing, [and] freeze-frame interactive quizzes,” according to Dalton Conley, dean of social sciences at NYU and the leader of the project.

In the fall semester of 2011, Conley will offer up his Intro to Sociology class as part of a pilot program for the new project. The course will be offered as a regular CAS course — except that all of its lectures will be posted online, not delivered in person. And the course will be available to students in New York, Florence, and Abu Dhabi. “The idea would be that they get [the online lectures] and have a required discussion section with a TA in each location,” Conley told NYU Local. “And they would have face time with me, maybe 20 hours each semester. That’s kind of the global network university aspect of this.”

The professors’ meetings with students would make them, in theory, “faculty curators” — enabling them to give undergraduate students much more of a graduate school style experience. The more intimate meetings are designed to give students a more personal relationship with the top tenured faculty.

“The idea is to rely less on adjuncts and TAs and have the professor do it all,” said Conley.

Conley added that, ideally, he would like to see all introductory courses offered online. “There’s no reason to have everybody standing up doing Calculus 1 over and over again,” he said.

Like many students and NYU Local, Conley is concerned about how NYU can justify its continually rising price tag. He calls projects like NYU’s higher education’s “Napster moment,” comparing giving away free courses online to the rise of file-sharing in music. As information has become much more available (and, increasingly, free), his analogy isn’t far off. The higher education business is likely in the early stages of major changes that have already rippled through the music industry.

“Look, you’re paying $38,000 to come hear the faculty lecture to you in a large lecture hall where you’re typing on Facebook anyway and not listening much,” Conley said. “What you’re really paying for is to be integrated into the research university…and the only way to do that, I think, is taking the faculty out of the classroom and paying for their contact hours in a different format.”

The big question for the project is if it will be an improvement over the current style of teaching. It’s easy to imagine students waiting until the end of a semester to watch all of the lectures, cramming only for the final, and not really learning the material. And how many students would just check their facebook in the supposedly more intimate meetings with the professor outside of the video lectures?

Speaking with the Chronicle, Conley defended his idea. “Could someone skate though with minimal interaction? Probably,” he said. “But hopefully students who would be attracted to this kind of thing would be self-selected because they want to engage.”

Though the student versions won’t be available until next year, on September 21st, NYU will post the following classes to its website, YouTube, and other video sharing sites:

American Literature I (Instructor: Cyrus Patell) [ed. note: Also being translated into Arabic]
Calculus I (Instructor: Kiryl Tsishchanka)
Genomes and Diversity (Instructor: Mark Siegal)
Introduction to Sociology (Instructor: Harvey Molotch)
The Body: How It Works (Instructor: Burt Goldberg)
Human Genetics (Instructor: Justin Blau)
New York City: Social History (Instructor: Daniel Walkowitz)
Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences (Instructor: Elizabeth Bauer)
World Cultures: Ancient Israel (Instructor: Daniel Fleming)

NYU’s video sharing page is not yet available, but more information should be posted here as the 21st approaches. It will contain embedded videos, course descriptions, and more.