Those who finish the quizzes and score 70 percent or better pass the course and receive a statement of completion, which does not convey any official Johns Hopkins grade, credit or degree. But that does not lessen the zeal of some students. “There are people who are taking it very seriously,” Caffo said. “They want all the quizzes, all the homework and a certification that comes out of it. They want the certification for their own reasons, if only to feel good that they did it.”
If credits were at stake, test security and academic integrity would become major issues. It is inherently difficult to assess the work of tens of thousands of people from around the world without rigorous identity verification.
But the challenge is not necessarily insurmountable. In June, Udacity announced a partnership with a testing company to enable students to take proctored exams at locations in 170 countries.
In humanities courses, computer-graded quizzes are much less useful. But professors can’t be expected to grade tens of thousands of papers. Coursera’s answer: peer review.
In modern and contemporary American poetry, students were asked to write a 500-word essay about an Emily Dickinson poem that begins, “I taste a liquor never brewed.” Those who submitted an essay were then asked to comment on four other essays. There weren’t any formal grades, but there was something perhaps better: vigorous discussion among thousands of people about a major 19th-century poet.
Al Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the class of 33,000 has an unexpected intimacy. Students far from the Philadelphia campus have arranged meetings in Athens, Manila and New Jersey. On Sunday mornings, he said, a “motley crew of Angelenos” convenes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“I’ve had students write to me very sincerely, ‘I went to college for four years but never had a class that made me feel more connected,’ ” Filreis said. “This course has been an excuse for small communities to gather around with a common interest in poetry all over the world. It moves me.”
In Baltimore, Caffo spent an October afternoon recording boot camp Lecture 14 in the public health school’s Studio 3. As a series of written notes appeared on the computer screen, Caffo explained how certain operations help a biostatistician analyze what appear to be skewed data.
In a sense, there was something askew about the scene itself: A professor in a sound booth, lecturing to the world. Who knew how many students would listen and how much they would learn?
“Well, thanks, troops,” Caffo said. “That was the end of the final lecture. It was a pleasure having you in class. . . . I hope you go on to do great things with this knowledge.”