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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/14/2012

Grades are in for a pioneering free Johns Hopkins online class

This week, the final grades came in for a Johns Hopkins University course in biostatistics.

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be news. This is a special case.

More than 740 students passed the class taught by JHU associate professor Brian Caffo. They paid nothing to take the class, and they will get no formal credit, only a statement of completion. But these students, a small fraction of more than 15,000 who signed up for the seven-week online class, are pioneers in an experiment that is taking the higher education world by storm.


Brian Caffo, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recording a lecture for a free online biostatistics course. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

On Nov. 4, The Post reported on the movement toward massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.

Caffo’s course was one of several from JHU on the Web platform called Coursera. In all, 33 universities are partnering with Coursera to offer MOOCs. Another important MOOC platform, edX, is led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In Wednesday’s paper we also reported on new effort by the American Council on Education to review selected Coursera courses for credit-worthiness. There is talk of doing the same with edX courses.

Great debate is arising among university leaders about the wisdom of giving away courses for free. I have found plenty of skeptics, among them George Washington University President Steven Knapp and University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias.

Read on for the final metrics on Caffo’s class and a few thoughts from the associate professor at the university’s school of public health.

Number of students who signed up for Caffo’s class: 15,930.

Number who ordinarily sign up for the class when it is taught solely on campus in Baltimore: a few dozen.

Active users in the final week of the class: 2,778

Total unique visitors who watched Caffo’s video lectures: 8,380

Total who submitted a quiz: 2,882

Total who submitted homework: 2,492

Total who passed the course (averaging 70 percent or better on quizzes): 748

Total who passed with distinction (averaging 90 percent or better): 447

And here is Caffo’s take:

“Regardless of how MOOCs wind up, it is awesome to be a professor in a time where teaching is the hottest topic in higher education at research-driven universities. I also have a lot of sympathy for democratizing education and information. Very few people will have the privilege of a Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health education. But, with these efforts [including free online initiatives such as Open Courseware, iTunes U, Coursera] everyone can get at least some fraction of what we believe is fundamental knowledge for attacking the world’s public health problems.”

By  |  11:30 AM ET, 11/14/2012

 
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